Dairy cows

Dairy cow picture

Fun Facts About Dairy Cows

Dean Farm Trust Cow
  • Cows recognise different people and will pretend that they haven’t been fed in order to get second helpings!1Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  • Cows have been known to play hide-and-seek, although they’re rather too big to be very good at the game1Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  • Cows like to problem-solve and may get excited when they find solutions1Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  • Cows are emotionally complex, have strong family bonds and grieve for calves they lose1Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  • Cows make different noises to address different cows in the herd, just like people use different names for different individuals2Press Association, 2014. ‘Cows Communicate Using Individual Sounds Like Human Names’. The Telegraph, 16 December. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11297269/Cows-communicate-using-individual-sounds-like-human-names.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  • Cows can self-medicate, choosing to eat certain plants when they’re unwell; similar to people eating more fruit or hot soup when feeling sick!1Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
References:
  1. Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  2. Press Association, 2014. ‘Cows Communicate Using Individual Sounds Like Human Names’. The Telegraph, 16 December. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11297269/Cows-communicate-using-individual-sounds-like-human-names.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].

The Maternal Instinct of Cows

Cows are highly social animals with a strict hierarchy. Within herds, the social structure is based on matriarchal families; mother cows and their daughters remain grooming and grazing partners for life and typically have very strong bonds with each other.1 Sowell, B. F., Mosley, J. C. and Bowman, J. G. P., 1991. ‘Social behavior of grazing beef cattle: Implications for management’. The American Society of Animal Science 77, pp. 1-6. Cows also form lifelong friendships with other cows to form a herd, and calves befriend other calves for the rest of their lives.2 Young, R., 2003. The Secret Lives of Cows. Faber & Faber: London.Herds like stability; any disruption to the group, such as the addition of a new member, can be very stressful.1 Sowell, B. F., Mosley, J. C. and Bowman, J. G. P., 1991. ‘Social behavior of grazing beef cattle: Implications for management’. The American Society of Animal Science 77, pp. 1-6.

CalfJust like humans, cows are extremely protective and caring of their offspring. They give birth in private and hide the calf in long grass out of sight for about a week before introducing the newborn to the rest of the herd.1 Sowell, B. F., Mosley, J. C. and Bowman, J. G. P., 1991. ‘Social behavior of grazing beef cattle: Implications for management’. The American Society of Animal Science 77, pp. 1-6. The herd approves the new member who then joins them. Female calves suckle from their mother for nine months and then stay together for the rest of their lives. Male calves suckle for about a year and then leave to join a bachelor herd.

While cows are sometimes portrayed as lacking intelligence, studies have shown that cows enjoy problem-solving, recognise individual humans, play games and have a variety of vocal calls to communicate with one another 3Kettlewell, J., 2005. ‘Farm Animals Need Emotional TLC’. The BBC, 18 March. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4360947.stm [Accessed 25 March 2020].4Press Association, 2014. ‘Cows Communicate Using Individual Sounds Like Human Names’. The Telegraph, 16 December. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11297269/Cows-communicate-using-individual-sounds-like-human-names.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].5Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020]. Cows have different personalities, hold grudges with one another, bicker, bond and form friendships that can last a literal lifetime.6University of Groningen, 2012. ‘Dairy Cows Have Individual Temperaments’. ScienceDaily, 23 March. Available at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120323134531.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020].

Cattle can also feel depression and anxiety. For example, calves kept in isolation hutches – a standard practice in the dairy industry – show clear signs of depression, just like solitary confinement affects humans negatively.7Gaillard, C., Meagher, RK., von Keyserlingk, MAG., Weary DM., 2014. ‘Social Housing Improves Dairy Calves’ Performance in Two Cognitive Tests’. Public Library of Science One, February 26. Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090205 [Accessed 25 March 2020]. There are clear similarities between cows and other animals, such as dogs or even ourselves, as a highly social animals who depend upon one another for mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, despite the emotional complexity and intelligence evident in dairy cows, the way they are treated in modern UK farming shows a complete disregard for their wellbeing and their sentience.

