Chapter 5 – Moo
How do we get milk? Don’t just say ‘from
cows’! Would it surprise you to learn that the
only reason we get cow’s milk is because the cow
has had a calf – just as the only reason a woman
produces milk is because she’s had a baby? The
big difference is that we don’t take the baby away
from the woman and use her milk in our tea. But that’s
what we do to dairy cows and we do it every year for
as long as they live.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if a cow produced
enough milk to feed her calf and still had enough left
over for us to drink and make into cheese, yoghurt, ice
cream, butter and all the other things we make from milk?
Guess what – she does! The poor dairy cow has been
so selectively bred over the years that she now gives
ten times as much as her calf could ever drink. But we
still take the calf away after only 24 hours so we can
have it all – up to 10,000 litres of it from each
cow every year.
Once you’ve seen a mother cow staring after her
newborn little calf in panic as it’s led away to
a shed, never to be seen by her again; once you have
heard her bellows of grief at its loss, it’s very
hard to look at the dairy industry in the same way. But
this is only the start of the story for dairy cows, which
are probably the hardest working, most abused of all
farm animals. The reason they don’t get much sympathy
is because their problems aren’t easy to see – in
fact dairy cows appear quite happy. It all seems so nice
and peaceful as they quietly munch away at the grass
or lie in the sunshine chewing the cud, (they bring their
food back up and chew it again which is one reason why
they can digest grass and we can’t). But next time
you’re near a field of them – they’re
usually the black and white ones called Friesians – take
a closer look.
Look at their udders. These milk-producing organs are
far bigger that they every are in wild cows. If you watch
you’ll see how they often affect the way the cows
walk, the size forcing their legs apart. This unnatural
way of walking causes damage to the feet, making many
cows limp. Their foot problems are made worse by the
hard concrete floors of the sheds in which they’re
kept over winter. Cow’s hooves aren’t designed
to stand on concrete for months on end.
As a result, cows suffer from a disease called laminitis – an
inflamation of the membranes on the inside of the hoof.
Does it hurt? Professor John Webster, head of the animal
husbandry department at Bristol University, isn’t
in any doubt. He says that studying the feet of slaughtered
cows shows that nearly 100 per cent of them have this
crippling disease. He says ‘To understand the pain
of laminitis caused by foot damage it helps to imagine
crushing all your fingernails in the door then standing
on your fingertips.’ For cows with extreme laminitis
there is no cure and they are destroyed.
But dairy cows have other problems too. If you look at their rear ends, you’ll
see that their bones stick through the skin. It often looks like a piece of
thin material that’s been thrown over a coat hanger. This is because
a dairy cow is either giving milk, carrying a calf or doing both things at
the same time. Not only does she produce a massive quantity of milk for nine
months after the birth of her calf, but for most of that time she is pregnant
with her next calf, and has to provide nourishment for the new calf inside
her. Her only break is during the last three months of her pregnancy when the
farmer stops milking her so that all her strength can go to help build her
growing calf. Because a dairy cow gives birth every year, this punishing routine
Wild cows produce only enough milk for their calf – about
one-tenth the amount produced by dairy cows – and
as a result they have tiny udders. Nor do they become
pregnant while they’re still feeding their calf,
as this would rob them of nearly all their energy and
jeopardise their survival. In contrast, a dairy cow uses
up so much energy she is usually badly nourished, hungry
and exhausted. The cow’s huge output of milk puts
an unnatural strain on her udders and in about one-third
of cows, these become inflamed and infected. This painful
disease is called mastisis and results in thick pus oozing
out of the cow’s teats.
After giving birth just two or three times, the tissues
in a dairy cow’s body start to break down from
overwork and poor nutrition. This why dairy cows are
killed when they’re between four and seven years
old, even though they could live to be 20 or more.
It’s like a girl being completely physically
worn out while she’s still a teenager.
None of this happens to the cows used to breed beef
cattle. They’re not milked for humans and so produce
just the right amount of milk for their calves. Like
wild cows, they have tiny udders, not the huge things
you see on dairy cows, which means their bodies can absorb
all the nutrients they need.
You might expect producers would look at exhausted dairy
cows and say it was time to give them a rest. No chance!
Dairy corporations are experimenting with a hormone called
BST (bovine somatotropin) which will make cows give even
more milk – as much as 40 per cent more. Through
selective breeding, they’re producing new types
of cow which will give twice as much milk again. It seems
you just can’t satisfy greed!
