Of course our cows are sentient

Heifers and Zoe reach out

“You can trust me”

Any dairy farmer who does not know her cows are capable of feeling pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort, should be stripped of her licence.

Yet this simple concept, called sentience, has created one hell of a ruckus after the Victorian government released its Animal Welfare Action Plan this month. All sorts of farm leaders have railed against the use of the term, calling it a “slippery slope” and claiming it could actually hurt animals.

“…the introduction of sentience will cause adverse welfare outcomes for animals as production systems are thrown into chaos. It will render some farm businesses unviable, causing job losses and untold economic damage to regional communities and cripple the supply chains that rely on these businesses.” – VFF media release, January 5, 2018

As a farmer who works with cows every day, I have no idea what’s prompted this outrage but I do know it’s got nothing to do with whether cows are sentient or not. Of course they are.

Farmers are animal practivists: we balance what’s best for the welfare of our cows all the time. How long do we keep treating that downer cow or should we euthanase now? And the big one: should we rear the calves with the herd or away from their mothers?

I get the feeling that our agripoliticians are on the offensive because they’re worried what the animal activists rather than practivists out there will do with the inclusion of sentience in welfare law.

The problem is that everybody knows cows are sentient. To deny it makes farmers look either cruel or willing to say anything at all to avoid being accountable. How we achieve the best outcomes is certainly very debateable but the need to consider cow comfort is not.

The importance of cow comfort is already well accepted in dairy circles. Cows and farmers do better when animal health and wellbeing is a priority. Goodness, it’s practically a science of its own! A quick Google reveals dozens of research papers on the subject.

The minister is being very courageous. It’s about time our leaders were, too.