Dairy cow with baby picture
References:
  1. Sowell, B. F., Mosley, J. C. and Bowman, J. G. P., 1991. ‘Social behavior of grazing beef cattle: Implications for management’. The American Society of Animal Science 77, pp. 1-6.
  2. Young, R., 2003. The Secret Lives of Cows. Faber & Faber: London.
  3. Kettlewell, J., 2005. ‘Farm Animals Need Emotional TLC’. The BBC, 18 March. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4360947.stm [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  4. Press Association, 2014. ‘Cows Communicate Using Individual Sounds Like Human Names’. The Telegraph, 16 December. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11297269/Cows-communicate-using-individual-sounds-like-human-names.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  5. Barkham, P., 2017. ‘Cows Are Loving, Intelligent and Kind – So Should We Still Eat Them?’. The Guardian, 30 October. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/30/secret-life-of-cows-loving-intelligent-kind-eat-them [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  6. University of Groningen, 2012. ‘Dairy Cows Have Individual Temperaments’. ScienceDaily, 23 March. Available at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120323134531.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  7. Gaillard, C., Meagher, RK., von Keyserlingk, MAG., Weary DM., 2014. ‘Social Housing Improves Dairy Calves’ Performance in Two Cognitive Tests’. Public Library of Science One, February 26. Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090205 [Accessed 25 March 2020].

The Natural Life of Cows

Cattle are highly intelligent, sentient mammals who have evolved complex social behaviour over thousands of years. Their natural lives are very different to those they are forced to lead on dairy farms.

 

Where do cows descend from?

Cattle are members of the Bovidae family, which includes antelope, goats, sheep, bison and buffalo. Modern domestic cattle (Bos Taurus) descend from the much larger auroch (Bos Taurus Primigenius) which once ranged throughout Britain, Africa, the Middle East, India and central Asia. Cows have been domesticated since 6500 BC, and selective breeding over the millennia has caused dramatic physical changes – so drastic that domesticated cattle are now considered a separate species.

 

Semi-wild cattle

Populations of semi-wild cattle still survive in several countries, including the white cattle of Chillingham Park in Northumberland, who have roamed free for at least 800 years. Studies of this herd and other semi-wild herds have provided insight into natural cattle behaviour.

Semi-wild cattle form small groups, averaging 15-20 animals with a strict social hierarchy. The structure is matriarchal, and offspring inherit the mother’s status in the herd. It is common for calves to establish lifelong friendships at a young age, and mutual grooming reinforces social bonds between cows.

 

Natural Diet

Contrary to the popular belief that cows just eat grass, they like a mixed diet. Just as humans have different preferences for different foods depending on the time of day, cattle show a preference for clover in the morning and grass in the evening, with more of an inclination towards clover than grass in general 1Rutter, S.M., Orr, R.J., Yarrow, N.H., Champion, R.A., 2004. ‘Dietary Preference of Dairy Cows Grazing Ryegrass and White Clover’. Journal of Dairy Science 87, (5), pp. 1317-1324, May. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030204732816 [Accessed 25 March 2020].

 

Life Expectancy of Cattle

Cattle have a life expectancy of approximately 20 years; some have even been known to live into their 30s at sanctuaries.

 

Predators

Depending on the location, cougars, lions, wolves and bears have been known to hunt cattle.

Semi-wild Cattle and Modern Cattle

Much of the behaviour found in semi-wild cattle can still be found in domesticated cattle. Despite having strong maternal instincts and a clear desire to bond with a stable herd, in modern dairy farming calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth. Cows have been known to grieve and fall into deep depression as a result, much like the loss a human mother would feel if her baby was forcibly removed 2University of Veterinary Medicine, 2015. ‘Early Separation Of Cow And Calf Has Long-term Effects On Social Behavior’. ScienceDaily, 28 April. Available at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020].. Cows’ strict social hierarchies cannot be maintained in the dairy industry, where herds vary significantly in size and there are frequent additions and removals.

Cows grazing
References:
  1. Rutter, S.M., Orr, R.J., Yarrow, N.H., Champion, R.A., 2004. ‘Dietary Preference of Dairy Cows Grazing Ryegrass and White Clover’. Journal of Dairy Science 87, (5), pp. 1317-1324, May. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030204732816 [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  2. University of Veterinary Medicine, 2015. ‘Early Separation Of Cow And Calf Has Long-term Effects On Social Behavior’. ScienceDaily, 28 April. Available at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020].

How Dairy Cows are Farmed

One of the public’s biggest misconceptions of dairy production is the way in which cows produce milk. Many are still unaware that in order to produce milk, a cow first needs to be pregnant, just like humans, and needs to give birth every year in order to meet the demands of modern, high-yield dairy farming.

