In August this year our investigators visited 52 farms in three countries: Germany, Europe's largest milk producer, Denmark, where the dairy industry is intensifying and Spain, where cows have little access to pasture.
What they found on the randomly selected farms they visited will shock EU consumers. It provides a disturbing snapshot of dairy farming in Europe, which often has a wholesome, natural image, and demonstrates the need for specific rules to protect the EU's dairy cows.
Some of the most common problems investigators observed were cows:
- being pushed to their physical limits to produce high milk yields;
- chained indoors by the neck, in some cases all year round;
- with severe lameness;
- forced to live in filthy conditions;
- in barren and uncomfortable housing with unsuitable bedding;
- with painful sores.
An alarming number of farms visited also kept cows indoors all year, with 68% of farms in Denmark, 63% in Spain and more than 50% in Germany depriving them of the chance to graze in fields in the summer.
This is a long way from the idyllic view that many EU consumers have of dairy farming, in which cows spend the summer in the lush fields grazing.
Tethering, where cows are tied up with leather straps or chains, sometimes for their entire lives, was a particular problem in Germany, with 79% of the farms visited using it in some form.
In Germany, some cows are tethered 24 hours a day all year round. Others are tethered from October to March. Cows that are tethered cannot walk or move around - they may even have difficulty lying down and getting up.
Investigators found a farmer who kept his cows tethered even while they were giving birth. This is likely to be deeply distressing for the cow, whose overwhelming natural instinct is to protect and nurture her calf during and immediately after birth.
Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming's Chief Policy Advisor, says:
"Europe's dairy sector enjoys a wholesome image. Consumers picture cows grazing contently in green fields. In reality however, many of Europe's dairy cows are kept indoors throughout the year, never enjoying fresh air or the warmth of the sun on their backs.
"Our investigation shows that cows are often housed in barren, overcrowded, sometimes filthy conditions. Many are lame and suffer severe pain.
"The EU dairy sector must introduce far-reaching improvements in the way dairy cows are kept or it will rapidly lose its good reputation - milk will come to be seen as the product of a harsh factory farming system.
"The European Commission has so far set its face against legislation to protect the well-being of dairy cows. We call on the Commission to re-think its position and to introduce a Directive that requires cows to have access to pasture during the grass-growing season and bans the tethering of cows."
The case for new legislation
While not a scientifically representative sample, the recurring issues on these farms firmly support Compassion's call for specific European legislation to protect the EU's 23 million dairy cows.
Minimum standards across the EU would create a level playing field for farmers. Pigs, chickens and calves are protected by detailed species-specific EU laws, but there is no such legislation for dairy cows.
Compassion is calling for the European Commission to propose legislation that guarantees minimum welfare standards for dairy cows. This should include:
- access to pasture in the grass-growing season and access to the outdoors where pasture is not available;
- minimum space allowance for cows when they are indoors;
- A ban on tethering, except for very short periods, like during veterinary procedures;
- Improvement programmes for lameness, mastitis and other widespread welfare issues.