“PETA received a tip from someone with knowledge of the conditions for the animals and of the animals. Then we went and took a look for ourselves at the farm,” said Dan Paden, evidence analysis manager for PETA. “That shocking footage of the emaciated, lame cows trudging through their own manure was what resulted.”
The setting for this horrifying scene was Osborne Farms, a small dairy producer in the Stamey Cove area of Clyde that milks somewhere between 25 and 30 cows. According to Paden, the anonymous tip came from someone who lives locally, and the tipster, along with the PETA staffer who shot the video, gained legal access to the farm and captured evidence of what they found.
They shipped the results out to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Haywood County Animal Control, who all came out the next day to conduct inspections. The farm received six violations from DENR, cumulatively carrying a potential fine of $25,000 per day.
But none of the three organizations found any evidence of animal cruelty or of milk contamination.
Reality or trumped-up charges?
According to Tony McGaha, livestock specialist for Haywood County Extension, that’s probably because the grim realities depicted in the video don’t quite qualify as “reality.”
“The video is very disturbing. Any layperson just looks at it, it’s very, very disturbing,” he said. “With that said, if you know anything about dairy or know anything about animal welfare and stuff, the whole story just starts falling apart.”
PETA’s accusations center mainly around the manure pit and surrounding alleyway, an overflowing mass of feces through which cows are made to trudge — to get food, to sleep, to reach the milking parlor. According to the video, the manure is the reason for the lame feet, the emaciation, the overgrown hoof.
“The animals have to compete while they’re sitting in that manure for the food that’s provided to them,” Paden said, pointing out that the lame-footed cows are the same ones that PETA’s veterinarian termed emaciated. “If you have lame animals trying to compete for limited food and they’re not winning that battle, emaciation is a quick result.”
Especially in the dairy industry, Paden added, because milk production takes a high caloric toll on a cow’s body.
But McGaha takes issue with nearly every part of that statement. For starters, he said, the animals don’t live in the pool of manure shown in the video, an assertion backed up in the Haywood Animal Control inspection report. In fact, that area is fenced off to keep them out of it. They stay outside, they eat outside — the animals haven’t been fed in the area depicted in the video for months, McGaha said — and they defecate in the sloped alleyway outside the pit. The waste then falls down or is scraped into the pit.
He questions how PETA even obtained video of the animals walking through the fenced-off manure pit — and he’s not sure it was entirely an innocent accident.
“They’re staying outside. They do not come into that barn. Even when they’re going to be milked they were secluded from that. So I’d say someone’s intentionally running them through that and took video,” he said, adding, “It sure looks like somebody set it up.”
To support that claim, McGaha points back to the video itself. Manure cakes the legs of the cows on camera, and flecks of it pepper their bellies, but their backs and tails are clean. If the cows actually lived in the pit day and night, as the video claims, they’d be covered in it, McGaha said.
“The cows are very clean. They have none in their tail switch. Nowhere on their body do they have this manure,” he said.
That’s a point echoed on www.dairycarrie.com, a dairy blog written by a dairy farmer with a Facebook following of 14,000. She breaks the video down scene-by-scene, concluding, “I feel confident that what the video is trying to show isn’t how things really are.”
But PETA stands behind its video. Paden stands on the organization’s track record of producing court-admissible video evidence of animal cruelty and points out that it had been three-quarters of a year since McGaha had visited the farm. The fence that McGaha claims was keeping the cows out of the manure wasn’t erected until after PETA’s video was released, Paden said, and it wasn’t in place when the video was taken.
“That’s absurd,” Paden said of the suggestion that the video was staged. “The video was captured earlier this month and anyone who’s been at the farm in that time period can confirm that.”
Full up with manure
McGaha, whose last visit to Osborne Farms was last fall, isn’t saying that Tom Osborne, the farm’s owner, runs a flawless operation. The pit had been left unemptied for far too long.
