[Série Bien-être animal] In Quebec, most dairy cows are tied by the neck during lactation

There are millions of farm animals in Quebec. They surround us and feed us, but we know very little about their living conditions. After gathering testimony from producers, animal rights activists and experts, Position invites you to discover the life cycle of Quebec’s main farm animals, from birth to slaughterhouse, as well as animal welfare concerns. Note that all practices mentioned are permitted by the codes of practice governing animal husbandry in Canada. Today: dairy cows.

Quebec, the largest producer of cow’s milk in Canada, provides more than a third of the country’s milk production. In 2021, about 350 thousand cows produced 3.46 billion liters of milk in the province. The cows of three-quarters of the herds live in stalls, that is, they are tied by the neck when milking. A breeding model historically favored in Quebec, but gradually giving way to free-standing, which allows cows to move around stalls within stalls. A glimpse into the life of a dairy cow in Quebec.

A calf was born this morning at Belvache Farms in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines in the Laurentians and was then separated from its mother and placed in a nearby corral. From the first hours of its life, the calf received a 4-liter bottle of colostrum – the first milk full of antibodies collected during milking from its mother.

“The mother’s udder can be covered with feces,” said Réal Gauthier, owner of Belvache Farms, adding that a calf can contract fatal diseases if it nurses directly from its mother’s udder. And the milkman gives him a bottle of colostrum and says, “I’ll make sure the calf eats enough.”

The practice is common on Quebec dairy farms but has drawn the ire of animal rights activists. “It causes great suffering to the animals. The calf should be separated from its mother so that it does not drink the milk that should be stored for production,” said M.e Sophie Gaillard, Acting CEO of the Montreal SPCA. A mother’s scream at Belvache Farms on this December day is a sad reminder of that.

A complicated question, agrees vet Caroline Kilsdonk, who grew up on a dairy farm. “When you remove the calf early, you prevent the attachment from developing,” he adds. If we stay with the mother for 24-48 hours, an attachment relationship has begun and the cow suffers more. »

A reading shared by Jamie Dallaire, a professor specializing in animal behavior and welfare in Laval University’s Department of Animal Sciences. “If you separate cows and calves after a week rather than a day, the level of distress is higher,” he says. Therefore, he believes it is better to separate them at birth or allow them to be weaned naturally as the calf grows. A practice gaining popularity in Europe.

He grew up in groups

Male calves around ten days old are sold at auction to be raised as grain-fed calves, milk-fed calves or slaughter steers. Some of the males and females are also sent to the auction. “We keep the daughters of our best producers,” said Real Gaultier, stroking the muzzles of his Holstein cows.

Breeding is usually done in groups in enclosed areas that allow some freedom of movement. If some heifers have more than four teats on their udders, they are removed to prevent milking. Animals are also dehorned.

“If we left the horns open, the cows could hurt each other,” said Daniel Gobeil, president of Les Producteurs de lait du Québec and a dairy farmer in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Dehorning gives the animals access to feeders and prevents accidents with workers, he says. To remove the horns, the buds are burned with an iron after local injection of an analgesic. To avoid this procedure, genetic crosses are increasingly applied to obtain dehorned, i.e. hornless, cows.

After 15 months, the heifers are inseminated to start giving milk. Their first cubs are born when they are 24 months old. “Then we aim for about 305 days of lactation, followed by between 60 and 70 days off. [avant la prochaine insémination] “says Daniel Gobeil. In Quebec, on average, cows complete 3 lactations before being sent to slaughter.

Genetic improvement

At Belvache Farms, cows produce about 40 liters of milk every day. “Twenty years ago, cows produced 20-25 liters a day,” recalls Daniel Gobeil. The dramatic increase in productivity was made possible by genetic improvement: the genes of the most productive cows were crossed with those of bulls, which had the best frame to support larger udders, for example. Réal Gauthier explains that the feed and care given to the cows has also been improved. “We treat them as athletes. »

When a cow is not in good condition, the first thing that goes is milk production; the cow stops producing.

But M.e Sophie Gaillard of the Montreal SPCA said this increased production rate is exhausting the cows. “Genetic selection has made cows more fragile and less durable, recognizes Caroline Kilsdonk. It’s a bit like pushing a car to the max, risking more parts breaking. A reading disputed by Daniel Gobeil. Increasing milk production, on the other hand, is a guarantee of prosperity, he says. “When the condition of the cow is not good, milk production first disappears; the cow stops producing. »

It was tied around the neck

The vast majority of dairy herds, more than 80%, are raised in barns (including all organic dairy cows with access to pasture).

According to a 2020 survey by Lactanet, 78% of Quebec dairy farms keep their producers in stalls, i.e. tied by the neck, when cows are milking. manufacturers. Currently, less than a quarter of dairy farms allow their cows to move around the barn, “but more than 40% of milk is produced this way because free-stall herds are larger,” says Daniel Gobeil.

At Belvache Farms, cows have been free-stalled since 2006 and are milked by a robot. Gradually, as farm buildings in Quebec are renovated, dairy producers are adopting this model. “There are all new facilities in Quebec [désormais] in a free stall to give the animals more movement”, emphasizes Daniel Gobeil. An evolution that will change the face of dairy production in Quebec over the next few years.

Tomorrow: laying hens

To see in the video

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