Cows grazing in the pasture at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, N.Y.
Credit…Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times


Hawthorne Valley Farm’s Manager, Spencer Fenniman, spoke with New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs this past fall about the ethics of dairy farming. The resulting piece, “Is Dairy Farming Cruel to Cows?” published on December 29, 2020. The wide-ranging article explores animal rights activists’ objections to dairy farming, and contrasts them with the practices of farms like Dutch Hollow Farm in Schodack Landing, NY, and Hawthorne Valley’s dairy operation. While acknowledging the realities of dairy farming, the piece also delves into research by a small group of animal welfare scientists working to determine whether certain practices can improve the lives and well-being of dairy cows. An excerpt from the article follows. Read the full article at this link.

Research by animal welfare scientists has led to a number of changes in the industry. Many large dairy farms have begun housing multiple cows together, abandoning the age-old tradition of keeping solitary cows tied up inside barn stalls, and a number of studies over the past two decades found there was no hygienic benefit to removing a cow’s tail, which they use to swat away flies…Other changes promoted by scientists have led to the widespread adoption of pain-relief medication during dehorning, a process that has long angered animal rights activists but one that veterinarians say is necessary to protect both livestock workers and cows from being gored.

Spencer Fenniman, who helps manage Hawthorne Valley Farm, an organic milking operation in Ghent, N.Y., has a deep appreciation for cow horns. He loves showing visitors how the rings on a horn can reveal an animal’s age, and without them, he would also have a hard time identifying Nutmeg from Martha or any of the other 70 Normande and Brown Swiss cows that graze on the farm’s verdant fields. Though there have been a handful of injuries over the past decade, he said it was rare for a cow to wield her horns as weapons, and even Elvis the bull, the sole sire of the herd, was docile one recent afternoon as a group of humans moved through his fenced-in enclosure.


There’s another striking thing about his cows: Many of them spend months alongside their offspring. Allowing a calf to nurse decreases the amount of milk available for human consumption, but Mr. Fenniman said his cows largely repaid the debt by producing extra milk, which is notably richer and sweeter.


“I think we have to acknowledge that taking milk from mammals is inherently subverting a natural process,” he said. “But we can provide them a certain amount of freedom, which includes the light and air they get at pasture.”