Dairy cattle experts say national data suggests animal care is improving despite cow abuse incident

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. - One of the largest dairy farms in the state placed on probationary status by the National Milk Producers Federation. This, after video of alleged abuse of cows at the farm in Okeechobee County surfaced.

The animal activist organization that created the video to uncover the alleged abuse claims this is a widespread problem among dairy farms, but an animal science expert believes national data does not support that. 

The video shows cows kicked, slapped, and stabbed with tools. 

"That's totally unacceptable. Most producers in the industry would be appalled to see that," said Ted Ferris, Professor in the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State.

The organization Animal Recovery Mission said it recorded the video at Larson Dairy Farm in Okeechobee County, but believe it's happening in more dairy farms. Ferris believe that notion is not supported by national data.

"We monitor somatic cell counts in milk. This gives us an idea of milk quality and when cows are not treated appropriately, there's probably other things going on in the farms as well and they are not managed as well as they could be so that's going to influence their health," said Ferris. 

Ferris said much like human white blood cells, cells are elevated if a cow is showing physical ailments. He said over time, data shows those cell counts are decreasing in even larger herds. Another indicator of well-being is that the milk production is increasing per cow. 

"If there's stress going into the milking parlor, they're not going to let their milk down because it won't release oxytocin," added Ferris. 

Southeast Milk is the company that collects milk from Florida and Georgia dairy farms and transports it to processing plants. A representative from Southeast Milk said their employees have never witnessed abuse at Larson Dairy Farm, but following the allegations Southeast Milk has notified the National Milk Producers Federation which oversees members of its FARM program. The National Milk Producers Federation said 98 percent of domestic milk supply is enrolled in its program. After the allegations, the federation has placed Larson Dairy Farm on probationary status, notifying any processor it is affiliated with. 

"Any employee of a farm marketing its milk through SMI (Southeast Milk) who is found to have violated our animal care guidelines, as well as any employee who witnessed abuse and failed to report it, will be terminated."

Ferris said there are other ways to get resisting heifers into milking pins. 

"Sometimes you can bring them in before they start to lactate, you can encourage them with a little bit of grain," he said. "Or have them go in with cows that already know what they are doing." 

Other livestock behavior experts say where you position yourself around an animal may make it move away from you. 

Ferris encourages people who may be concerned after this incident, to take a tour of a local dairy farm to see how it works. 

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