How many dairy cows are there in the UK?

There are currently around 1.9 million dairy cows living on the UK’s 13,000 dairy farms.1Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2018. ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018’. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/848641/AUK_2018_09jul19a.pdf [Accessed 8 April 2020].

As cows must give birth to a calf in order to produce milk, there is also over a million dairy calves born in the UK each year. The total number of dairy cattle in the UK is over 3.2 million. Cows are kept in an average herd size of 142 but this varies hugely – from small family farms to big intensive ones. Ninety per cent of dairy cows in the UK are the Holstein breed (the black and white cows) and other breeds include Friesian, Jersey and Ayrshire cattle.

 

Value of the cow’s milk trade

The value of milk and milk products in 2018 was £4.49 billion.1Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2018. ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018’. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/848641/AUK_2018_09jul19a.pdf [Accessed 8 April 2020].

 

Large Udder Shackled pictureBreeding

Starting from around 15 months old, a heifer is artificially inseminated (AI) with semen mechanically drawn from a desired bull, often a beef breed. This often results in bigger, bulkier calves that can, and often do, lead to birthing difficulties.2Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAa). ‘Dairy Cows – Farming.’ Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/dairy/farming [Accessed 26 March 2020]. Permanent nerve damage is one of the most severe outcomes of difficult calving and this affects a mother’s ability to control her back legs, resulting in her doing the splits and being unable to stand. The farmers’ answer is to shackle her hind legs together with steel ‘hobbles’ like a dangerous criminal.3Newkey-Burden, C., 2018. ‘Supporting the Dairy Industry Inflicts More Pain on Cows Than You Know. And Yes, That Includes Drinking Their Milk’. The Independent, 25 September. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dairy-industry-animal-rights-cow-treatment-milk-production-a8554196.html [Accessed 26 March 2020]. Although it is disturbing to see and hear an animal dragging around chains, it is standard practice in the industry as a means of keeping cows mobile and capable of walking to the milking parlour in order to exploit every last drop of milk she can produce.

 

Artificial Insemination

The process of AI (artificial insemination) is painful and traumatic for cows, who are forced into confined spaces to be impregnated. The farmer inserts one arm into the cow’s anus to manipulate her reproductive organs while an AI gun is inserted into her vagina to deposit sperm. This highly unnatural way of impregnation causes cows distress, particularly as any mishandling of her organs can lead to severe pain and nerve damage. Inexperienced farmers practise on live animals and this inevitably leads to injuries.

The process is repeated on average three to four times over the short course of a dairy cow’s life to breed more cattle who are used in the dairy industry.

 

Calves

Following a nine-month pregnancy, the vast majority of calves are separated from their mother only hours or a few days after birth.4Levitt, T., 2018, ‘Dairy’s Dirty Secret: It’s Still Cheaper to Kill Male Calves Than To Rear Them’. The Guardian, 26 March. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/26/dairy-dirty-secret-its-still-cheaper-to-kill-male-calves-than-to-rear-them [Accessed 27 March 2020]. The industry argues that this is for the health of the calf! They claim it better enables them to measure the amount of colostrum – a form of milk that precedes the main milk supply and which contains antibodies to protect newborns against disease. In reality, calves are removed so all the cow’s milk can be taken for human consumption.

The separation process is a painfully emotional experience, with mother cows bellowing for days, looking for their lost babies. Female calves are replacements for the milking herd and are moved to isolated plastic hutches – much like an outdoor dog kennel – sometimes just metres away from their mothers. Here they’ll legally spend up to eight weeks before being transferred to group housing with other young females awaiting a life sentence of suffering.5National Animal Disease Information Service (NADISa). ‘Calf Housing’. NADIS. Available at https://nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/calf-management/calf-housing [Accessed 26 March 2020].

It is not uncommon to find calves of up to six months old still living in isolation, struggling to fit inside their hutches, which were designed for much smaller animals. On a farm in South Devon, footage obtained by Viva! Campaigns showed calves of more than 12 weeks old still living in solitary hutches with little room to turn around let alone exercise.6Poulter, S., 2018, ‘Distressing Footage Taken From Inside British Dairy Farms Shows Calves Torn From Their Mothers And Crammed Into Tiny Cages As One Cow Is Left With A Bone Poking Through Its Skin’. The Daily Mail, 30 April. Available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5672113/Disturbing-dairy-farm-footage-shows-apparently-emaciated-calves.html [Accessed 26 March 2020]. They were without food, water and maternal nurturing.

