Dairy products are among the most frequently consumed animal products worldwide and with such high production levels, this has devastating consequences for the cows producing the milk.
Milk production is inhumane
Dairy cows, who are intelligent, affectionate and inquisitive animals have short lives in which they endure stress and conditions that many consider inhumane. Like all mammals, they must be pregnant in order to produce milk. Dairy cows are kept in a cycle of near-constant pregnancy and lactation through forced insemination, which causes huge physical and psychological stress to the cows. This combined with daily milking, which is thought to be the energetic equivalent of running a marathon every day, means that she will be deemed 'spent' (i.e. will stop producing milk and therefore have no economic value) by the time she is five or six. She will be sent to slaughter and sold as cheap meat. Cows would live into their 20s if left to live a natural life.
On today’s industrial dairy farms, cows are bred specifically to maximise milk production. As a result of this breeding, the average milk yield per cow has risen dramatically over the years. Calves naturally require about eight litres of milk per day for healthy growth. In contrast, modern breeds of dairy cows on industrial farms produce up to 50 litres per day, and as much as 12,000 litres of milk per year.
Not our mums, not our milk
Their young are often an unwanted by-product of the industry and are taken away from their mothers before they can consume the milk that was made for them. The bond between a mother and calf is very strong and so separation causes unimaginable distress for both mother and baby and they will call for each other repeatedly, sometimes for weeks. The female calves may be reared in isolation in small pens for the first eight weeks of their lives and grow up to suffer the same fate as their mothers; the males may be reared for veal or beef but many are shot at birth because they are considered a waste product of the industry. Between 10 and 20 per cent of cows are pregnant when they are slaughtered and will be stunned beforehand. The stunning only affects the mother, however, and the calf has to endure the ordeal conscious and then be killed afterwards by farm workers.
Intensive farming means lower standards
Far from living a lovely life grazing out in the meadows as we are led to believe, dairy cows around the world are increasingly intensively farmed. The majority of dairy cows in the US and around 20 per cent of those in the UK are kept in zero-grazing facilities, which is exactly what it sounds like. In many commercial dairy farms, cows live in cramped stalls, tied in place with a chain or a rope. These conditions are so restrictive that, for much of their lives, cows in tie stalls are unable to walk, turn around, groom, look to the side, or interact with other herd members in a natural way.
Many cows are kept in barns and yards and denied access to pasture for most – or all – of their lives. The hard floors can lead to sores, wounds and painful lameness. Many cows are emaciated while others have huge udders that make walking difficult. Kept in these conditions, cows often develop repeated infections and inflammation in their udders. This means that in addition to the powerful growth hormones found in dairy designed for calves, it also contains pus. A lot of pus. It’s thought that one litre of milk can contain anything up to 400 million pus cells.
Read more in Animal Australia’s What’s wrong with dairy?