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More than 25 per cent of B.C. dairy farms failed inspection: documents

More than one in four B.C. dairy farms failed to comply with a provincial Code of Practice related to animal welfare during an 18-month period, inspection documents obtained through freedom-of-information show.
Holstein cows on a farm: A case of animal cruelty in Chilliwack spurred the dairy industry to adopt a Code of Practice detailing appropriate care of dairy cattle and a system of inspections to ensure farmers' compliance.

More than one in four B.C. dairy farms failed to comply with a provincial Code of Practice related to animal welfare during an 18-month period, inspection documents obtained through freedom-of-information show.

Issues revealed during routine inspections by the B.C. Milk Marketing Board showed overcrowding, lame or soiled cattle, tails accidentally torn off by machinery, branding and dehorning of calves without pain medication, cows lying on concrete, and failure to produce a manual outlining management practices on individual farms.

Postmedia News obtained the inspection reports just over two years after the release of disturbing undercover video shot at a major Chilliwack dairy operation in June 2014.

“It shocked a lot of us,” said Tom Hoogendoorn, an Agassiz dairy farmer and vice-chair of the B.C. Milk Marketing Board. “Hardened farmers were crying when they saw that. We make no excuses for that video. It was a wake-up call.”

The B.C. SPCA described it as showing “employees at Chilliwack Cattle Sales using chains, canes, rakes, their booted feet and their fists to viciously whip, punch, kick and beat the dairy cows, including downed and trapped cows who could not escape the abuse.”

A total of 20 counts of animal cruelty have been laid against the farm, owned by the Kooyman brothers, and seven employees. The case is next scheduled for Oct. 20 in Chilliwack provincial court.

“I felt sick to my stomach,” recalled board chair Jeremy Wiebe, who also has a dairy farm in Agassiz. “Farmers by and large have had a pretty good reputation. Part of that is, ‘we love our farms, we love our animals, we love our land.’ For that to get such a heavy hit, to be so tarnished, was hard.”

The case also spurred the dairy industry on Oct. 1, 2014, to adopt a Code of Practice detailing appropriate care of dairy cattle and a system of inspections to ensure farmers’ compliance.

Hoogendoorn said the code was adopted 18 months earlier than originally planned. “We wanted to give consumers some comfort in what we are doing.” That meant farmers didn’t get all the education he would have liked before the inspection program rolled out, which is why so many failed to produce their farm manual of Standard Operating Procedures.

Smaller farms may be less sophisticated, without the latest technology and accustomed to doing things the way they’ve always done them — which can include lack of medication for dehorning calves.

The B.C. Milk Marketing Board reports cover the first 18 months of the program, from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, and show that 20 of 73 farms, or 27 per cent, required “corrective action” after on-site inspections. About 10 per cent were still not compliant on a follow-up inspection.

Names of the individual farmers and their addresses were omitted from the redacted documents.

Although inspectors did not find any cases similar to those of Chilliwack Farm Sales, a review of the inspection reports shows a wide range of animal-welfare issues that farmers need to address.

On one farm, 24 per cent of 242 milking cows scored a three or higher on a five-point scale of lameness — well above the target of less than 10 per cent. On another, the inspector wrote: “I observed all the heifer pens to be dirty and wet. As a result, hygiene was poor and is negatively impacting heifers….” Farmers frequently failed to provide the minimum of 120 square feet of space per cow while in special birthing pens.

One farm provided feed troughs for 106 animals, representing only 36.8 per cent of the herd, a situation that posed a “significant negative effect on the nutritional status of the herd.”

Another farm had a density of 2.08 mature cows per usable stall for lying down, which compares with the target of a maximum 1.2 cows. Several cows were so lame they may need to be euthanized, the inspector wrote.

One farm was “extremely overstocked” with 86 heifers provided access to only 32 stalls. And one “pasture milking group” had 60 stalls for 140 animals.

Excessive stocking density may force cows to spend more time standing on concrete and cause joint swelling. Lack of or improper bedding can also bring cows into increased contact with the concrete floor when lying down and getting up in stalls. On one farm almost one-third of cows scored two or higher for knee injury; the goal is less than 10 per cent.

Other issues included improperly placed neck rails in the feed alley, causing neck lesions and hair loss.

Routine docking of tails, once done to prevent milkers from getting swished in the face, is no longer permitted. But tails do get caught in machinery around the barns.