If the calf is born a male, he is seen as a useless ‘by-product’ and is usually sold for cheap meat (beef as well as veal) or killed on-farm. A young calf at the centre of a 2011 Viva! Campaigns investigation into dairy farms supplying Cadbury, was shot in the head on the back of a truck and his body given to the local fox hounds for food.7Viva!, 2011. ‘A Calf and a Half’. Available at https://scarydairy.org.uk/campaigns/cadbury-investigation [Accessed 26 March 2020]. In 2015, 95,000 newborn male calves were shot on-farm and a similar number are killed every year.4Levitt, T., 2018, ‘Dairy’s Dirty Secret: It’s Still Cheaper to Kill Male Calves Than To Rear Them’. The Guardian, 26 March. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/26/dairy-dirty-secret-its-still-cheaper-to-kill-male-calves-than-to-rear-them [Accessed 27 March 2020].

Life Cycle

Cows often do all they can to prevent a farmer from removing their calves but once they have been separated, they have been known to call to each other for days.8University of Veterinary Medicine, 2015. ‘Early Separation Of Cow And Calf Has Long-term Effects On Social Behavior’. ScienceDaily, 28 April. Available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020]. This cycle of impregnation, calf removal and milking is repeated almost four times on average.

Because of the extreme stress this process puts on their bodies, combined with unnaturally high milk yields, dairy cows are considered ‘spent’ typically by the age of five or six.2Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAa). ‘Dairy Cows – Farming.’ Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/dairy/farming [Accessed 26 March 2020]. Dairy cattle have a natural life expectancy of about 20 years but once their milk yield declines and they cease to be profitable, they are sent to slaughter to be sold as cheap beef.

Milk Yield

The Holstein cow, synonymous with British dairy farming, is easily recognisable by her distinctive black and white colour patterning, and sometimes dark reddish brown and white. Her ability to produce extraordinarily high milk yields is what makes the British Holstein a perfect ‘commodity’ to exploit. As the predominant breed, she produces an average of 26 litres every day.9National Bovine Data Centre (NBDCb). ‘Production Trends Holstein (Hol)’. NBDC. Available at https://statistics.nbdc.uk/Statistics/Holstein [Accessed 26 March 2020]. British Friesians, who look very similar but are a slightly smaller breed carrying more flesh, average around 19 litres a day.10National Bovine Data Centre (NBDCa). ‘Production Trends British Friesian (BFR)’. NBDC. Available at https://statistics.nbdc.uk/Statistics/British%20Friesian [Accessed 26 March 2020].

The yield of dairy cows has increased from an average of 3,750 litres per cow per year (10 litres per day) in the 1970s, to 7,968 litres (22 litres per day) in 2019.11Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, 2019 (AHDBd). ‘UK Milk Yield’. AHDB, 21 August. Available at https://ahdb.org.uk/dairy/uk-milk-yield [Accessed 25 March 2020]. Much of this dramatic increase has occurred in recent years as a direct result of increased intensification.

Cows were made to produce almost 1,000 litres more milk annually from 2005 to 2015.11Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, 2019 (AHDBd). ‘UK Milk Yield’. AHDB, 21 August. Available at https://ahdb.org.uk/dairy/uk-milk-yield [Accessed 25 March 2020]. This more than doubling of milk yield over the last 40 years is due to selective breeding and intensification of herd management. It has inflicted a huge strain on cows, leading to complete body breakdown. The problem is made worse by the almost universal practice of impregnating cows a couple of months after they have started milking so that for seven months of every year they face the dual burden of producing vast quantities of milk and nurturing a growing foetus. It is an impossible burden!

A calf would normally feed five to six times a day and the maximum amount of milk in the cow’s udder at any one time to meet this demand would be around two litres. But on most dairy farms, a cow is milked only twice a day, meaning that up to 20 litres of milk can accumulate in a cow’s udder. This greatly enlarges the udder, causes pain, leads to lameness in a cow’s hind legs and predisposes her to mastitis (a painful infection of the udder).

Housing and Intensification

Most dairy cows in the UK graze outside during the day for six months of the year (April-September) but are confined to sheds for the remaining six months, with no access to the outdoors. If the weather is bad, they can be incarcerated for even longer. These sheds rarely provide cows with the space they need and prevent them from expressing their natural instincts for at least half their lifetime.

