India needs to learn how to take care, improve living conditions of its cattle
By Maneka Gandhi
Many people think that keeping a cow tied up in a cowshed is a natural thing. When people see cows roaming on a road, they react by saying that the cattle owners should not let them loose and that they should be cared for and protected within the confines of a cowshed. Instead of finding their own food – often from trashcans and garbage heaps – they should be fed within the cowshed.
While I think it is appalling to let cows out on the street to fend for themselves, keeping them in cowsheds permanently simply to be fed and to give milk, is even worse. Some spend their entire lives standing on concrete or dirt floors contaminated with blood, urine and faeces, often confined in crowded cowsheds.
In small and leaky cowsheds, the cow endures all types of weathers including rain and extreme temperatures, 24 hours a day. A cowshed may provide shade but certainly not a clean and comfortable resting area. Their ropes are so short that most cows have to keep their heads low all day long. In some cases, they have a rope going through their noses, so if they pull, their noses start bleeding.
The cows have no access to their calves the entire day either. They show signs of stress from social isolation and an increased susceptibility to a number of diseases. They are not even allowed to graze freely for a few hours a day. According to food production scientists, milk production in India is the lowest in the world because cows and buffaloes are sick, unhappy, in constant pain and in a state of perpetual starvation. Cattle are large and they need exercise. They need the sun and fresh grass and movement without which they fall sick very soon.
A number of studies have shown that cows love to exercise. Being confined to a stall severely limits their natural activities such as walking, exploratory behaviour, grooming and licking their hindquarters. Lack of exercise leads to lameness or injury — a common reason for dairy cows to be sent for slaughter. Other causes of lameness include poor quality floors, cows being forced to stand for too long on hard surfaces and poor nutrition.
Often when cows and buffaloes are bathed — if you can call throwing a few buckets of cold water over them as bathing — the water is left to seep into the floor of the cowshed creating slurry and filth. A cowshed always has a pungent odour of urine and are almost impossible to breathe in. There is no ventilation or light and the animals stand in the dark the whole day. The food troughs are never cleaned: fresh hay is simply piled on top of old, fermenting hay. Rats move in, and often the cows and buffaloes stop eating as they are liable to get bitten by the creatures already in the trough. Rat droppings become part of their food.
A highly contagious and erosive infection that affects the skin on the bulbs of the heel, digital dermatitis is caused by contact with slurry and thrives in damp and dirty conditions. The disease exists in dairy farms with poor hygiene and wet spaces.
Cows and buffaloes have a natural span of about 20 years and can produce milk for about eight years. But most dairies fail to recognise the veterinary care they need. After an injury or an illness is recognised — often at a young age of 3-5 years old — the cows are seen as worthless and sent to be slaughtered.
The dairy milker rarely washes his rough contaminated hands before he milks a cow. His hands hurt her and cause abscesses, and bacteria enters her body. Mastitis is the inflammation of the mammary gland and udder tissue and is a major endemic disease of dairy cattle. It occurs as a result of chemical, mechanical or thermal injury to the cow’s udder. When a cow is infected with mastitis, her milk-secreting tissues and various ducts throughout the udder can be damaged permanently by bacterial toxins. The inflammation leads to decreased milk production. The milk becomes contaminated, poisonous and unfit for consumption. But the buyer is never told of that. Milk is checked only for its fat content, but there is no check for bacterial load.
So many cows get endometritis — an infection of the inner layers of the uterus that reduces fertility and milk yield. The disease is spread and transmitted due to poor hygiene in a dairy farm.
When milk production reduces, the cattle gets sicker. It is then that the owner resorts to that dreadful injection of oxytocin which induces contractions in the uterus and forces the milk out. This also gives the animal labour pains twice a day and makes her sicker. Her uterus becomes inelastic and the farmer resorts to artificial insemination to make sure he gets calves quickly because he sees how sick she is.
Some animals also get ketosis, a disease that occurs in dairy cows and is characterised by partial anorexia and depression. The protein in her disease-riddled body breaks down. The bad smell, filth, darkness and rough milking combined with the pain in her joints and neck ache produce the unhealthiest, saddest being.
Unfortunately, there are no dairy laws in this country. And as a result, the milk yield of our cows and buffaloes is the lowest in the world and the worst nutritionally. Would you allow a new born baby to drink from the infected breast of his mother? No, of course not. But because of the filthy state of the dairies that produce milk, you are drinking diseased milk every day.
Is it better for the cows to wander around eating garbage, then? In the recent past, every village had gauchar land kept for the grazing of cows. Most heads of the villages have sold this land secretly, and now there is no place for the animals to go. They are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. They cannot stay in the cowsheds because those are appalling, and they are not allowed to move outside on the roads and the garbage dumps.
Has anyone considered their plight?