Island full of dairy cows haunted by earthquakes

Three balck and white cows leave a blue trailer like facility where they were milked, animal news
Cows leave from a mechanical milking facility, Sao Jorge Island, Azores, Portugal, March 28, 2022, photo: Reuters/Pedro Nunes

Thousands of small earthquakes have hit the volcanic island of Sao Jorge, where many cows live, in recent days. The island is part of Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores islands.

Dairy farmers fear for the well-being of their animals and their income; grazing cows can be spotted all over the island, where milk production is the primary source of income for many families.

Since March 19, more than 14,000 earthquakes have hit the island. There are fears the earthquakes, which have reached a magnitude of up to 3.3, could indicate a volcanic eruption or a powerful earthquake is coming.

The Azores Volcano Observatory (CIVISA) raised the island’s volcanic alert last week to level 4 on a scale of 5, meaning there is a real possibility the volcano could erupt.

“There are earthquakes, but we have to leave [our homes] every day. We can’t abandon the animals, or they will starve,” farmer Rui Bettencourt, who has around 200 dairy cows, told news agency Reuters. “There is talk of eruptions. Of course, if there is an eruption, it will have a very big impact due to the ashes.”

“If it’s just the seismic crisis, if there are no landslides, I think we have to go on with normal life and try to overcome it and start living with it. We live on volcanic islands, and we know that this can happen at any time,” he added.

“(I’m a) little scared. We never know what can happen, but I’m not going to turn my back on what I have here and walk off the island. I’ll just watch the news, but I won’t give up,” dairy farmer Antonia Jorge said.

Nearby at a cheese production factory, president Antonio Aguiar said farmers would be the last to leave the island if there’s an eruption.

“The farmers’ main concern has to do more with their animals. Everyone knows that if things get worse, the last ones to leave are the producers, the animal owners. They continue to work because this is where they make their income. This is why they come every day to bring their [cow] milk,” Aguiar said.

Aguiar added that farmers have seen their cows behaving strangely these days, showing signs of restlessness as the tremors continue: “They are more sensitive than us humans, so it’s normal.”

Authorities said 1,500 of the 8,400 inhabitants had already left the island out of fear. Azores’ government said it would move cows to safe areas if needed.

On Monday, Azores’ agriculture secretary said the government would financially support farmers struggling to sell milk.

Dairy industry
Dairy cows are bred to produce large quantities of milk. Every year, a dairy cow has to give birth to a baby so that she can produce milk for ten months of the year. Her milk is used to make cheese, butter and other products for human consumption.

They are usually artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth, so they can ‘produce’ a baby every year. Like humans, cows carry their babies for nine months, but usually, their babies are taken away immediately after birth. A dairy cow will never spend time with any baby she gives birth to.

That human milk is intended for human babies is a given in our world; even cat and dog milk is intended for their puppies or kittens. But people seem to disagree on whether cow milk is intended for cow babies.

There are over 270 million dairy cows, according to animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming. The European Union is the largest milk producer and has about 23 million dairy cows.

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