Zero Grazing image

Zero Grazing

A new system for dairy cows has started to appear and is referred to as zero-grazing. They literally never graze but are instead fed on a diet of silage (wet, fermented grass) and high-concentrate mixture of cereals, rape meal, sunflower meal, maize and soya. They are kept permanently in sheds or yards and never walk on grass, let alone eat it.

This method clearly deprives the cow of her natural environment and increases the risk of lameness, hood problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections.12Scientific Opinion Of The Panel On Animal Health and Welfare On A Request From European Commission On Welfare Of Dairy Cows, 2009. The EFSA Journal 1143, pp. 1-38.

Approximately 16 per cent of dairy farms now use zero or severely restricted grazing systems and it is likely that the trend will increase as profit is placed before the cows’ wellbeing.13Arnott, G., Ferris, CP., O’Connell, NE., 2017. ‘Review: Welfare Of Dairy Cows In Continuously Housed And Pasture-based Production Systems’. Animal 11, (2), pp. 261-273.

Dairy cow sick pictureDisease and Illness

The dairy cow is arguably the hardest worked of all farmed animals, forced into a perpetual cycle of dual pregnancy and lactation, confined to live more than half the year in barren sheds and fed unnatural mixtures of silage. It has produced a situation where she simply cannot consume enough food to keep pace with what is demanded of her – nurturing an unborn calf while still lactating from a previous pregnancy. Whatever the system the result is the same – ‘metabolic starvation’. Cows have to draw on their body reserves to meet these unnatural demands, resulting in a ‘coat rack’ appearance where her bones and spine protrude through her skin. It is extremely common and a sure indication of malnourishment.

It is estimated that at any given time, one third of all dairy cows in the UK suffer from mastitis, which inflames and causes great pain in the udder.14Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBb). ‘Incidence Rate’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/mastitis/recordstools/incidence-rate/#.Xnubb9P7TBI [Accessed 25 March 2020]. It is caused by bacteria entering through the teat and releasing toxins, which leads to damage of the milk-producing tissue and canals throughout the udder. The body fights the infection by releasing white blood cells and when they destroy the bacteria, the resulting pus (white blood cells combined with bacterial remains) is excreted through the teat. It can be treated with antibiotics but milk from cows undergoing antibiotic treatment is not usable. However, cows with mastitis that hasn’t been diagnosed or become life-threatening are often milked anyway, farmers hoping that their milk will meet the rather generous allowance for somatic cells (pus) in milk of up to 400 million per litre (EU regulation).

The widespread nature of mastitis in British farming is directly due to the ruthless demand for high output, whether within intensive, free range or organic systems.

The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) notes that lameness in UK dairy cattle is at an ‘unacceptably high’ level and it is a major cause of pain and discomfort to dairy cows.15Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2011. ‘Dairy Cattle – Lameness’. Available at http://adlib.everysite.co.uk/adlib/defra/content.aspx?id=000IL3890W.18DMER7UDGY64Y [Accessed 25 March 2020]. The average number of lame cows in a herd is 17 per cent, and it has been observed that virtually all cows’ hooves show past or present damage when they are inspected at slaughter.16Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. ‘Lameness in Dairy Cattle’. UFAW. Available at https://www.ufaw.org.uk/why-ufaws-work-is-important/lameness [Accessed 25 March 2020]. The general causes of lameness are poor quality flooring, poor cow tracks, forcing cows to stand on hard surfaces for too long, poorly designed cubicles, ineffective foot trimming, infectious diseases and malnutrition – all of which stem from poor management and mistreatment of cattle by farmers.17Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBc). ‘Lameness’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/lameness/#.XnuvUtP7TBI [Accessed 25 March 2020].

It is ironic that the major marketing ploy for dairy is (wrongly) its necessary calcium content. Milk fever is widespread and is caused by low blood calcium levels in dairy cattle. It is most common in the first few days of lactation, when a cow’s demand for calcium for her milk production exceeds her body’s ability to mobilise calcium reserves. However, it can occur at any time when the cow is simultaneously pregnant and lactating, which is for seven months of every year. On average, milk fever affects seven to eight per cent of all herds.18National Animal Disease Information Service (NADISb). ‘Milk Fever (Hypocalcaemia, Parturient Paresis)’. NADIS. Available at https://www.nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/hypocalcaemia-and-hypomagnesaemia/ [Accessed 27 March 2020].

