I have something to share with you all that’s going to make some people angry, and for multiple reasons.
Some are mad that this has been discovered and being publicly pointed out. Others are angry at the sheer negligence and asininity of the situation, as well as those who are in full support of it.
The former is getting angrier and desperately trying to discredit the latter for reasons that I’ll show you later. But right now, I want to tell you a little story to give you some idea of what’s going on, and what I’m actually talking about.
It all started with a double-decker cattle-liner at around New Years, 2019, that was *supposedly* headed to the slaughterhouse in New Jersey. According to various media sources, this pregnant heifer jumped out of top-most deck of the truck at around 2:45 am, right onto the interstate highway (the I-80 of New Jersey), to make a dash for freedom.
I just want to stop right here and say I don't know how in the hell that happened, and I have many questions: How fast was the truck going? Was it stopped on the interstate or moving slow in the midst of traffic, or travelling at highway speed? Since this incident occurred in the wee hours of the morning, it's doubtful that there was much in back-ups with traffic; traffic on the interstate would've been fairly light, as far as I know. How could've this heifer somehow climbed out of the back of the cattle-liner and dropped 8 feet down onto the pavement and not broken a leg or broken her neck? Or worse?
I know that cattle are incredible creatures, and have heard of cattle--like a neighbour's bull--who decided to jump right out of the back of a truck, drop 8 feet from where he jumped out, and get away with nary a scratch. But this is down a highway where vehicles are travelling pretty fast, and the survival chances of an animal making that kind of escape are very slim. Either something else happened that we nor the media is aware of, or that heifer really did get away a very, very lucky girl.
Anyway, after several police and state troopers took several hours to get this scared, bruised-up heifer off the highway and to a safer place, she got taken to the Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue where she gave birth to a healthy heifer calf just a few days after arriving. The 2-year old first-calf heifer, named "Brianna," is still there with her daughter "Winter" by her side, safe and sound.
Or at least that's what we think. Some recent video footage of Brianna put out by the sanctuary has been showing an entirely different story, and sparked quite the public outcry. This is now where I'd like to take you.
A Case of Lost Weight and Welfare Concerns
A tweet by a member of Skylands Animal Sanctuary shared a recent photo of a rather poorly, malnourished young cow (the rescued Brianna) scarcely paying attention to her bouncy calf, just six weeks after her arrival to the sanctuary and the birth of her calf, had this to say:
To give you a better sense of what Brianna the Holstein heifer actually looks like today, here's a screenshot taken from that same video shared on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter:
Now, I understand that the photo is poor quality and pixellated, but there's just no mistaking the condition that this cow is in. Before I get to talking about that, here's some photos of her just when she arrived at the sanctuary, and just after the birth of the calf.
This heifer-turned-cow looks like she's lost a lot of weight from the time she arrived to the sanctuary and calved, over the time of six weeks. Why? Why has she lost weight?
This isn't normal, this isn't right. A cow that has just calved shouldn't have lost this much weight over this amount of time. And when I was perusing the comments on the social media outlets this sanctuary frequents, many people have been expressing the same concern for this cow's welfare.
Due to this public outcry, the sanctuary released this letter in the last 24 hours that was written and published by a veterinarian from the Animal Hospital of Sussex County, New Jersey, stating that this cow appeared to be in "good health." I have some very real concerns and suspicions that even this letter does not address.
This letter was published by a veterinarian that specializes in companion animals, primarily dogs, cats, and horses, but not bovines. This is where I get a bit suspicious and have some questions to raise that I'll express in just a little bit.
Funnily enough this letter was written just yesterday (February 15, 2019), and addressed as "to whom it may concern," and not to the owners/caretakers of this young cow. Hmm. It makes me wonder if there's something else going on here that this sanctuary isn't showing, as much as they're saying they're not hiding anything...
Anyway, let's get back to talking about this cow's condition, and a few other things that I need to talk about.
What a Dairy Cow Should Look Like, Udders et. al.
Dairy cows, no doubt, do look boney and "hatchet-butt" type cattle because they're bred to produce milk, not much in muscle and fat cover. The genetics for milk production versus meat tend to counter-act one another, in a really basic/reductionist/simplistic way of explaining things. If you were to select heavily in one way or another, you compromise one trait or another. If you're selecting for more muscling, you compromise milk production. If you select more for milking ability, you compromise muscling ability.
But a dairy cow shouldn't be looking so thin that her ribs are showing (or can be felt even with a winter coat on), her entire bony spine is showing from the shoulders right to the tail-head, and her hips are so sharply protruding it looks painful. That isn't a healthy-looking cow; that's a cow that anybody worth their salt would contact a veterinarian, if not animal control, about.
With all the issues that have been raised around Brianna's condition, the most disconcerting is the surmise that the condition that she is in right now--let me get to the "over-filled utters" [sic] in a little bit--is supposedly "normal" for a cow her age.
