Agriculture: goodbye to tethering: happy cows - unhappy farmers?

The Bavarian Farmers' Association shows happy cows in green mountain meadows on its homepage.

Agriculture: goodbye to tethering: happy cows - unhappy farmers?

The Bavarian Farmers' Association shows happy cows in green mountain meadows on its homepage. But tens of thousands of cows in the Free State live tied up in stables year in and year out and never go to pasture. The federal government now wants to change that.

Within five years, dairy farmers nationwide should switch to free stalls or combined housing - year-round tethered housing should be banned. The Free State wants to prevent this plan in the Federal Council.

How does animal-friendly husbandry work?

“A picture of a cow, so to speak, happy would be if it were grooming its fur together with a fellow cow,” says biologist Sabine Dippel from the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health. This joint grooming reduces the cows' heart rate and makes them relaxed. “Cows need other cows,” says Dippel, “they also need the opportunity to exchange ideas with others.” Just a few weeks after birth, the calves start looking for company.

The cows could express their normal behavior in the freestall. In a tethered stable, on the other hand, they sometimes have to spend their entire lives standing and lying next to a fellow animal that they simply don't like. And if they were held for longer without moving, they developed behavioral problems - for example, they stuck out their tongue and rolled it: "This is a sign of stress," says Dippel.

Cultural landscape and combination farming

According to the dairy industry association, there are around 51,000 dairy farms in Germany - almost half of them in Bavaria. According to the Bavarian Farmers' Association, almost 10,000 farms in the Free State keep their cows tied up in the stable all year round.

The issue is primarily a southern German problem, says Markus Fadl from the “Naturland” association for organic farming. Small farms in the middle of the village often have no space for a playpen. If they were to convert, they would have to reduce the number of animals and then ask themselves whether it was still economically viable. Such small businesses make up a significant proportion of dairy farms in the Alpine region: “They are very influential for the entire region, for agriculture and the cultural landscape. If they no longer exist, then at some point the open pastures will no longer exist,” says Fadl.

Combined farming is a compromise solution: the cows can continue to be tied up in the stable, but must be allowed to run around for at least 90 days. If the farm is in a densely populated area with a lot of traffic, it will be difficult to get the cows to run, says Ernest Schäffer from the Bavarian State Board of Trustees of the Producers' Rings for Animal Processing (LKV). But combination farming is the future, and year-round tethering is “a discontinued model”.

Changing costs

The Allgäu farmer Thomas Kögel keeps 90 cattle, including 35 dairy cows in a tethered stable. Two years ago he built a playpen for his young animals, which cost him around 80,000 euros. The changeover for adult animals is more difficult; it could cost him up to a million euros: "Realistically speaking, that cannot be achieved within one generation," says Kögel.

LKV managing director Schäffer calculates as follows: "If the construction costs for a dairy cow stable used to be 10,000 or 12,000 euros per cow in a stable, today they are 14,000 to 20,000 euros in order to ensure animal welfare and work processes." For larger farms with 70 cows or more, the effort could still be affordable, but not for smaller farms. "Naturland" spokesman Fadl also says: "For small businesses, investing in a playpen wouldn't be worthwhile, then they close down because it's not worth it."

Kögel inherited the farm from his father. "Basically, this is my dream, my life. I don't know anything else," he says. The whole family helps out on the farm; his brother is an insemination technician. "I'm now in the fortunate position of having two children aged twelve and ten who are already fully involved and want to lead this life," he says proudly. But the general conditions for agriculture are putting a huge strain on him: "At the moment I'm on the fence about whether I should continue at all or not at all."

Federal Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens) told the German Press Agency: "I want a compromise that harmonizes the interests of our agriculture with those of nature and animal protection." But agriculture must take part. "Anyone who acts as if there is no pressure ignores the fact that retailers are increasingly implementing consumers' wishes for more animal protection."

Whether consumers want to pay the price for this is another matter. According to a recent Deloitte survey, less than half of Germans still buy sustainable organic and eco-friendly products. The main reason cited is the sharp increase in the cost of living.