one green planet
one green planet

Factory farming, also referred to as “industrial livestock production” and “intensive animal farming,” has been a hot topic for animal advocates, as well as the general public in recent years. Largely with the help of open-source video sharing, many of us have directly witnessed the atrocities committed against farmed animals that routinely occurs in the industry.

Considering that 78 percent of cattle currently sold in the United States are raised in factory farms, it is worth investigating exactly what the lifecycle of the average cow in this industry looks like. After all, no fewer than 33 million of these gentle giants are forced into this system every single year in the U.S. alone.

As the name “live-stock” suggests, lives brought into the factory farming system are made into commodities, and it takes quite the process to convert a living being into a thing.


Within factory farming operations, calves are not seen as babies, individuals, or lives, but as stock, yield, and meat. They are produced and treated accordingly.

Cows are not permitted to reproduce naturally, but do so by way of an insemination “machine.” Female cows will be repeatedly impregnated until their reproductive capacities wane, at which point they will be sent to slaughter with everyone else.

While 97 percent of calves born to dairy cows are removed from their mothers within 24 hours of birth, calves born to beef cows will often remain with their mothers for a few months until she is deemed ready for another insemination. Afterall, the priority of the cow flesh industry is to produce as many cows as possible.

The Lifecycle of a Factory Farmed CowJo-Anne McArthur


Within the beef industry, once a mother cow births a calf the pair will typically stay out in pasture together for about six months. According to the ASPCA, cows are the only factory farmed animal who still spend some time outdoors, but this is not without its own sources of pain and misery.

At about two months old, male calves are branded with hot irons, castrated, and de-horned without painkillers. Some will also have their tails “docked” without painkillers because their tails can later become damaged in confinement. They live outdoors in all weather conditions with no medical care. Many are injured and die from infection and illness.

When taken from their mothers at about six months old, calves cry so intensely that their throats become raw. As if this amount of suffering within the first six months of life were not enough, it is here that their journey through the industrialized machine becomes even more intensely cruel.

The Lifecycle of a Factory Farmed CowJo-Anne McArthur


Once removed from their mothers, calves are either transported directly to feedlots or transported to “live auction” to be sold to the highest bidder. Imagine being dragged by a tether into the center of a loud arena and then quickly hauled off by strangers. Now imagine experiencing that as a child within days of being spontaneously and permanently separated from your mother.

Once sold, they are transported to feedlots, also called ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’ (CAFOs), where they will be rapidly fattened in order to quickly reach “market weight” in just six to 12 months. Because most of the cattle in the U.S. are shipped to feedlots in the midwest, calves must endure long trips across the country to feedlots without food or water. Electric prodding and loud yelling are the proven methods for forcing calves into transport trucks, frequently resulting in injury and always resulting in anxiety and fear.

While in the feedlot, they are confined in small pens with other cows, some of whom have died. Without space and without shelter, they stand in their own feces and urine, and often also in mud and ice.

Fed an unnatural diet, which includes everything from factory farmed fish to poultry litter to genetically modified corn and soybeans, these natural herbivorous grazers are intentionally fed what will fatten them up in the shortest period of time. Accelerated growth is also aided by sedentary confinement and growth hormones, which are still administered to cattle in the U.S. and Canada despite being outlawed by the European Union.

All of this leads to extensive illness, including painful digestive and metabolic disorders. According to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science, as many as 32 percent of cattle raised for beef develop potentially fatal liver abscesses. In addition, cows in feedlots are subject to the potent fumes that saturate the air, including ammonia and methane. These gases along with excessive dust and bacteria cause respiratory stress and disease.

The dire health consequences caused by unnatural feed, filthy living conditions, stress and confinement, and injections of hormones, require that antibiotics are regularly administered. According to the FDA, about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to farmed animals since “[w]ithout the drugs, this type of beef production would not be sustainable; the animals would all be dead before they ever made it to market weight.” Antibiotics are thus required to Support as many cows as possible to make it to market without dying of disease.

The Lifecycle of a Factory Farmed CowJo-Anne McArthur

Adulthood, a.k.a. Slaughter

Once cows raised for their flesh reach about 1,200 pounds, which is typically at about 18 months old, they are shipped to the slaughterhouse. It is worth noting that the natural lifespan on these cows is 15 to 20 years old. Those who avoid consuming veal or lamb because they have moral qualms about eating a baby usually don’t realize that all animals killed in today’s farming system are still babies. In the case of cows, they are killed at one-tenth of their natural lifespan, even though they’ve been fed to grow to more than full size in an unnaturally short period of time.

Before slaughter, cows endure the same transport hardships that they endured on the way to the feedlots. According to the FAO’s “Guidelines for Humane Handling, Transport and Slaughter of Livestock,” some of these include stress, trampling, suffocation, heart failure, heat stroke, poisoning, predation, dehydration, and injuries, only this time many have become unable to walk due to feedlot confinement. In Canada, which ranks among the worst in the industrialized world for transport standards, cows can legally be transported for up to 52 hours with no food, water or rest.

Those who arrive at the slaughterhouse alive are welcomed by being forced into a single file line through a chute. Some cows simply stop moving forward in the chute because they are scared and become aware of what is coming, but the chute is so narrow that they can’t turn around.

The chute leads to what is called a “knocking box,” the area where cows are struck through the forehead by a bolt gun. The purpose of this shot is to render them unconscious before they are hoisted up by one leg and sent along to the killing floor to have their throats slit.

But here’s the thing, the average beef slaughterhouse kills 250 cows per hour, and this mechanical procedure is rushed and imprecise. The result, which is repeatedly shown by undercover investigations, is that the bolting process still leaves many cows fully conscious throughout the entire process of hanging upside down, having their throats cut and being hacked into pieces, leading many to bleed and suffer to death, piece by piece.

These animals, in effect, must watch their own death and the deaths of their friends. They struggle on the way in as they sense the fear and hear the slaughter of their fellow species on their way out. In the face of how awful their lives have been, they still fight against death. As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has said, “[t]he slaughtering of an animal is a bloody and violent act, and death does not come easy for those who want to live.”

When we mourn the death of an individual animal that we’ve come to know personally, what are we mourning? What is lost? Despite not being able to develop and express their individuality, every cow that goes through this system is an individual that would express their unique personality if given the chance.

The Lifecycle of a Factory Farmed CowJo-Anne McArthur

We Can Do Better

Regardless of how, when animals are raised for the purpose of human consumption, the process becomes inherently violent. Whether they are subject to extreme confinement in factory farming or the equally brutal slaughter that comes of “humane” farming, animals who want to live are being killed – at a fraction of their natural lifespan. When we acknowledge the need for the “humane” treatment of animals, it shows that we believe it is wrong to subject animals to unnecessary harm. However, as Farm Sanctuary points out, “killing animals we do not need to eat constitutes the ultimate act of unnecessary harm.”

With an abundance of plant-based options hitting the market every year, there’s never been a better time to consider an alternative. When we begin to look at the animals we consider “food,” and see them, instead, as individuals, we start to realize that we have a choice. As the old saying goes,“Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Animals are others.

Image source: Vcode66/Wikimedia Commons