That’s something that must be rectified and is being addressed now. It’s also the subject of all six of the violations DENR cited the farm on Aug. 13. According to the report, manure in the pit stood 4 feet, 3 inches deep, and it was overflowing into the alleyways where the animals walk. A half-inch rain had occurred just before the inspection was conducted, and inspectors spotted waste running out of the pit and down into Conner Mill Branch, according to the notice of violation.
“I think it was a result of there was a lot of waste on the concrete pad out there and part of it is unsheltered, so when it rained it washed that part that was unsheltered down the road and went off into the stream, but I don’t think that’s something that’s been going on a lot,” said Ed Williams, who performed the inspection for DENR.
Williams said the environmental impact of the runoff is unknown, but an initial inspection didn’t reveal any dead fish or built-up solids. He also said that DENR hasn’t had a history of issues with Osborne Farms, aside from a violation in 2012 for incorrect paperwork. The problem encountered this year has been rectified, so fines are unlikely.
“They actually got some other dairy men in the county to come in and help him this weekend,” Williams said.
Typically, a dairy farmer will scrape waste from the alleyway into the pit once or twice each day and will clean out the pit once a year. Waste from the pit is used to fertilize fields or crops.
“The herdsman explained equipment issues as the reason for not removing the manure in a timely manner,” said a report from NCDACS.
While McGaha called the level of the waste problem at Osborne Farms “uncommon” — excess waste storage was found in other areas of the farm, as well — he was more concerned about what he deems unfounded claims from PETA.
The video makes a bevy of accusations against the operation at Osborne Farms, and after it came out McGaha broke them down point-by-point:
PETA: The cows trudge through manure twice each day, and they have to stand in their own waste to eat or rest.
McGaha: The cows are not typically allowed in the waste-flooded area shown in the video. They eat and rest outside, a fact evidenced by the lack of manure shown on their backs and tails.
PETA: The manure pit has gone so long without being emptied that it has hardened and crusted over.
McGaha: Manure pits are supposed to crust over because dry environments make it harder for flies to breed. That’s why the pit has a roof over it — so rain won’t get in and keep it soft. But regardless, flies will be present in some capacity anywhere livestock are kept.
That said, it’s been way too long since the manure pit was emptied. But an overfull pit poses more of an environmental risk than an animal welfare one.
PETA: Struggling through the manure has caused lame legs and an overgrown hoof.
McGaha: Just like a person getting a stone caught in his shoe, cows can get all kinds of debris caught in their hooves, but they can’t pick it out like a person can. Once the problem is noticed and remedied, the cows will be fine.
PETA: At least two of the cows were emaciated, with a staff veterinarian rating their body condition a one out of five, a dangerous condition for any cow. One of the emaciated cows also had a lame leg and an overgrown hoof. Emaciation probably resulted when that lame cow became unable to compete for food amid the manure-flooded living space.
McGaha: A healthy dairy cow will have visible ribs, hook bones and pin bones. The two cows shown on the video as emaciated were a little thin — McGaha rates them a two out of five — but that can happen for any number of reasons. A cow that’s recently calved or has a metabolic condition might be unusually thin through no fault of the farmer.
PETA: One of the cows is bleeding from the nose, probably the result of a foreign object wedged in her nose or a deep sinus infection gone untreated.
McGaha: He had a cow on his farm one time that did that. She had allergies and tried to “itch” her nose by ramming a briar vine up it. There are plausible explanations for cows bleeding through the nose.
PETA: Manure coats the animals’ legs and splashes on their teats moments before milking, raising questions of milk contamination.
McGaha: Many of the shots in the video were likely staged, and the cows don’t walk through the area shown before milking or at any other time. State inspectors came out the day after the video was released and didn’t find anything that constituted a public health hazard.
PETA sent its complaint letters to DENR, NCDACS and Haywood County Animal Control on Aug. 7. By Aug. 8, inspectors from all three organizations were onsite, writing their own reports.
They found some issues, but nothing that qualified as either animal cruelty or a public health hazard.