Low blood calcium levels disrupt normal muscle function throughout the body, causing general weakness, loss of appetite, difficulty standing, inability to get up and eventually heart failure.18National Animal Disease Information Service (NADISb). ‘Milk Fever (Hypocalcaemia, Parturient Paresis)’. NADIS. Available at https://www.nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/hypocalcaemia-and-hypomagnesaemia/ [Accessed 27 March 2020]. This is a horrific disease that affects almost one in ten cows every year.

Low calcium levels (hypocalcaemia) are naturally more common in older animals and in certain breeds, such as Jersey cattle, but young cows can also develop it due to the high demands of the dairy industry.

There are a number of complex factors leading to these painful conditions but generally they occur because of the excessive demands farmers place on their herds to produce high milk yields. Abnormally large udders push the cow’s hind legs apart and force her to adopt an irregular gait, putting extra pressure on the outer claws of her hooves; nutritionally deficient feed concentrates absorbed by the blood stream irritate the soft tissues in her soles; and the accumulation of bacteria-ridden, highly-acidic slurry in sheds and on which the cows are forced to stand, are breeding grounds for infection.

 

Culling

The most common reasons for which a dairy cow is culled include infertility, mastitis, lameness and poor milk production, which are clear indicators of poor welfare standards. Farmers usually cull cows as soon as they become unprofitable. In the words of the dairy department of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, ‘maximising income is a priority for dairy farmers’. The same article also encourages farmers to cull cows as soon as their productivity drops.19Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBa). ‘Cow Culling’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/cow-culling/#.Xn3SI9P7TBI [Accessed 27 March 2020].

References:
  1. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2018. ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2018’. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/848641/AUK_2018_09jul19a.pdf [Accessed 8 April 2020].
  2. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAa). ‘Dairy Cows – Farming.’ Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/dairy/farming [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  3. Newkey-Burden, C., 2018. ‘Supporting the Dairy Industry Inflicts More Pain on Cows Than You Know. And Yes, That Includes Drinking Their Milk’. The Independent, 25 September. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dairy-industry-animal-rights-cow-treatment-milk-production-a8554196.html [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  4. Levitt, T., 2018, ‘Dairy’s Dirty Secret: It’s Still Cheaper to Kill Male Calves Than To Rear Them’. The Guardian, 26 March. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/26/dairy-dirty-secret-its-still-cheaper-to-kill-male-calves-than-to-rear-them [Accessed 27 March 2020].
  5. National Animal Disease Information Service (NADISa). ‘Calf Housing’. NADIS. Available at https://nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/calf-management/calf-housing [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  6. Poulter, S., 2018, ‘Distressing Footage Taken From Inside British Dairy Farms Shows Calves Torn From Their Mothers And Crammed Into Tiny Cages As One Cow Is Left With A Bone Poking Through Its Skin’. The Daily Mail, 30 April. Available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5672113/Disturbing-dairy-farm-footage-shows-apparently-emaciated-calves.html [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  7. Viva!, 2011. ‘A Calf and a Half’. Available at https://scarydairy.org.uk/campaigns/cadbury-investigation [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  8. University of Veterinary Medicine, 2015. ‘Early Separation Of Cow And Calf Has Long-term Effects On Social Behavior’. ScienceDaily, 28 April. Available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  9. National Bovine Data Centre (NBDCb). ‘Production Trends Holstein (Hol)’. NBDC. Available at https://statistics.nbdc.uk/Statistics/Holstein [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  10. National Bovine Data Centre (NBDCa). ‘Production Trends British Friesian (BFR)’. NBDC. Available at https://statistics.nbdc.uk/Statistics/British%20Friesian [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  11. Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, 2019 (AHDBd). ‘UK Milk Yield’. AHDB, 21 August. Available at https://ahdb.org.uk/dairy/uk-milk-yield [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  12. Scientific Opinion Of The Panel On Animal Health and Welfare On A Request From European Commission On Welfare Of Dairy Cows, 2009. The EFSA Journal 1143, pp. 1-38.
  13. Arnott, G., Ferris, CP., O’Connell, NE., 2017. ‘Review: Welfare Of Dairy Cows In Continuously Housed And Pasture-based Production Systems’. Animal 11, (2), pp. 261-273.
  14. Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBb). ‘Incidence Rate’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/mastitis/recordstools/incidence-rate/#.Xnubb9P7TBI [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  15. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2011. ‘Dairy Cattle – Lameness’. Available at http://adlib.everysite.co.uk/adlib/defra/content.aspx?id=000IL3890W.18DMER7UDGY64Y [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  16. Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBc). ‘Lameness’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/lameness/#.XnuvUtP7TBI [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  17. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. ‘Lameness in Dairy Cattle’. UFAW. Available at https://www.ufaw.org.uk/why-ufaws-work-is-important/lameness [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  18. National Animal Disease Information Service (NADISb). ‘Milk Fever (Hypocalcaemia, Parturient Paresis)’. NADIS. Available at https://www.nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/hypocalcaemia-and-hypomagnesaemia/ [Accessed 27 March 2020].
  19. Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDBa). ‘Cow Culling’. AHDB. Available at https://dairy.ahdb.org.uk/technical-information/animal-health-welfare/cow-culling/#.Xn3SI9P7TBI [Accessed 27 March 2020].

