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Dairy Cows and Veal Calves

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Message Larry Parker
Prior to my learning about the horrors of factory farming, if someone had told me that there are animals on this earth who for their entire lives are imprisoned in wooden crates, chained by their necks, and prevented from performing the simplest of movements such as walking or turning; that they suffer from malnourishment, deliberately induced to encourage the onset of disease; and that these things are done to them to enhance the taste and texture of their cooked flesh for human consumption, I would have thought that such practices could only be found within the confines of some fictional tale of the macabre; or that they were being performed by some tribe of barbarians in complete isolation from modern-day society.

As we are all discovering, however, the sickening truth is that these things are done to hundreds of thousands of male calves every year throughout the United States to produce the meat known as veal, or more specifically "white veal". But I would have been correct about one thing - these acts are without question being performed by barbarians.

The tragic story of the veal calf begins with his mother - the dairy cow.

In today's dairy factories, the dairy cow is treated as little more than a piece of machinery, like a tractor or harvester, with no concern given to her welfare other than that which also encourages her productive abilities. In order to produce milk, the dairy cow must of course give birth. Insemination is planned so that this occurs at about two years of age, and she'll continue to lactate for the next 10 months. However, she's usually re-inseminated after only 2 or 3 months thereby maximizing her productive cycle. Following the second birth, her udder is finally given a short rest, though ultimately she'll be expected to give one birth per year until the strain on her system proves too much and she's shipped off to slaughter.

The hardship of such an accelerated birth rate is compounded by various methods used to increase milk production even further. In addition to automated milking techniques and the use of antibiotics, the cows are administered a specialized high-protein diet based on grains and animal byproducts. As they are natural herbivores this diet is difficult for the cows to digest. Moreover, imposing a carnivorous, even cannibalistic diet onto dairy cows has resulted in various outbreaks of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), more popularly known as Mad Cow Disease, a fatal disorder which progressively attacks the brain and nervous system.

In recent years, the industry has also seen increased use of the highly controversial growth hormone, rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), otherwise known as BST (Bovine Somatotropin). rBGH is designed to increase milk production by approximately 15%. However, after a single artificially-enhanced lactation, the cow is "worn out" and becomes so useless she must be sent to slaughter. Most small family farmers have rejected the product, while it's use has been banned in both Canada and the European Union.

All these techniques take a tremendous toll on the cow. Pushed into producing more than 10 times as much milk in peak lactation as her calf would otherwise require, the life span of a dairy cow is reduced from 25 years or more to as little as three or four years. Her immune system is greatly compromised, and she becomes susceptible to a number of crushing diseases, such as mastitis (painful swelling of the udder), ketosis (disease of the liver), laminitis or lameness (resulting from metabolic strain), "milk fever" (unnatural loss of calcium from the blood supply), and infertility. Sadly, the industry's solution to these problems is to simply administer more antibiotics. Why alter the system to accommodate the cow, when you can alter the cow to accommodate the system?

Because so little attention is given to the welfare of the cows, an estimated 195,000 per year become so sick they're unable to walk or even stand. Up until recently, these "downers" were dragged or bulldozed into slaughterhouse trucks so their meat could still be harvested. This made perfect sense from a standpoint of profitibility, since the meat of a cow who dies before slaughter is unusable for human consumption. Fortunately, due to the indisputable relationship between downers and recent cases of Mad Cow Disease in North America, the USDA placed a temporary ban on this practice, forcing the industry to choose between immediately euthanizing downed cows or reducing their numbers by treating them more humanely in the first place. Efforts are currently under way in Congress to make this ban permanent.

But what of the siblings?

Calves are separated from their mothers after only one to three days, thereby preventing them from drinking milk intended for human use. As the suckling period in a natural environment would last anywhere from 6 to 12 months, early separation is distressing for both the mother and the calf. Furthermore, during the first 6 to 8 weeks of their lives, many of the calves are kept in individual pens, removed not only from their mother's attentions, but also from social interactions with their own kind.

A number of mutilations are routinely performed when the calves are still very young, such as castration for the males, removal of supernumerary teats for the females, disbudding (which prevents the development of horns), and tail-docking. As you might guess, all these procedures are very painful, yet they're performed without the benefit of anesthetics or the expertise of a qualified veterinarian.

Most of the females are ultimately selected as replacements for the dairy herd; while the males are either raised for beef, killed almost immediately for low grade veal, or confined in "veal crates" for 4 to 6 months to be slaughtered for white veal (also known as "fancy" or "milk-fed" veal).

It is these "white veal" calves who suffer the most cruel and inhumane treatment of all. From the time they're first introduced to the "veal crate", they'll know no other home. This wooden cage is extremely restrictive, measuring only 2 feet across, and is designed to prevent the calves from walking, turning around, or even stretching their legs. Manacled at the neck they're prevented from laying down comfortably and are even unable to properly groom themselves. The purpose of all this, of course, is to inhibit muscular growth, thereby keeping their meat as tender as possible.

But as if this weren't enough, the calves are further abused by feeding them an all-liquid milk-substitute diet deficient in iron and fiber. Borderline anemia is thereby induced which produces a pale or white colored flesh - hence the term "white veal". Even the littlest of details are attended to, such as denying the calves straw bedding for fear they may eat the straw which would darken the color of their flesh; while their crates are made of wood instead of metal to ensure the calves don't ingest unwanted amounts of iron by licking the bars.

Separated from their mothers at a tender age, prevented from engaging in social interactions, and even denied physical comfort or any semblance of a natural existence; it's not surprising that veal calves suffer from a number of life-altering diseases and impairments. Physical complications most often observed include abnormal gut development, stomach ulcers, impaired locomotive abilities, and an overall weakening of the immune system. Equally lamentable are the common psychological responses, such as frustration, depression, aggression, food refusals, acute sensitivity to stimulation, and chronic stress. Add to this the abnormal repetitive movements known as stereotypies (tongue rolling, licking or nibbling on the walls of their crates, or chewing on nonexistent cud).

So from mother to sibling, the vicious cycle is completed, and at just the right time, the calf is sent to slaughter so that gourmet chefs and discriminating consumers around the world can relish the perfect cut of veal.

Approximately 750,000 veal calves are slaughtered in the United States every year. Similar to their efforts regarding the welfare of breeding sows, this country is lagging behind England and the European Union, both of whom have now outlawed the use of veal crates. A few states, such as Arizona and Florida, are beginning to address the issue, but a much greater effort is needed. Every one of us can play a part in this, and if you agree the suffering must stop, there are things you can do. Research current legislative efforts, both at the state and federal levels. Find out where your representatives stand on these issues. Let them know where you stand. Look for citizen-sponsered propositions and referendums. Sign the petitions to place these initiatives on your state's ballot, then vote for them.

Time and again, polls show conclusively that the people of this country aren't happy about the way farm animals are being treated. All they need is an opportunity to express their concerns at the ballot box, and change will follow.
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To learn more, please visit The Vanguard Portal. Larry Parker is also author of the following weblog: "A Heartfelt Examination of the Plight of Today's Farm Animals"
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