Again, I can't stress enough how a heifer like her that has dropped quite a bit like she has just doesn't seem to be normal.
Body condition scoring (BCS) is a way to judge what condition, or level of fatness, an animal is in. For dairy cattle, the scale for scoring is from 1 (very emaciated) to 5 (very fat). Since the winter coat hides a little bit of her condition, currently she looks like she's sitting at around a 1.75 BCS out of 5. When she first came to the sanctuary and calved, she looked like she had a BCS of around 2.75, which is just a little under what a heifer her age should be prior to calving. That means that she looks like she lost an entire body condition score, or over 100 pounds, in just one month. That's a lot of body weight to lose.
One thing when looking at body condition scoring is that you can't just use your eyes to look. You have to get your hands on the animal and feel the ribs, the spine, the hooks and pins and thurl of the hip area, to see just how fat or thin an animal is. Brianna is wearing her winter coat right now, which tends to hide a lot of what her actual condition is apart from what I could tell in the photos. The latest photos (see below) are still quite telling in the sharpness of the pins (just near the tail-head), and the hooks, and how deep and sunken that thurl (the space between the hooks and pins of the hip) is. If I put my hands on her I wouldn't be surprised if I could feel not much fat covering the spine, as well as the ribs. The black coat and, as I said, the thick winter coat hides a lot what the hands can feel for.
Again, I ask why has she lost condition in the last 6 weeks? Many other folks have been asking the same thing. Is she being fed properly? Is she being fed enough? Is she sick with something like Johne's Disease, or another disease that is causing her weight to drop so dramatically and in the video that surfaced, for her to not be actively chewing her cud or paying much attention to her bouncy, playful, and obviously quite healthy calf? Is she maybe still suffering from an internal injury that she's hiding (cows are very good at doing that), and is causing her pain that the veterinarian may have missed? The letter stated that she is being tested for a variety of infectious diseases, so I sure hope that they're covering ALL their bases, including Johne's Disease.
I'm also very curious about the quality of the feed that she's being fed. She's in peak lactation for sure, as cows tend to reach that point two to three months after birth. But what's getting me is at this peak she also has the highest nutrient requirements, for both energy and protein and other minerals, like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and micro-minerals like selenium, copper, iron, molybdenum, etc. Is that alfalfa hay "good quality" like the vet said, or not? I would personally love to see a feed test result with the mineral content in that hay to see if it really is good enough, or not.
Here's the other thing: The letter stated how Brianna is getting "high protein concentrate supplementation." I've got two issues with that. For one, (as a straw-man/red-herring argument, my apologies but it needs saying) this is from a veterinarian, not a bovine nutritionist. Veterinarians have only taken one to two animal nutrition courses in their entire length of study to become qualified to carry the name Doctor in front of their name. Their knowledge on nutrition, no offence, doesn't make them all that reliable for providing nutrition and feed-related advice; probably just the basics, but that's about it, sorry to say. For the second point, protein doesn't put fat on a cow. If Brianna is disease-free and does not have a DA (which at this rate she shouldn't, cows are typically at risk for DA's soon after calving) or anything else that is affecting her metabolically, physiologically, or physically, then it's possible that the cause for weight loss is that she is getting insufficient energy (carbohydrates) in her diet.
But even a thin cow would be more brighter-eyed, perky-eared, and spunky than this girl is showing. So either something's terribly wrong with her, or maybe we're all freaking out about nothing and she's just mellowed down since having the calf and getting put in a sanctuary. As much as I love and understand cows and cattle, I just don't think it's the latter. Here's the recent video, as I write this, of her.
At least her calf is as bouncy and happy as she could be, that's always a good sign. By the way, some folks were asking if she was even the same calf, and yes, this is still Winter, Brianna's calf. She (Winter) just as a navy blue blanket over her to keep her warm (looks a tad bit too small...) which nicely blends in with the rest of her coat.
But what about that young cow's udder? With the noticeable loss in Brianna's condition, it's likely that she isn't producing much milk because she's ill or not getting all her nutrient needs met like she should. Now, the sanctuary has, or appears to be saying that Brianna is successfully feeding her calf, however I've had some sources tell me (and others) that this may not be the case.
The thing with dairy cows, and cows in general that are lactating and at peak lactation at this stage, when they're given proper nutrition, they are going to be producing the amount of milk that their genetics have them to produce, and what their calf is going to be needing.
The original tweet stated that the small udder on Brianna (never mind her body condition for the moment) is what is supposed to "naturally" occur for cows that are feeding their calves. (And yes, the proper spelling for a cow's udder is indeed "U-D-D-E-R.")
