Have you ever wondered what a cattle auction’s like? I’m guessing the answer is ‘no’- simply because they take place in secluded places, great big halls far from our ‘normal’ life and most of us don’t know anything about their existence. So I decided to pay one of them a visit…
It’s a nice sunny day, birds are singing their hearts out and jolly people are making their way towards a big hall. Joking and quickly getting a coffee in the entrance hall, they pick up a brochure to see what’s on offer today. After a brief chat at the registration desk, they head towards a double door leading into the cattle holding area. I’m at a dairy cattle auction, walking between cows of all ages, some penned together in small groups, some in individual pens and most of the lactating ones are tied in tight stalls with their udders on display.
I’m here as an observer and to document the event. I do get a few funny looks – nobody else is taking pictures of the animals – but not many. It’s business as usual for people here and as I’m looking at the aisle lined by cows’ rumps, an old farmer strolls in, presumably contemplating buying one, and casually feels and udder here and an udder there. I know enough to guess he’s doing it to check for any signs of mastitis or abnormal tissue but I also know the cows are chained in the stalls so tightly they can’t move and if nothing else, someone sticking their hand between your legs from behind to feel your mammary tissue, is at least surprising; considering they are not your calf, you probably don’t want them anywhere near your udder.
There are also several pens with calves, just a few months old, and I’m told they’ll be sold at the very end. These are organic calves – though at the market, this only means a difference in the price. A couple of them still have raw tissue on their horn buds; presumably they were dehorned not long ago.
In the farming world, it’s very obvious you’re not supposed to touch the animals in an affectionate way or show any kindness or acknowledgement that they are sentient beings. It seems the only permitted contact is pushing and shoving, nudging in the right direction, tying and untying and cleaning the animal. However, despite that, the cows are curious, calves even more so and they reach out to you, cautiously and carefully, but the attempt at contact is there. For me that’s the biggest struggle, mustn’t touch the cows because it’s clear that would somehow break the code.
The auctioneer walks through the cattle holding area, ringing a bell to let everyone know the auction is about to start. We all make our way to the auction ring and take our positions, some press right against the railing around the auction ring, whilst others sit or stand further away. The auction starts and one cow at a time they are let into the ring and made to walk in circles by a man with a stick prodding them around. Most cows turn immediately back towards the gate and try to make contact with the cows waiting to be let in. Failing that, they face the people surrounding the ring and most of them try to nuzzle at least one person. Not a shadow of emotion from the people, it seems, as they all shoo the cow away.
To the farmers they’re just a walking commodity, each with a price tag and a set of data. Eyes flicker between the cow and the statistics in the brochure – day of birth, milk yield in previous pregnancies, if in calf there’s also information on the bull and a due date. The auctioneer’s doing his best to push the price: “Number 24, freshly calved, she’s very fresh indeed, calved only a week ago. Milk yield 21kg and increasing every day! Last year her milk yield was 42 kilograms!” Number 24 was indeed sold at a good price and will carry on being milked for all she’s worth at her new farm.
A seemingly endless stream of cows, bulls and calves goes through the auction ring. Some reluctantly, some panicking and slipping; one bull even tries to headbutt his owner (who promptly hides behind a barrier). One after another they are auctioned off and will be taken to the new owner’s farms later in the afternoon. As soon as the last calves are sold, the auction is over and everyone’s sent home.
Business as usual. So why does it feel like I’ve just been to a slave market?
To find out more about the dairy industry, why we even drink the milk of another species and how it affects our bodies, or to see how to switch to a kinder diet and lifestyle, go to www.whitelies.org.uk.