Happy Cow? The Murky Science Of Measuring Bovine Happiness

That's one happy cow
That's one happy cow
Kerstin Viering

HAMBURG — It’s good to have a clear conscience about breakfast, so when the yogurt container or milk bottle pictures happy animals, it’s reassuring. Consumers frequently imagine happy cows in lush pastures and roomy stalls where everything is good. But that’s only part of the truth.

To meet organic and animal rights standards, farmers are required to have experts verify that they meet certain standards, but they don’t include a measure of the animal’s happiness. “The examiners only look at the stalls, not the stall residents,” explains Jan Brinkmann, from the Thünen Institute for Organic Agriculture.

And that’s precisely what Brinkmann and his colleagues would like to change. They are working with consumer economic researchers at the Thünen Institute to create new animal welfare criteria for milk production. “The organic associations in Germany have a major interest in it,” says Angela Bergschmidt, one of these experts. But the knowledge should fit in with guidelines for several monetary awards from the EU that are meant to encourage good conditions for the animals.

Some German regions, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, offer monetary awards for farmers whose cows are allowed into pasture every day between June 1 and Oct. 1. Constructing “particularly humane” stalls can also lead to additional subsidies. These “extra humane” stalls must provide each cow with at least five square meters of room, and include an area for the cow to lie down and a place for eating. “These are not particularly strict requirements,” Bergschmidt says.

Researching milk cow illnesses

Organic cows already enjoy more comfort than average, but even the best guidelines for stall size and pasture access don’t guarantee a happy herd. Even the most comfortable cows can suffer from mastitis or other illnesses. And then happy cow time is over.

These health problems are by no means unusual. In Germany, between 30% and 50% of all cows suffer from mastitis at least once a year. Around the same number become crippled. And around 30% get ketosis, a metabolic disorder that causes energy loss. “Affected animals feel something like we do when we have a hangover,” says Brinkmann. Organic cows have these problems about as often as conventional cows, although they need less medication to become healthy again.

“We know much more about these so-called production illnesses than we did a couple years ago,” Brinkmann says. And many producers have improved both herd management and the stalls.

Improvements don’t seem to make healthier cows

It’s obvious, for example, that the lie boxes need to be soft. Otherwise, settling down, standing up and even the act of lying in the stall are torturous for the animals. Cows’ joints support 650 to 700 kilos, and if the cows don’t have a proper place to rest, their joints can swell to the size of a soccer ball and then become severely damaged. The animals often refuse to lie down on an uncomfortable spot.

But neither is too much standing good for the cows, because it is equally hard on their joints and hooves. Many conventional farms have plastic mattresses in the lie boxes that the cows can comfortably lie on. Organic farms are supposed to have straw padding for the same reasons.

“Despite all of these improvements in the animals’ conditions, the herds have not been getting healthier,” says Brinkmann. He explains that because modern cow breeds have been bred for ever-increasing production, they are that much more demanding. As soon as the smallest condition is imperfect, health problems arise.

Brinkmann compares the ideal life of a high-production cow to a Sunday brunch: Everyone spends most of the time comfortably sitting down, feeling good and full. But since everything tastes so good, they get up from time to time to get some more food. “It’s relatively challenging to organize a perfect cow-brunch every day,” Brinkmann says. “Something is bound to go wrong.”

Measuring well-being

Even more interesting are the indicators that can tell the farmers their weak spots in their animal care. Perhaps herd health could be markedly improved through different food or better hygiene, improved hoof care or other management techniques. “We can also give farmers awards when the indicators show particularly happy and healthy animals,” Bergschmidt says.

The question is, what should be measured? Scientists have established a massive catalog of indicators for animal well-being and health. As part of the enormous EU project “Welfare Quality,” that knowledge has been transferred into handbooks for keeping cows, pigs and poultry. The criteria established in those handbooks is considered the gold standard in humane animal husbandry.

“By the time you’ve checked all the indicators, you have easily spent eight hours on the farm,” says Angela Bergschmidt. No organic association can afford to spend that kind of time, and it’s also too much for any government-sponsored incentive program. Bergschmidt and her colleagues are now trying to create a smaller, condensed catalog of criteria, which will be more practical for both farmers and inspectors.

A practical catalog of cow happiness

The new system of measuring bovine happiness will involve collecting information that is already recorded on farms, such as monthly milk output. This will allow farmers to assess and control each one of their cows. In addition to the amount, the quality of the milk will also be assessed.

Some of these indicators say quite a lot about animal well-being. For example, if the milk is found to have a high number of cells from the udder, that is a a sign of undiagnosed mastitis.

In addition to milk-quality data, researchers have established other criteria for happy animals. They include the percentage of the herd that suffers from joint problems or have to be treated for mastitis. They are currently testing the new criteria and guidelines on 150 farms.

Whether the inspectors will be able to take all of their measurements in less than four hours, and how the farmers will handle these assessments are questions that will be answered over the course of the winter.

After all, it’s not so easy to recognize happy cows.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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