I've been told by some of the activists, whom I've been talking to about this issue, that these dairy cows have such "over-filled" udders because they've been forced to consume chemicals and hormones and such. They're only partly right, but not entirely.
Posilac®, a growth hormone injection given to commercial dairy cows, does certainly increase a cow's milk production capacity to more than what she normally would, so the activists are partly right. However, Holsteins have been genetically selected for generations to "naturally" produce at least four to five times the amount of milk that their single calf needs. No, this isn't natural at all, this is through artificial single-trait selection for high milk production thanks to us humans. Of course, there is concern for the welfare of these cows because their high milk production tends to play a heavy toll on their bodies, where they tend to wear out sooner than other cows (non-dairy) that haven't been selected for such heavy milk production, and hit the cull list sooner. Rarely does a dairy cow live right into her teens.
So, over-filled udders? Partly true, but not quite.
I believe that in Brianna's case, the concerns lie more in the state of her condition than anything else. A cow needs to take care of her body first before she puts any extra energy into reproduction, lactation, and growth. Maintenance needs come first, the rest follow with better/good nutrition and overall health. A cow that cannot meet her maintenance needs is going to lose weight, and sacrifice her ability to produce milk or grow in order to answer to her body's screaming needs first.
More Concerns: A Small Animal/Equine Veterinarian?
Why did this letter, I have to ask, come from a small-animal veterinarian, and not a large-animal or farm veterinarian? A small animal veterinarian wouldn't know nearly as much as a farm vet would, which makes me very suspicious. I believe this may also be the same vet that had previously agreed to vegan diets for cats, which raises even more red flags.
One red flag raised was the rather ignorant comment that, "with the advent of new spring grass and the end of lactation, I'm sure Brianna will gain her weight back." I'm sorry?? It's the middle of February, spring doesn't come for another couple of months, and even though this is in New Jersey and not Alberta, Canada, there is still risk of freezing temperatures with plenty of snow, which will put her into a state where she needs to pull as much of her reserves as possible to keep warm. For a thin cow, this is particularly challenging, and it's even more challenging if she isn't getting adequate feed. A thin cow tends to become even thinner because she's using more of her body stores to keep warm and alive. A thin cow can get so thin that she will eventually die, well before sufficient grass comes up to put some weight back on her again. This is what I fear will happen to Brianna.
She needs to get her body weight up, NOW, not "until spring arrives." A thin cow is a dead cow when feed a feed ration intended for a good-conditioned or fat cow that should maintain her body condition score or can afford to lose some weight. This is not a good scenario. Also, no vet worth his salt would ever state something like that.
That this calf that is supposedly "growing at an exponential rate" I feel is also rather unfounded. There's a number of dairy farmers--people that really do know more about cows than most people give them credit for--that are saying that this calf is half the size she should be. And I believe that. That calf, if she is around 5 or 6 weeks of age, shouldn't be looking like she's still two or three days old. Sure she looks cute, but I don't think she's getting the proper nutrition to grow like her momma. This is concerning.
So now I wonder if this small-animal/equine veterinarian actually knows what to look for with a displaced abomasum? Or if he failed to see other signs that this cow is not doing well, like maybe regular cud-chewing, interest in food, those sorts of things?
Sorry, but I wouldn't trust this vet with any of my cows, even if I was a farm animal rescue sanctuary!
This cow is in rough shape, there's no doubt about that. It's worth acknowledging at this point that it's been six weeks since her escape attempt at jumping out of a truck. At this point she should be already over her traumatic event and showing signs of getting better, as well as gaining weight, but this is clearly not happening. She's been losing weight over the last 6 weeks. And this veterinarian is not pointing out why.
Get those damn blood tests in toot suite from Cornell, if that's what's happened, get fecal tests done to see if there's any parasite activity that she may be struggling with, as well as some feed test results and a healthy bit of input from a bovine nutritionist. Oh, and please Skylands, for Brianna's sake, get a second opinion from a bovine veterinarian! Until all that happens can I safely agree that she's indeed doing well and is in good hands, but at this rate, I have to hold back on that. Time will tell, I reckon.
One person had an excellent piece to say, rather blunt but to the point, whom I will keep anonymous, regarding the letter that was published by the sanctuary as proof that the cow was "perfectly fine." As you may guess, I completely agree with this person's comments:
[..] The vet mentioned supports vegan diets for cats. And the facility is for small animals with no mention of livestock care or that they even see livestock.
One thing I'd like to bring up that this comment reminds me of is that there are also a fairly strong agreement among farmer folk that this young cow may have been deliberately culled for some reason from the dairy that she came from. She could have been culled because she tested positive for Johne's Disease, especially at that late in her pregnancy...
Why Do I (And Farmers!) Even Care?
