OPINION: I remember when that great innovator Sir Roger Douglas tried his hand at pig farming.
He thought long and hard about the fact that he could only fit so many cages in his facility even though they were so well tailored around the pigs inside them that the animals hardly had room to even roll over.
The answer was so obvious he must have marvelled that no one had come up with it before. To triple the capacity he simply stacked the cages three high. Sadly, having achieved a real, working example of the trickle-down theory his pig farm went belly up anyway but it was a splendid try. He certainly deserved his knighthood.
Battery farming has always offered such challenges and there have been many ingenious solutions to the problems encountered when farming things in intimate conditions. You would think that a chook in a warm cage with no responsibilities other than to lay eggs would be so happy life would literally be one continuous hen party but apparently not. The miserable little ingrates often attack one another and this can affect production. Again the answer is obvious - snip their beaks off and harmony is restored - unless of course they start kicking each other. But there's an obvious solution for that. Drumsticks anyone?
Oddly there are some misguided folk who decry battery farming as cruel but they are blind to the real economic imperatives that govern the market, the need to maximise every single dollar of investment regardless of the way this might impact on the stock units in question. Stock units are just stock units after all - something an accountant like Sir Roger, steeped in the dog eat dog world of the ledger, understood.
The same naive folk have been known to take a swipe at our dairy industry, charging that factory dairy farming is actually cruel. They point out that because cows have now been bred to yield about 40 per cent more milk than they did 40 years ago, they routinely experience serious physical stress. I suppose that being hooked up to a machine twice a day, 224 days a year and pumping out 3800 litres of milk every year might seem taxing and today's cows, or milking units, do wear out relatively quickly.
High milk production does leave them prone to lameness and agonising inflammations from dragging their bloated udders around on the milking shed's concrete pads. At least 15 per cent of our cow population apparently suffers from a painful udder infection called mastitis. It's also true that they will go through many painful procedures including ear tagging, tattooing, branding and dehorning. Such is the lot of a stock unit.
Cows, like humans, must be pregnant to produce milk and to ensure they can maintain the flow they are artificially inseminated once a year, maintaining them in a constant cycle of pregnancy and lactation. Obviously this is doing the cows a favour. They don't have the unwelcome attentions of a bull, a big bully utterly out of touch with his feminine side. Their calves are usually removed within a day of being born, and killed at four days old, again doing the cow a favour by sparing her the sad life of a solo mother.
Some cows are injected by a vet to abort their calves six to eight weeks prematurely so that milking schedules are not disrupted. Although The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) rejects the practice, charging that induction "has the potential to affect the welfare of both cow and calf adversely", it is still legal. Although most calves are dead when aborted some survive only to be hit on the head with a hammer or are simply left to expire alone in a paddock.
Critics of factory dairy farming decry this practice as barbaric and it must be admitted that cows do bond strongly with their babies. Right now if you drive around the countryside at night you will hear them crying out in grief for their lost calves. Sometimes they will be crying out in pain as well as it is apparently common for the foetal membrane to be retained after the abortion, leading to life- threatening infection. Happily they only have to put up with their lot for about five years, about a third of their normal lifespan, before they are fit only for the big paddock in the sky.
Some years ago plans for an American style farm of indoor "cow cubicles" was rejected in the Mackenzie Basin area but indoor cow farming is growing in New Zealand. In America cows often live out their lives on concrete floors in huge sheds with the effluent being washed into lagoons full of evolving pathogens of the kind that recently established a colony in a pipe owned by Fonterra. So those cows out there lowing for their lost offspring ought to realise that things could get a whole lot worse for them.
They might be gentle intelligent animals who love small stable herds and they might be first rate mums who would normally keep their calves close for two years but they need to understand that milking schedules and the like must not be messed about. Time, as pragmatists like Sir Roger Douglas appreciate, is money. Lowly stock units can at least try to understand that.
In the meantime we must all support our factory dairy farmers who are, after all, only trying to satisfy shareholders. Fortunately our authorities are doing the right thing. Last year, for example, 150 starving cows and 30 others suffering serious neglect were euthanised at a Rotomanu farm. Instead of being punished the farmer was offered "support" with his remaining stock units.
To have done anything else would have been cruel.
Tim Hanna is a Lumsden-based author.
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