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In the world of animal agriculture, the dairy industry is often considered the lesser of all evils. We are pretty much trained to associate dairy production with happiness. Cow cartoons on yogurt cups are always smiling, California diary cows have their own commercials where they literally sing and dance with joy. Why wouldn’t have any reason to believe that the life of a dairy cow is anything but fabulous and borderline euphoric?

While we wish that life for dairy cows was truly this way, the reality is much, much bleaker. In the U.S. alone, dairy farms produce about 196 billion gallons of milk a year. To reach these high yields, the dairy industry has transformed into an industrial operation where cows are kept in small, confined areas, continuously impregnated and milked. Today’s factory-farm raised dairy cow produces around 100 gallons of milk a day – that is nearly 10 times more than the average cow would naturally. All these factors combine would hardly make for the elated cows we see on billboards.

One part of the dairy equation that often gets forgotten is what happens to the calf. In order for a female cow to produce milk, she has to have recently given birth. In nature, the milk produced by the mother would go to feed her baby, but in the dairy industry this milk is diverted to humans and the baby seems to disappear from the equation. To give you an idea of how the dairy industry has fundamentally altered the natural life cycle of a cow, let’s look into the life of a dairy calf.

Birth

The average lifespan of a dairy cow is five years. During those five years of life, the cow is impregnated every year with only a few short months rest in between. The gestation period for cows is nine months, like with humans. The bond between a mother and calf can be forged as quickly as five minutes after birth. When a dairy calf is born, they stay with their mother for a few hours, then they are taken away. A calf who is not born into the animal agriculture industry will stay with their mother and nurse for up to a year.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

After birth, the life of a dairy calf can go one of two ways, largely depended on the gender of the baby. If the calf is a male, he will be placed in a veal crate where he is tied at the neck and restrained to prohibit all movement. Because male cows will not grow up to produce milk, they are considered “waste” to a dairy farmer and usually sold to produce veal.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

The calf will live in the crate for up to 20 weeks, fed only a milk substitute that does not contain iron or fiber. This diet makes the calves anemic, which results in the pale, flesh coloring of veal cuts. Calves are only taken out of their crates when it is time to transport them to slaughter. Most cannot walk or support their own weight because their muscles are so underdeveloped. Around one million male calves meet this fate each year.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

A female calf will be raised to become a dairy cow, just like her mother. But first, she has her tail docked, or cut short, at around six weeks of age, often without any pain medication. This can cause permanent nerve damage which will lead to chronic pain for the cow. At around six months old, the calf will be “de-budded” a process that involves burning out the bone that will grow into horns. Since cows are kept in such close quarters, horns can be dangerous!

Adolescence 

A dairy cow will have her first calf when she is about two years old. After she gives birth, she will experience the pain of having her first child taken away from her. A few hours after this, she will be put on a milking machine. She will produce milk for about 10 months after giving birth, but after three weeks time, she will be “ready” to conceive another child.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

The average industrial dairy farm will house around 700 cows, all indoors in a milking parlor. Most cows spend their entire lives inside on hard concrete floors, milked three times a day.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

In order to ensure the cows produce the most milk possible, they are often given growth hormones in their feed. The overproduction of milk often leads to mastitis which is painful inflammation of the udder. It is estimated that 30-50 percent of dairy cows suffer from this ailment. On organic farms, cows are not given antibiotics to treat the infection.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

In her first year as a milk producing cow, it is expected that this young calf will produce 20,000 pounds of milk. The intense metabolic drain that producing this volume of milk everyday is extremely draining on the cows immune system which makes her more susceptible to disease. The experience of standing on a hard concrete floor and constantly being weighed down with milk, or a baby, leaves many cows lame. It is estimated that 75 percent of “downer” (unhealthy, immobile) cows come from the dairy industry.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

An adolescent cow who is not raised on an industrial farm will be allowed to graze in pasture and eat grass, rather than grain feed pumped with hormones and antibiotics. Cows are highly social animals, so it is likely that this young calf would spend her days in the company of her friends – cows, like humans have best friends. It is unlikely that this cow will develop mastitis or foot problems, pending extraneous circumstances.

Adulthood

Most cows in the dairy industry are sent to slaughter by the age of five years old, either because their milk production has slowed down or because they are too ill to be productive. Around 40 percent of cows will be lame by the time they reach slaughter. These cows are typically used to make low-grade beef, pet food, or soup.

How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows

 

The natural lifespan of a cow can reach up to 25 years old. These cows can grow to weight up to 2,300 pounds, much larger than their factory farm counterparts who only reach about 900 pounds. During their life, cows will produce milk for around eight or nine years of their life – depending on how many calves that rear. The calves of these cows feed three times a day and there is no threat that the mother cow will “explode” or be made overly uncomfortable if a human does not intervene for milking.

The Makings of a Real Happy Cow

When put side-by-side, the definition of what makes for a truly happy cow is readily apparent. Cows are sentient, intelligent and emotional beings that experience pain and fear in life in a similar manner to humans. The life of a calf in the dairy industry is vastly different from that of a cow who is allowed to experience life as nature intended. We have genetically manipulated and manufactured the life of a dairy cow for our own gains and when you look at the sad product, it seems this industry is hardly free from the cruelty associated with meat production.

Lucky for us, there is no reason that we can’t remove our own contribution to this cruelty. Although the dairy industry tells you that humans need cows milk for calcium, this is hardly the case. Check out these awesome non-dairy sources of calcium. And remember, the people who’ve fabricated the myth that milk equals strong bones, also told you dairy cows were happy…

All image source: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals



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88 comments on “How the Dairy Industry Has Unnaturally Altered the Life of Cows”

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Jules
1 Years Ago

I drink soya milk and think it tastes lovely. I have never visited a dairy farm nor have any wish to, neither do I wish to vilify others for their choices. I am happy with my own choice to eat only a plant based diet.