I'll say this first and foremost: I'm not one of those "haters" that would do anything to discredit an animal sanctuary. As much as I disagree with the entire purpose of these not-for-profit farming operations, I am just as concerned with an animal's welfare as they are, and I get even more concerned and disconcerted when a sanctuary openly tells people that "this is what a cow is supposed to look like" or "this cow is in perfect health" when that heifer's body condition is telling a different story.
I do hope that everyone who's expressed concern for this heifer is indeed wrong and that she is doing just fine, that she is indeed perfectly healthy. But many of us just has this nagging suspicion...
But, it's time now to address some issues raised by those who are in defence of Skylands Animal Sanctuary, like the question as to why I even care about stuff like this since I'm a meat-eater and support animal agriculture.
Let me just say that vegans always seem surprised and rather strongly offended that meat-eaters and omnivores like myself actually give a shit about animals like cows, and care enough to raise one hell of a ruckus over a situation like this. As one friend put it:
In their minds, because we eat meat, we don't care about animals, therefore we couldn't possibly know how to care for them properly, or know how to tell if they're not being cared for. Never mind that it's in our own best interest to make sure the animals we eat are well cared for. Their hate for us is too strong for them to see it any other way.
In other words, the vegan community tends to think that because we eat meat, so we also don't care about animals; like somehow the correlation between the eating of meat and raising animals for meat and slaughtering them causes us to not care about animals. There's a logical fallacy for that, and it falls in the Causal Fallacies, specifically, "cum hoc ergo propter hoc," which is Latin meaning, "with this, therefore because of this."
It's a fallacy because this logic isn't truthful: Correlation does not prove causation. People who eat meat are very capable of caring a great deal about animals and their welfare, including myself. There are a few meat-eaters out there who truthfully don't care about animals, but they certainly don't represent the majority, and shouldn't.
Not only that, but the greatest target has been put on farmer's backs for not caring about animals, who are constantly mobbed and accused of abusing animals for profit. The problem is that most vegans don't understand that there's far more to farming than just doing it for the money. Let me explain a little bit.
I like to ask those who feel such strong emotions against farmers, "Why would a farmer deliberately abuse, mistreat, and neglect an animal since doing so only brings him or her much more grief and definitely a lot less money than if that animal were healthy and well cared for?" Crickets.
So I push a little further: "Explain to me how a farmer would make any money off a sick, abused, mistreated, emaciated, all-around-unhealthy animal? How does that work?" Again, crickets tend to do most of the talking here.
The fact is, farmers have to care about animals with their welfare, and their health, in order to make money. They cannot afford to not care about animals and expect make some kind of income off of them. That's not how farming works. A farm is sure to fail if the farmer and those who work for continuously mistreat, abuse, starve, or neglect their animals. Even when those animals are intended to be turned into meat and other goods.
Also, there's not much money in farming anymore. Anyone who thinks they can be farming for the money alone is fooling themselves, and should find a different career. Farming is a lifestyle and something to enjoy, not merely something to profit from. If you don't believe me, why don't you try it for yourself?
"Well, farmers don't care about their animals because they send them off to slaughter!!"
Farmers don't enjoy it when they have to send their animals to slaughter. Wouldn't you know it but it's probably the saddest day of their lives when that has to happen, unless it's some animals they have no emotional bond with, or have had some serious trouble with and are glad to see it go. But it happens, it's necessary, and for good reason.
While I could go into a lot of detail about this (and this may be an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned), the slaughter process is designed so that the animal is killed in as swift and painless a manner as possible, in such a way that the animal doesn't even know what happened to it; it suddenly loses consciousness and that's it. No pain, no agony or suffering.
This is what "good death" is all about. It is as every bit as important as making sure that animal has (or is) living a good life with all of its needs met. You might as well throw the concept of "taking good care" and "ensuring good welfare" of an animal right out the window if you are also not ever wanting to give it a good death when that time comes. Actually you should never be responsible for the care of any animals with that kind of mentality in the first place!
No farmer wants to see an animal suffer. And for the sake of the animals I sure hope the vegans and animal activists don't either, however with the latest rife that the latter kind of people have been stirring up over poor Brianna, I feel that they're only "care" for the animals extends in the form of feel-good intentions, not actual real well-thought-out intentions that are in every way going to be beneficial for the animal itself. It is incredibly irresponsible for a person to make the necessary judgement calls for a critter like this when it's only for their own emotional sake and to make themselves feel good, but not the animal.
Yes, of course, we all must care about animals. We must all care about their health, their welfare, and their quality of life. In so doing, we must also take responsibility to make sure, for as long as an animal is alive, that that critter gets the best care possible in terms of health, nutrition, social interactions, and overall well-being. But as I said we need to understand and embrace this responsibility without the emotional baggage.
A lot of fighting has come about with Brianna, and I sincerely hope for her sake that Skylands Animal Sanctuary really and truly is doing their best to take care of her and her calf.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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