The NCDACS inspection turned up some rusted metal, loose ceiling tiles, rough areas on the milking parlor floor, broken pipes and excess manure in the cow yard where the herd waits for milking — a different part of the farm than the manure pit or alleyway flagged by PETA. DENR found an excessively full manure pit, overflowing and stockpiled animal waste in places besides the manure pit and waste-level gauges obscured by weeds growing in the manure pit.
Some of these issues have already been addressed. Since the inspection, the broken pipes have been fixed and the excess manure removed, said Brian Long, public affairs director for NCDACS.
After coming unannounced to see the afternoon milking Aug. 8, NCDACS inspectors scheduled a return Aug. 13 to witness the morning milking, Long said. Because dairy producers are inspected quarterly, the farm will likely receive another unannounced inspection in the next month or so.
“There’s not a history of any issues,” NCDACS inspector Jim Melvin said of Osborne Farms.
As for the animal control inspection, the report concluded that “it was unfounded that the cattle did not have a dry area to bed down and that they are being kept in staying excess manure at time of visit.” Jeff Richardson of NCDACS, who accompanied responding officer Jean Hazzard on a secondary visit on Aug. 13, also noted that he watched Osborne milking the cattle and “had no concerns as to the body conditions of the cattle,” according to the report.
Hazzard had first arrived at the farm at 11:23 a.m. the day after PETA distributed its complaints, finding Osborne’s father and agreeing to meet with his son after he finished work at 5 p.m., according to the report. She didn’t inspect the situation at that time but returned to the farm at 4:50 p.m., a little earlier than the agreed-upon 5:30 p.m..
In the 45 minutes between arriving at the barn and Osborne’s arrival, Hazzard observed the cows and spied the one with the overgrown hoof, noting that the condition didn’t affect her gait. When she later asked Osborne about it, he said he gets his cows’ hooves trimmed but hadn’t done so recently.
The report does note, as does that of the NCDACS, excess manure in the cow yard, though that area was fenced off to keep the cows from getting in.
On the morning of Aug. 14, the sun was out, the cows were grazing in the fields, and the owners of Osborne Farms were tired of answering questions about their dairy operation. Asked for a comment about the situation or some information about how PETA obtained the video, the family said only “We’ve got nothing to say,” and instructed the reporter to “get back in your little car and turn right around.”
As of now, PETA isn’t planning any legal action aside from the complaints it’s already submitted to state and county regulatory agencies. But they’re still hoping to see Osborne Farms receive more than a slap on the wrist.
“We remain deeply concerned that those animals are suffering and being denied appropriate care, and we very much hope that they can depend on Haywood Animal Services to ensure that the hoof and veterinary care they need is given to them,” Paden said.
But with the waste disposal situation now being taken care of, McGaha said, there’s no reason for any further consequence.
“He just had a test run by the milk inspectors who can show up at any time,” he said. “It was one of the highest ones in the county. I mean very good.”
Where does the milk go?
In its original online article and press release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had used the headline “Emaciated cows found mired in manure at Harris Teeter supplier.” According to Dan Paden, evidence analysis manager for PETA, a “state-issued document” was seen at the farm identifying the milk’s destination as Piedmont Milk Sales. Paden said a follow-up call to Piedmont revealed that the company exclusively supplies Harris Teeter grocery stores.
However, PETA changed its headline to read “North Carolina dairy farm” in place of “Harris Teeter supplier.”
“Harris Teeter does not receive milk from the farm featured in this video,” Danna Jones, a Harris Teeter representative, wrote in an email. “On Thursday, Aug. 14, PETA corrected it’s story and removed our name from both the video it distributed and posted on its website, as well as the text on its website which accompanies the video.”`
According to Brian Jones, public relations director for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the milk is sold to Piedmont and from there goes to Milkco, Inc., a distribution company located in Asheville. Milkco produces Light n Lively and Sealtest milk products, distributed from 96 distribution centers in 10 southeastern states, the company’s website says.