Undercover Footage Reveals Shocking Conditions at a NY Dairy

Editor's Note: You can view the footage and additional coverage from Nightline here. You can also read more about the dairy industry in AlterNet's recent feature here and here.

"When searching for new employees at Willet Dairy, we look for skilled people who know how to handle animals and their illnesses," chief operating officer Lyn Odel told Farm Credit of Maine in 2006. But one look at undercover video shot at New York State's largest dairy in Locke, released this week, makes his remark sound like a sick joke.

One worker repeatedly forces his fingers deep into the eye sockets of calves to hold them in place while he burns off their horn buds. One calf collapses from the pain and hangs by a rope around her neck while the worker lifts her by her tail and continues with the second horn. As smoke from the burning flesh envelopes the bellowing calves, they then have their tails docked--an amputation procedure so painful and unnecessary it is banned in five European countries and opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

So-called "downer" cows were left to suffer for as much as 12 days writes Mike, the humane investigator who shot the video for Mercy For Animals (MFA) after being hired as a maintenance worker last year. One worker, he writes in a diary, was shocked when an apparently dead cow he was moving with a forklift "[expletive] moved a little bit."

The downer cows, denied veterinary care or euthanasia, also experienced terror says veterinarian Holly Cheever after viewing the video. "Any cow, as a prey and not a predator species, experiences terror due to her immobility, since she knows she is helpless to protect herself with her instinctive fight or flight response."

Cows with hemorrhagic uterine prolapses at the more than 7,000-animal Willet Dairy were ignored for weeks as they progressed to necrotic states and death.  Some cows who were denied veterinary care and left pools of blood when they walked continued to be milked, according to Mike, and their milk was sold for human consumption.

FDA records reveal that agency inspections detected at least one incident each of excessive levels of the antibiotics sulfadimethoxine and gentamicin in Willet beef cows, potentially harmful drugs that are legally prohibited from edible meat tissue. "Our investigation found that you hold animals under conditions which are so inadequate that diseased and/or medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues in edible tissues are likely to enter the food supply," wrote FDA officials Jerome G. Woyshner and Brenda J. Holman in correspondence directed to the dairy farm. Virtually all dairy cows are sold for beef production when their milk production wanes -- and their profitability declines -- at four or five years of age, a fraction of their natural lifespan.

At Willet Dairy Mike observed that the animals' drinking water was "opaque brown, with chunks of feed, manure, and other debris floating on top." Troughs and drains were never cleaned, according to a dairy mechanic, and one employee was observed deliberately contaminating the cows' drinking water by dipping feces-covered tools in the water troughs. That employee, a 19-year veteran of the dairy, apparently boasts of his violent abuse of the animals. He is specifically named in a complaint filed by MFA in August 2009 with Jon E. Budelmann, the District Attorney for Cayuga County in Auburn, New York.

"What do you think that wrench did to her?" the worker asks Mike, recounting a violent incident using one of his tools. "Cracked her right over the [expletive] skull."

"With her head in a headlock?" asks Mike.

"Yep. Dropped her right down. [yells] Stupid bitch!"

The employee also describes braining a bull with a two by four and then kicking its genitals, stomping a cow by jumping off of a gate and onto her head repeatedly, and brutalizing a tethered calf so badly even the dairy manager inquired about the extensive bruising.

Scores of newborn calves at Willet are allowed to die from the cold, often freezing to death in unheated, coffin-like tin sheds spaced every few feet in the snow. Their mothers also suffer from the horrible abuse of their calves. Video footage shows the cows following their days-old calves as they are pulled away by the legs to be shipped off for veal production, vocalizing plaintively. A dairy worker describes the cows as running around the box stalls for days searching for their calves.

Finding a severely ill calf at 8:30 in the morning, the worker responsible for newborns tells Mike she was cold to the touch and would soon be dead. But "at 4:30 p.m. the dying calf was still in the same place, her throat barely expanding and contracting in slow breaths," writes Mike. "Her eyes were completely gray. I sat down beside her and stroked her hair. She did not respond, but when I got up to walk away, she let out a weak bleat, so I returned and continued to pet her."

Tipped off about the MFA video, Holstein World Online cautions dairy producers that if contacted by reporters they should alert the "national issues management team" before making any statements beyond the industry's "general messaging" on animal care and milk safety.

And what is the "general messaging?" In the past it has been to express shock at such video depictions, claiming ignorance and vowing to investigate and apprehend the "bad apples." In the case of Willet Dairy the previously unknown bad apples apparently would include at least one 19-year dairy employee.

But the grisly video footage shot at every one of the 11 farms randomly chosen for investigation by MFA clearly confirms that the violence is not isolated or coincidental, but is simply agribusiness-as-usual.

Even Lyn Odel admits Willet Dairy is not unusual. "We don't farm any different than anybody else does up and down this road," the Syracuse New Times quotes him saying in 2008 when neighbors complained about the dairy. "This is about the nature of our business, about how we farm. It's not about Willet. It's about the dairy industry."


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