On the inconsistencies of cruelty and kindness on family dairy farms

Throughout 2017-2018 we undertook a project, funded by Animals Australia, that aimed to understand potential impacts of dairy farming on farmer health. From a human farmer point of view there were many perils facing the 21 family farmers that we interviewed. The main issues they mentioned were: the deregulation of milk pricing, water licensing politics, predatory bank practices, intensification of animal agriculture involving large corporate take overs that were pushing them out the industry, and most significantly course the drought and other consequences of climate change. Some of the people we interviewed were on the brink of bankruptcy and understandably in great despair. Some of the male farmers we interviewed said they found it difficult watching their wives go off farm to do paid work to help keep the farm afloat. Some of the women said they resented their income being spent on farms that they knew to be unsustainable. Some of the men and a few women farmers described the negative impact vegan protests had had on their operations, and for some, their mental health. We have no doubt that their pain was and still is very real, and we spoke with them before the recent catastrophic bushfires in Australia.

Our position as feminist researchers is that we believe that all participants (human and animal) should be treated respectfully; as people who hold different views and are trying to make a living. Just as we might contextualise the lives of abattoir workers, it can be useful to think about family-based farms and the people on them, as part of a much wider system embedded in Australian colonial history that involves exploitation of other animals. Even so, this was a difficult project to work on for us as feminist vegans. Alongside the (human) emotional psychological financial and political issues facing the farmers we interviewed, all of which have had a significant and deleterious effects on the mental health of many of the farmers, and thus potentially on their animals, we were interested in how they made sense of their treatment of the animals.

Our reporting our findings has also been tricky given our own critical view of dairy farming and the ways animals are treated throughout the many processes that they go through, including semen harvesting, forced impregnation, separation of calves from mothers, Bobby calves sent to slaughter, poddy calves being dehorned or having their tails docked (without anaesthetic), and for some, the grisly prospect of being sent overseas on the ship as part of live export. These were difficult issues to talk about and we were not always successful in getting the farmers to talk about them. Yet, with most of the women farmers, there was a surprising openness to discussing the more contentious aspects of dairy farming, including some practices that the women themselves found distressing (such as calf separation). One way that we have tried to resolve some of these issues is to disseminate our findings in different ways, using different platforms. There is the The Cow Project website, which emphasises the human issues farmers face. There is also a lengthy report for Animals Australia, focusing most on the treatment of dairy herds and discussion of vegan protests.

We also have a paper recently published in the Animal Studies Journal, “The Cow Project: Analytical and Representational Dilemmas of Dairy Farmers’ Conceptions of Cruelty and Kindness.” In this academic publication we reflected on how to undertake and report on ethically contentious research in more detail and then discussed some of our findings, in particular how farmers hold seemingly contradictory views about their animals – views that demonstrate an emotional connection to their animals while also positioning them as ‘stock’, as commodities to be killed for profit. As one farmer explained “I’ve always had the attitude, they work for me. They’re in my best interests, don’t get me wrong, I’m not inhumane against the cows or anything, but it’s a business.” On the other hand, farmers also told us about the strong emotional bonds they had with their animals, such as one current dairy farmer who said “They know who you are. The smaller ones that I deal with all the time, the babies, they know me, they know my voice.”

We found that farmers used a number of different techniques to ‘neutralise’ these inconsistencies. For example, they merged the commodification of animals with welfarist languages, allowing them to argue/believe that they undertake harmful practices towards the cows ‘for their own good’ who, apart from the day they are killed, have ‘a nice life’ on the farm. For example, one farmer told us “The dry cows and the heifers just eat sleep poop, they have a pretty casual life.” This stress on animals’ welfare meant that farmers could sidestep or divert the narrative toward the ways they cared for their animals rather than how they objectified them into machines/ bodily parts for profit.  Like many members of the public, the farmers we talked to created a romanticised version of farming, where animal welfare is central. And while we don’t dispute that animal welfare is important to the farmers we talked to, it is a form of welfare aimed at keeping the animals at their best productivity levels, rather than an approach that acknowledges their sentience and their intrinsic value (i.e. value outside of their value to humans).

As we point out in the paper, these techniques used by the farmers are mechanics of power that maintain the current system. They allow humans to continue seeing other animals as commodities and subjecting them to lives under the yoke of human control while leaving intact our belief in ourselves as a humane, caring species. If we truly want to see change in the ways we keep, control, and use other animals then we need to understand these mechanics of power so we can challenge and change them. One way of doing this might be to provide assistance to the many dairy farmers wanting to transition out of animal agriculture.

Artwork credit: Heather Fraser.

One thought on “On the inconsistencies of cruelty and kindness on family dairy farms

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  1. Getting the farmers with the most humane mindset to transition out of the diary industry, will not remove the dairy industry – it is there because of the demand for dairy products. Instead, it will leave the animals’ care in the hands of people who are less caring and conscientious about them.

    The farmers with the most humane mindset, the ones who are most empathetic and open to relating to livestock as sentient beings, would be the one most open to transitioning out of the industry. In the end there’d be only insensitive, desperate and/or just-in-it-for-the-money working hands-on with the animals, and no one else with a different mindset to see what’s going on. Quite like the abattoir industry (hence why lots of abuse happens during the slaughter process, as occasionally exposed via hidden camera like in the race horse controversy). That’s not doing the cattle any favours, on the contrary it puts them more in peril by removing the safeguard that is to have kind & conscientious people around in their everyday environment

    Liked by 1 person

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