Electric prods are only to be used sparingly, such as when a cow refuses to get up from a stall. “It’s better than kicking her in the ribs 10 times — and less painful,” Hoogendoorn said.

Although allowing cows out onto pastures is relatively rare these days, the inspection reports note that where it does happen it “significantly reduces the incident of hock and knee lesions, as well as lameness …..” and allows cows to stay clean. Farmers prefer them inside because they can better control their environment, including nutrition key to milk production.

Penalties for bad farmers can potentially range from being excluded from a share of future industry-wide increases in milk quota to cancellation of quality bonuses to an outright ban on milk sales. The B.C. Milk Marketing Board and B.C. Dairy Association are meeting this fall to discuss other options for achieving 100-per-cent compliance.

“We don’t want to wield a big heavy stick,” Hoogendoorn said. “We’d rather use education and a carrot to bring farmers in line. Believe me, if farmers are found to be a little off side, they feel the peer pressure.”

Inspectors notify farmers in advance of any inspections, but Hoogendoorn supports some spot checks, as well, to keep farmers on their toes. “Just like drug testing for athletes,” he said. “The countries that don’t do drug testing do pretty well at the Olympics, don’t they?”

Hoogendoorn expects improved compliance over time as farmers abandon some long-held practices and get in line with the modern reality. Smaller farms may also experience limitations. “We’d like to see it higher,” he said. “We’re just happy we didn’t see any severe cases.”

Adds Wiebe, a third-generation farmer: “Back in the day, you just went and dehorned a calf. A lot of farmers didn’t know there are new pain medications. You first sedate the calf and put pain medication by the buds of their horns, so they basically don’t feel it. Farmers just weren’t aware this was the new way of doing it. It’s a matter of education.”

Both male and female cows have horns. Modern genetic advances allow the farm to practice “sexed semen” artificial insemination, which produces 90 per cent female calves and, because they are smaller than males, makes for fewer birthing problems. It takes two years for a calf to reach breeding age.

As milking cows, they stick around for an average of 2.5 years before being shipped to the slaughterhouse for meat — proving there is a financial limit to a farmer’s love for his livestock. The cows are like athletes shipped out once past their prime or if they have issues birthing. “It’s an economic reality,” Hoogendoorn explained. “It’s like a football team — newer and better players coming in every year, and the old guys get kicked out.”

Some top producing cows can be 12 years of age or older.

Marcie Moriarty, the B.C. SPCA’s chief prevention and enforcement officer, said her organization assisted in drawing up the dairy Code of Practice, which is now formally part of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. She has not seen the inspection documents, but noted there’s been no B.C. SPCA investigation related to dairy cruelty since the Chilliwack event.

Hoogendoorn is a second-generation farmer, owning 320 cows — about three times the average size of almost 500 family dairy farms in B.C. — plus 310 younger stock with his brother. They own 80 hectares and lease about another 40 hectares.

Their farm is bigger and more sophisticated than most. Automated alley scrapers move along the concrete floor of the cows’ barn with Zamboni efficiency to help clear out the manure.

Cows are mainly fed corn and grass silage, with grain and some hay and vitamins. The province tests the milk to ensure any antibiotics from sick cows aren’t passed on to consumers. “No steroids or hormones,” said Hoogendoorn. “It’s illegal.”

Scientific advances continue to squeeze more milk out of a cow and reduce the amount of land and water needed for a dairy farm. Hoogendoorn’s herd averages 36 to 38 litres of milk per day per cow, based on two milkings, which compares with closer to 25 litres 30 years ago. A good dairy cow is worth $3,000.

Calves are removed from the cows immediately after birth and placed in individual plastic hutches for about two months; each calf must face another calf, to reduce stress.

The goal is to get a cow pregnant within 90 days of giving birth and to produce a calf every 12 months. An “activity monitor” on a cow’s neck detects when it is moving around more and more likely to be in heat and ready to be bred.

The manure is spread on the field as fertilizer or the liquid is separated out and the product recycled as bedding.

During a site visit by this newspaper, two contractors were busy putting the cows into a special portable chute to have their hooves trimmed. “We probably spend $1,200 a month on this,” Hoogendoorn said. The fact is, a lame cow is not a profitable cow. “We’re passionate about our cows walking properly. That’s where the money is.”