Voters may get to weigh in on ag animal issues

The Colorado Statesman

Animal rights activists who want voters to ban certain livestock procedures may have to contend with a bill at the state capitol that could rein in some of their tactics.

Ballot measures to ban or limit the practice of tail docking for dairy cattle were filed last week. At the same time, Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who led the fight to defeat a 2013 bill on the same issue, said he will run a bill this session to require those who film alleged animal abuse to turn over those videos to law enforcement immediately. He has not yet filed the bill, but confirmed this week he still intends to run it.

Sonnenberg’s bill could change how law enforcement deals with animal rights activists. According to the Greeley Tribune, in November, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office charged an animal rights activist with animal abuse after her group released videotapes of alleged abuse. The videographer, Taylor Radig, worked undercover at a Kersey-area cattle farm and taped the alleged abuse over a four-month period. Charges were dropped against Radig on Jan. 7 by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who said he believed he could not prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sonnenberg has filed several bills this year that he told The Colorado Statesman would mitigate some of the damage done in the 2013 session. In addition to the animal videotaping bill, he has already run a bill to ban new dollars that originate from oil and gas severance taxes for municipalities that vote to ban fracking. That bill died Wednesday in the House Local Government Committee.

Then there’s the effort to ban or limit tail docking, which has moved from the state capitol to the possibility of the ballot box. Tail docking is the practice of partially amputating a dairy cow’s tail, usually just above the “switch” or hair. Supporters claim docking the tail promotes better hygiene because it keeps manure out of the milking operation, and prevents injury to other cows and to farm workers. Opponents claim cows can’t swat flies if the tail is amputated, and that the practice is inhumane and doesn’t improve milk quality.

Last year, Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, carried House Bill 13-1231, which would have required that tail docking be prohibited unless conducted under anesthesia by a veterinarian.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and its state affiliate, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, oppose tail docking. The National Milk Producers Association has recommended that the practice end by 2022. According to witness testimony last year, only a handful of dairy producers in Colorado still dock tails. Only one admitted to it during the March 2013 hearing: Norm Dinis of Empire Farms in Wiggins, who has 5,500 cattle and 70 full-time employees. Empire is the largest milk producer in the state with the highest quality milk in the state, and Empire is a major milk supplier to Leprino Foods in Greeley. According to Dinis and other witnesses, animal rights activists had been to his farm and videotaped his cattle.

Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of Colorado Farm Bureau, testified at the time that his organization opposes putting on-farm husbandry practices into statute. Putting these practices into law doesn’t improve animal welfare and could hinder innovation. In addition, it could portray Colorado as unfriendly to the dairy business, he said.

HB 1231 was sent to the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee rather than the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, where it would have faced certain defeat. The committee passed the bill on a party-line 6-5 vote, but it went no further. Lebsock and co-sponsor House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, acknowledged it did not have the votes to get out of the House and let it go.

Lebsock said last year that he tried to facilitate discussion on the issue between the animal rights groups and livestock industry. He also said that if his bill failed, the Humane Society of the United States would likely sponsor a ballot measure in 2014.

Lebsock said this week he does not plan to carry a bill on tail docking this session. He believes there is broad agreement that the practice should be phased out, citing the National Milk Producers Association recommendation. Where there’s disagreement is on the timeline, he explained: to do it now or wait until 2022.

Four ballot measures to force the issue were filed on Jan. 16 by rancher Mike Callicrate of Colorado Springs, a member of the HSUS’ Agriculture Council of Colorado and owner of Ranch Foods Direct. As of press time, HSUS plans to file new ballot initiatives due to technical changes in the wording, according to HSUS Colorado Director Jacquelyn Pyun. The ballot numbers below reflect the original filing.

Two of the ballot initiatives deal broadly with animal husbandry practices. Ballot initiative 62 says that in cases where alleged animal abuse has taken place, it is not an affirmative defense that the animal was treated in accordance with accepted animal husbandry practices. Ballot initiative 61 also deals with the affirmative defense issue, and removes “livestock” from a part of statute that deals with accepted animal husbandry practices.

Will Coggin at the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C. told The Statesman this week that both measures are overly broad. They could apply to “gestation stalls, hen cages or anything that HSUS decides to call animal abuse,” he said.

The other two measures deal directly with tail docking. Ballot initiative 59 incorporates the animal husbandry language from measure 62 and says that the practice is banned unless performed under general anesthesia and by a veterinarian, language similar to Lebsock’s 2013 bill. Violations are a class 2 misdemeanor, which carries jail time of 3 to 12 months and a fine of $250 to $1,000.

Ballot initiative 60 has the same language regarding the ban, but requires the 2015 General Assembly to come up with penalties for violations. It does not designate a violation as a criminal offense.

Both tail-docking initiatives raise some of the same problems cited in 2013 by opponents of Lebsock’s bill. HB 1231 included a $500 fine for violations, but the bill didn’t say whether it’s per cow or per dairy operation, or how the law would view docked cattle that come from other states. Violations in Lebsock’s bill were not designated as a criminal offense, leaving open the question of just who would enforce the law.

Callicrate is the creator of the Callicrate Bander, a device that is used for tail docking, among other purposes. He told The Statesman this week that his bander would be prohibited under the ballot measures he filed. It could be used for medical purposes, such as if the cow were injured, he said. “It was never designed with the intent of being used for routine docking. It’s a bloodless, humane and drug-free way to castrate,” he said.

“Why take off cows’ tails?” he asked. “You can always trim the tail so that it doesn’t collect manure, but to remove it is a way of addressing the symptom rather than the problem and isn’t in the best interest of the cow… to me it just facilitates an industrial model of agriculture that has been destructive to family farm agriculture.”

As to why the initiatives are necessary now, Callicrate said the practice could be ended tomorrow. “I can’t understand” why Colorado dairy producers would even protest if the practice is so little used. “For farm animals to be excluded from humane treatment laws is unfair and unacceptable.”.

The effort to get a ballot measure into the November election is costly, but Pyun notes that HSUS has done this successfully in other states.

“Our duty is to combat unnecessary suffering and we will do whatever it takes to push this effort in Colorado.”

Going to the ballot box is a last-ditch solution, according to Pyun. “We’re continuing to discuss options with Colorado’s agricultural community” and would love to reach a legislative agreement on the issue, she said. That included an appeal to Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar but that effort has not yet produced a solution.

If any of the initiatives make it onto the 2014 ballot, it would be the first time in more than 15 years that that Colorado voters have had to make decisions regarding agricultural practices. In 1998, Colorado voters approved a Phil Anschutz-supported amendment to impose stronger water quality, animal waste and odor emissions regulations on commercial hog operations.

In 2008, Colorado lawmakers banned gestation stalls for piglets to avoid a threatened ballot measure from HSUS. But the organization has been successful in getting voters to approve constitutional amendments in other states: gestation stalls were banned by Florida voters in 2002; in 2008, California voters banned gestation stalls for pigs and veal, and conventional cages for hens.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com