Welcome Green Monsters! We're your online guide to making conscious choices that help people, animals and the planet.
Download food monster: the biggest, baddest, yummiest vegan food app!
Buy the #EatForThePlanet book



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.


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!


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.


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

Want to read more posts like this? Sign up for our newsletter below!​

Browse through some recent posts below:

Why Feeding White Bread to Wild Birds is Killing Them

Feeding White Bread to Wild Birds is Killing Them

Why We Need to Teach Kids That Exotic Animals Are Not Pets or Toys

Why Its Important to Teach Kids That Exotic Animals Are Not Pets or Toys

14 Signs You Are Obsessed With Your Dog (In a Good Way!)

15 Signs You are Obsessed With Your Pooch (in a good way!)

Happy Dolphins? We Can’t Really Know: Statement on Study of Captive Dolphin Welfare

Disclosure: One Green Planet accepts advertising, sponsorship, affiliate links and other forms of compensation, which may or may not influence the advertising content, topics or articles written on this site. Click here for more information.

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

Click to add comment
Duncan McFarlane
4 Months Ago

The article is mostly accurate but there is one error - it says dairy cows produce 100 gallons of milk average. The link this is based on says 100 pounds of milk, which would be a bit under 50 kilograms or 50 litres. From other sources that seems more accurate. It\'s still a massive strain on the cows, especially as they are inseminated less than a year after each birth to keep them lactating. This, keeping them indoors too long, often tied by the neck to stanchions and unable to move, or in "tie stalls", plus poor diet (solid feed rather than being allowed to graze) results in average lifespan being 3 to 5 years before they are so ill they\'re slaughtered. Natural lifespan if allowed to graze outdoors freely and not continually artificially inseminated and pregnant would be 20 years.

1 Years Ago

The auther is totaly off the mark with every implied fact that this article states. It would be well worth the time for people of all view points who are not familiar with todays production agriculture to make a point to visit at least a few differing modern production methods before writing an article that spreads misinformation. And while doing so having a in depth dialogue with the farmer in hopes that both can learn from each other and then writing an honest article about the experiences of all parties involved.

27 Feb 2017

A fact taken from FAO.org "But dairy calves are separated from the cow soon after being born. This practice allows most of the milk to be collected and sold, rather than being consumed by the calf."

The life of cattle all cattle is unforgivingly brutal! The Torah (Old Testament) states a new born animal should be left with its mother for 7 days. This and many of the 13+ commandments regarding animal welfare are casually violated across the animal industrial complex. This can only lead to disease...is it any wonder we are so obese and sick?

28 Feb 2017

Off the mark with EVERY implied fact??? Are you saying none of this happens??? Rather than ask people to go visit different dairy production sites, which you know isn\'t going to happen, please just tell us how it really works...

Ron Phillips
1 Years Ago

Hmmmm 100 gals a day. Milk weights about 8 pounds to the gallon, that was 800 pounds a day, Wish my cows gave that much, I\'d been a millionaire. Talk about dumb writers. Totally clueless about the real world.

1 Years Ago

I am fine with anyone who disagrees with production agriculture and I welcome a healthy debate over any issue, but please, please, please get your facts straight and educate yourself on the benefits and the downside to any production agriculture.

"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" THIS STATEMENT IS ABSOLUTELY FALSE............................

Please see later in the article that where is states that the average cow only weight 900 lbs (which is false also). A gallon of milk weighs approximately 8 lbs. So, 100 gallons produced every day X 8 lbs per gallon = 800 lbs. So this article is trying to say that a cow is milked down to weigh only 100 lbs every day and then produce an additional 100 gallons of milk the next day.

I often wonder where people get there information from. I think that there is an argument against some practices in modern agriculture, but do not just write about things that you really have no clue on please. Educate yourself before you form an opinion.

I would challenge this author to visit a large dairy farm and talk to the farmers themselves in order to understand the actual ins and outs of the dairy business. Trust me, these cows are very well taken care of.

1 Years Ago

most of what is written here is laughable. hope anyone with any sense do not believe half of what is in this crap.

Denni A
1 Years Ago

stopped drinking milk over 10 yrs ago. use unsweetened SoyMilk for everything, coffee, smoothies, cooking..etc and buy SoyMilk yogurt. cannot fathom drinking a cup of animal suffering.

1 Years Ago

The cow is not immediately put into milking once the calf is born, They have a very special milk called colostrum, this is given to the calf for the first day or two after birth. If farmers were actually paid a fair price then we wouldn\'t have to have these supersized dairies because it\'s the only way people can survive doing this business. I guess you would rather your milk come from China? Its said that milk is price controlled.

Robert W Gardner
1 Years Ago

I.m from a dairy farm. Male calves are rarely sent to veveal calves, Almost all are raised to maturity for beef. Veal calves are no longer allowed to be raised in small hutches, they are to be group penned by recent law. I know of no dairy farmer who uses growth hormone. Most companies who buy milk won\'t accept it becasue of public backlash from when it first came out. Lameness is an issue for dairy cows because of the floors. However, farmers regulalry trim hooves to prevent lameness and the associated loss of milkproduction.

Edward Vahlin
27 Feb 2017

You might be from a dairy farm but obviously you are ill informed. Stop spreading bs.

1 Years Ago

This inhumane way of treating cows must be stopped.

Gregory Wright
1 Years Ago

I am not sure where you got your facts from but you are wrong. My parents used run dairy farms and they were the most caring people and looked after the cows like humans. The paddocks were large and always had plenty of grass to eat and water to drink.

So please do not lump all farmers into the same basket as a few rotten eggs as you have seem to have done. I am very insulted that you would include all farmers in your little survey. Next time do your homework and research properly.

Edward Vahlin
27 Feb 2017

If they looked after the cows like humans they would not run a dairy farm. Period.

Dr RN Iyengar
01 Mar 2017

Well, ma\'m, if your parents looked after the cows like humans, how come they slaughter them after 4 or 5 years? You wouldn\'t do that to a human being, would you?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow us on

Do Not Show This Again


Submit to OneGreenPlanet

Terms & Conditions ×