Reply
Jessica
1 Years Ago

We have a family run dairy farm and I am very insulted by the inaccuracy of this article. We respect our cows and treat them with dignity. Go visit a real farm and get your facts right.


Reply
Sach
1 Years Ago

I\'m not sure about which dairy farm this is referring to, but it could not be further from the truth on the dairy farms I have been a part of! Yes the calf is taken off it\'s mother. Most young animals are weaned from their parents at some point and taken away permanently. While this is done at a young age, I am yet to see proper statistics and scientific evidence to suggest the cow \'feels\' any of the human emotions given to it in this article. The colostrum produced by the cow in the first three days, which is vital for calves, is put in separate milking vat and fed to them. They are kept together in herds and put out in paddocks when they are old enough to leave the barn. Feet are trimmed when they need to be to avoid lameness! Infections in udders (mastitis) are able to treated a number of ways, EVEN HUMANS GET mastitis, it is just one of those things which can occur from producing milk. In New Zealand, farmers can be penalised if their cell count gets too high, as mastitis increases the cell count in the milk, this has to be treated immediately. While not every dairy farm is responsible, this article is just out right unbelievable and untrue. They do their job...just like I go to work to do mine every day. There are systems in place to stop mistreatment. The Waikato economy dropped an estimated $1.8 billion when the payout (amount farmers get paid for their milk) dropped. Imagine what it would take out if it was gone all together?


Reply
Matt
30 Jan 2015

I\'ve often seen dogs get happy, sad, scared, anxious, excited.... the same for cats, and many other animals.
Cows get hungry, tired, they feel pain if your prick them, they can hear, taste and see. If they share all of these things with humans then why would they not also share emotions.
Just because they may lack the ability to portray these emotions the way you \'expect\' them to does not mean they aren\'t there.

Brien
1 Years Ago

Not one person here has ever visited a working dairy farm, much less worked at one. The author uses half truths and out right lies... Thats what is truly discussing...


Reply
Tonia
10 Dec 2014

I have. I grew up on a small family farm and have seen both small dairy farms and large, corporate ones. Which lies are you speaking of because from my 1st hand experience, this is the truth.

Mariusz
1 Years Ago

Please sign and spread my petition: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/603/762/170/to-his-holiness-pope-francis-please-speak-for-christian-mercy-toward-animals/


Reply
Art Van Beek
1 Years Ago

As a owner of a family owned and operated dairy I feel compelled to comment. this report or story is factually incorrect on all counts. If you don\'t believe me please check with your local Ag Commissioner. We are not the enemy, we produce a high quality product at a fair price that is needed to conduct society in an orderly fashion. If your chose not to use dairy in your diet I respect that and in no way will criticize you for who you are and what you do.

This great country of ours has an abundance of food because of what we do, and as long as your eating we will be around too make sure you have the best of everything.

Thanks for reading.


Reply
Brien
09 Dec 2014

Wow... someone who knows what they are talking about....

Janet
05 Mar 2015

I really don\'t think the author is referring to small dairy farms. I think any educated person knows that we need more small farms to come back simply b/c they are more responsible and are not trying to manage too many animals with very little oversight. I can see that they are referring to the giant operations. I\'ve worked in the veterinary field, large animal as well, and they mean the big corporate ones.

Why would they need a law to criminalize undercover activists showing abuse only, unless it\'s to cover the corporate interests and bottom lines? We all should know by know that\'s how our country runs, it doesn\'t do much for the masses. Just study history, it repeats itself b/c most people don\'t think long term or just don\'t care, esp in politics. Probably both.

janet
05 Mar 2015

I also don\'t think milk is as healthy as it used to be and there are still plenty of cases where people get sick from it and no matter what they say, if handled properly, raw milk is just as safe. I wish I could get some raw milk simply b/c my digestion is poor and I\'m vitamin deficient and I\'ve read that raw milk can help with digestive issues. I think that the skim milk out there these days is basically water with supplements added to it and it only resembles milk, sort of, in and use.

Dennis Linsmeyer
1 Years Ago

How many people reading and commenting on this have ever worked as a farmer or better yet even been on a farm to see these things for themselves


Reply
Dennis Linsmeyer
1 Years Ago

Better do a recheck on this article because first you said that a cow produces 100 gallons a day , wish when I was a farmer that was my cow because that is 860 lbs per day lol i was happy at 80 lbs per cow.


Reply
Devin
15 Dec 2014

I was just about to comment the same thing about the gallons. Good thing I checked, I knew somebody else had to catch that. I think the top end cows these days produce about 100 lbs. of milk per day and the average is lower. 100 lbs is about 12.5 gallons. This person\'s credibility (which started really low) just went out the window with one majorly false number. And the rest of the article goes downhill from there.

Janet Zabrowski
05 Mar 2015

My math came out different 20,000lbs a yr so 20,000lb/8.6lb(a conversion factor for lbs in a gal of skim milk=2,000/yr=/365days/yr=6.37gal/day. That below what you were getting. So their production is lower.

janet
05 Mar 2015

EDIT ABOVE: I rounded to 10 as the conversion factor b/c whole milk can weigh over 10lbs/gal supposedly. I could be so wrong here b/c I am not doing it out on paper but in my head. 20,000lbs a year /365 days=about 55lbs a day. Read the reference under the photo, first year 20,000lbs.

P.t. Ragland
1 Years Ago

Stop eating misery. Stop eating dairy.


Reply
Nazinadia Rastegari
1 Years Ago


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