And what happens to the worn-out dairy cows? They’re
sent to the slaughterhouse and killed for ‘low
grade’ meat products like hamburgers, pies, stock
cubes and, again, school dinners!
Humans are the only species on the planet that drink
another animal’s milk, so what happens to the calves?
Not one of the one million or so calves born to dairy
cows in Britain each year ever see their mothers again
after the first day or two. About 330,000 female calves
are kept to replace their worn-out mothers who are killed.
Some of the heftier looking calves are kept and allowed
to grow into beef cattle. But the majority, about 450,000
every year, are sent to market at just a few days old,
before they can even eat solid food or drink without
sucking from a teat. They’re destined to become
In Britain, these animals are usually bought by special
dealers who send them abroad to France, Holland and Denmark.
The calves are crammed together in big lorries and when
they reach their new homes, it’s not green fields
they find but a darkened wooden box with slats to stand
on – a crate so small they can’t even lie
down properly or turn round. No bedding, no companionship,
just darkness and torment.
The whole purpose of this crate system is to keep the
calves as cheaply as possible. It’s also designed
to make them anaemic – lacking in iron – so
their flesh will stay baby-white. This means they never
see daylight and never chew grass or hay (as they would
naturally do) because both these things would turn their
flesh from white to pink, the colour it is meant to be.
Instead, the calves are given a non-stop diet of milk
and water with no solid nourishment of any kind. The
animals will lick their crates or swallow their own hair,
so desperate are they for something satisfying. Offer
them your fingers and they will suck them greedily, as
much for comfort as anything else.
After 22 weeks of this misery, the calves are taken
from their crates and killed. For what? White veal for
the ‘gourmet’s’ dinner table in posh
restaurants. Even though the crates are illegal in Britain,
it’s perfectly okay to send the calves abroad and
then important their meat – which just shows how
people can side-step the law to their own advantage.
Campaigning groups all over Europe have lobbied to extend
the ban on veal crates from the UK to include all EU
countries. Agricultural ministers from the European Union
have accepted recommendations to phase out crates in
the year 2008. This is a positive step but even once
crates are abolished, calves will still be separated
from their mums at one day old. They will still be kept
anaemic and will never feel the sun or be able to graze;
and they will still only have a tiny 1.2m space in which
to stand – and may still not be given any bedding.
The only real difference is that at a few weeks old they
will be moved from being kept alone into a crammed pen
with other calves.
So what about the calves that are kept for beef? In
Britain, like almost everywhere else in the world, beef
comes from castrated male cattle called bullocks or steers.
Some beef cattle come from dairy cows and these herds
grow up together, often being allowed to graze on open
fields. Increasingly, however, these calves are moved
into crowded sheds when they’re about a year old,
and fed a high-protein diet to make them grow more quickly.
In the USA, few beef cattle are ever seen wandering
around as they do in the movies because they’re
mostly crammed together in feed lots – big, open-air
pens. Americans, followed closely by Australians, eat
more beef than any other nation and 100,000 cattle are
slaughtered every 24 hours. So much beef is consumed
in the USA that there isn’t enough land to graze
all the cattle on which is why they’re penned up.
It’s easier to bring the food and water to them
and there can be hundreds, often thousands of cattle,
in each pen. It’s just another kind of factory
The steer have very little space to move around in,
and stand in their own mess for a year or more, living
on high-protein food that makes them put on weight quickly.
Once again, the animals are fed high levels of antibiotics
and other chemicals to ward off the diseases caused by
overcrowding. This system of beef production was introduced
in Britain in 1987.
There are other ways of growing beef cattle and the
kindest method is by using ‘suckler’ herds.
Calves are allowed to stay with their mothers until they’re
about two years old, and before they start eating grass
they can suckle as much as they like. Animals in these
herds are able to interact as they would in the wild
and to some extent behave in the way that herds of cattle
do naturally. Well, until the young bullocks are taken
away and killed that is!
A huge beast as heavy and powerful as cow could cause
real havoc to humans if it wanted to, but it doesn’t.
Instead, it pays a terrible price for being so docile.
We take its young away from it and literally milk it
dry. Producers have turned the cow into a milk or meat
machine – which is strange, as we don’t need
‘Eating veal is inexcusable.’
Gaby Roslin, TV presenter