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No bonuses for horned cows, decide Swiss voters

After 54.7% of voters said ‘No’, the Swiss constitution will not grant subsidies for livestock with horns.

The proposal was one of the more unlikely issues in recent years to be put to a nationwide vote.  In order to pass, it would have required a majority of yes-votes among people as well as a majority of cantons. Six cantons approved the initiative, while 20 rejected it.

Despite the postcard and advertising images suggesting otherwise, about three quarters of cows and a third of goats are hornless in Switzerland, either because of their breed or a painful procedure to de-bud young animals as their horns start to grow. Many farmers don’t want horns because of the risk of injury and the fact that horned animals require more space, and hence larger barns.

If voters had accepted the initiative, it would have been up to lawmakers to decide how much to pay farmers with horned animals, and how to finance the subsidies.

“It was an initiative for cows and goats. By voting ‘No’, the people de-horned Switzerland’s national animal. They’ll have to explain that to the whole world,” said mountain farmer Armin Capaul after rejection was clear.

Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann noted that it was more practical for farmers to keep hornless animals. “By saying no, the citizens have expressed their confidence in today’s agricultural policy,” he said at a media conference after the final results were in.

However, Schneider-Ammann pointed out that the result was not a rejection of horn-bearing cows and goats, and he praised Capaul for launching a popular discussion of the issue.

“Armin Capaul has shown that in our country, a person can practically launch an initiative singlehandedly and bring it to a vote. Hats off to him!”

How it came about

With determination reminiscent of bovine stubbornness, Capaul initiated the vote on whether farmers who allow their cattle to grow horns should get a financial boost. He argued that in addition to being painful, the de-horning procedure affects everything from milk quality to body temperature regulation to communication within the herd.

In March 2016, Capaul presented a remarkable 120,000 petition signatures –supported by animal protection groups, environmentalists, adherents of anthroposophy as well as esoteric organisations – to the federal authorities.

For a popular initiative to be put to a national vote, Swiss law requires 100,000 signatures to be collected within 18 months.

Originally from canton Graubünden in eastern Switzerland, Capaul now lives in the Bernese Jura – about an hour’s drive north-east of the Swiss capital. He invested over CHF55,000 ($55,030) of his own money on his quest to bring the issue to a vote. His “Hornkuh” website explains his motivation in five languages.

The initiative also applied to goats. “It’s even worse for goats to be de-horned – they have such thin scalps that it’s very painful,” said Capaul, who finds it kinder to breed hornless animals rather than remove the horns.

What a ‘yes’ would have meant

According to pollsters, most supporters of the initiative came from grassroots factions within the centre-left Green Party and the conservative right People’s Party who agreed with animal welfare arguments. The Swiss Farmers’ Association issued no formal vote recommendation to its members.

In addition to concerns about the risk of horn-induced injuries, critics pointed out that horned cows are more likely to be tied to assigned mangers rather than moving around free-stall barns untethered. Indeed, Capaul’s animals have assigned stalls and little freedom of movement in winter. “In a free-stall barn they’d always be jostling for position. That would be stressful for them,” insisted Capaul when SWI visited in February 2016, noting that they spend most of the summer outdoors.

The Swiss government – which had recommended that voters reject the initiative – estimated that it could have cost anywhere from CHF10-30 million ($10-30 million) per year. It argued that farmers should be able to decide how to run their farms without being influenced by a financial incentive.

Supporters countered that farmers still would have been free to run their farms as they saw fit, since the initiative would not have resulted in a ban on dehorning animals. They had suggested taking the funds from the existing agricultural subsidy pool. In 2017, federal coffers paid out CHF2.8 billion in direct subsidies to around 45,000 farms.

Next steps for cow horns

Capaul says that his “Hornkuh” interest group is now considering its next move.

“I’m not sad. I did my part and I think the discussion will continue,” Capaul told Swiss public television, SRF, on Sunday evening. “We got more than a million yesses – that’s something!”

Results vote November 25, 2018

Cow horn initiative
45.3% yes      54.7% no

‘Swiss law first’ initiative
33.8% yes      66.2% no

Social welfare detectives
64.7% yes      35.3% no

Turnout: 47.7%