A new study by a group of researchers finds that putting cows on dairy farms poses a serious risk to their health, as well as their ability to digest milk.
“It turns out that dairy cows on large dairy farms have a much higher incidence of colitis and other chronic diseases, and the disease rates have increased substantially,” said the study’s lead author, Matthew D. Breen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
The authors found that dairy farmers are the second-highest source of coli cases in the United States.
“Our study confirms that the risks associated with dairy farms are particularly severe, and that the risk to cows in these farms is significantly higher than the risks of beef farms,” said Breen.
Coli is a serious disease, and dairy farmers typically spend much of their time milking the cows to avoid coli, and their calves to avoid the disease.
“Dairy farmers are a major source of infection in the U.S.,” said Baskin, adding that cows on the dairy farms, in particular, are at higher risk of getting coli.
“The main source of dairy-related coli outbreaks is not cows, but rather, the dairy industry itself,” he said.
The researchers analyzed the data of more than 30,000 U.s. dairy farms between 2003 and 2012 and tracked the deaths of cows and calves on each farm.
They found that the number of deaths associated with coli in the dairy farming industry was nearly three times higher than for beef.
“On average, about 50% of colics occurred in dairy farms,” the study found.
Basker said he and his colleagues were interested in understanding why the disease spread so quickly in dairy farming.
“Colic is one of the biggest killers of animals,” he explained.
“If you’re not doing something to prevent colic, then it’s pretty easy to spread.”
Baskins study found that colic is caused by an immune response that occurs in the cow’s colon, and it is a reaction to bacteria in the gut.
“We found that there was an increased production of a type of protein in the colon that’s responsible for producing colitis,” he noted.
“These proteins are the same types of proteins that produce the antibiotic rifampin, which is used in livestock, and we also found that cows produce these same proteins in the stool.”
“The bacteria that cause colic can be spread between cows by the cow and other dairy cows, so the cows that are on the farm are also at higher risks,” Baskiner said.
“I would be shocked if these cows weren’t producing these same kinds of proteins, so there’s no reason to think that these cows aren’t also producing these antibodies as well.”
While dairy farmers spend far more time milk-feeding the cows than beef farmers, cows on larger dairy farms generally don’t have the luxury of being able to graze on pasture, which could explain why dairy cows have a higher risk for coli than beef cows.
The study found there were 3,500 deaths from coli between 2004 and 2011 in U. of P’s Dairy Research Facility, but the researchers found that only a few cows on a farm had colitis.
“There’s no clear evidence that cows are being harmed or killed in a different way by the operation of dairy farms than cattle,” Breen said.
Binkin said he is working on ways to prevent the spread of colic in the future.
“You know, there’s probably not going to be an immediate way to do that.
The idea is to educate consumers about the potential for colic to occur in cattle, and if you’re concerned about it, then steer clear of dairy cows,” he told Recode.
“And then, once you’ve been exposed to colic for a while, it might be worthwhile to consider moving away from a large dairy farm.”