How Dairy Cows are Killed

After suffering their whole lives, worn out dairy cows often endure gruelling journeys to market, where they are likely to be bought and sent to fattening (finishing) farms before being slaughtered and ending up in low-quality beef products, such as pies, burgers, soups and baby food. After only a fraction of their natural 20-year life expectancy – mostly being slaughtered at around six years old – dairy cows are physically exhausted.1Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAa). ‘Dairy Cows – Farming’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/dairy/farming [Accessed 26 March 2020].

A penetrative captive bolt (it remains attached to the gun) is shot into the forehead of a cow, its percussive impact intended to render the cow immediately unconsciousness. She is then shackled by a hind leg and hoisted up when the slaughter worker will ‘stick’ her and sever both veins and arteries. The cow is then bled to death.2Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAb). ‘Slaughter Factfile’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/slaughter/factfile [Accessed 25 March 2020].

Although it is argued that the death is painless because the cow is stunned, the moments leading up to the cow’s stunning and slaughter are often terrifying for the animal. She can hear the anxious bellows and smell the fear of other cows in the slaughterhouse and often cows will do their utmost to escape. Transportation, slaughterhouse and stunning are all barbaric and traumatic.

The stunning process does not guarantee that the cow will lose consciousness before being killed as there are frequent failures. A cow’s skull is hard to penetrate, the shot may fail and there is also human error. The cow may suddenly move and the shot hits the wrong place, even the cheek or face, and the process has to be repeated. Cows may also regain consciousness while they are hanging up and have their throats slit while conscious. The suffering must be immense.

Many members of certain religious groups demand that any animal they eat must have been conscious when its throat was cut. In fact, almost a half of the animals slaughtered for them are not stunned while they are being bled to death.3Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAc). ‘Slaughter without Pre-Stunning’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/slaughter [Accessed 25 March 2020]. Some ritually slaughtered meat finds its way on to mainstream markets without any labelling so many British consumers are unknowingly eating animal products which have come from non-stunned animals.4Dalton, J., 2019. ‘Shoppers Unknowingly Buying No-stun Religious Meat in Supermarkets’. The Independent, 19 February. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/meat-animals-no-stun-halal-meat-supermarkets-religion-kosher-food-ban-standards-agency-a8786541.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].

References:
  1. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAa). ‘Dairy Cows – Farming’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/dairy/farming [Accessed 26 March 2020].
  2. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAb). ‘Slaughter Factfile’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/farm/slaughter/factfile [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  3. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCAc). ‘Slaughter without Pre-Stunning’. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/slaughter [Accessed 25 March 2020].
  4. Dalton, J., 2019. ‘Shoppers Unknowingly Buying No-stun Religious Meat in Supermarkets’. The Independent, 19 February. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/meat-animals-no-stun-halal-meat-supermarkets-religion-kosher-food-ban-standards-agency-a8786541.html [Accessed 25 March 2020].

Campaigns & investigations

Scary Dairy

Going dairy-free is a smart move not just for ethical reasons but also because it will very likely improve your health in several ways. Try going dairy-free and see for yourself!

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Face Off: Dairy

You won’t believe what is going on in our country’s factory farms! Will you take this challenge too? Can you face off against the British dairy industry?

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Viva!shake

Viva! took an all-vegan milkshake bar across the country, giving out free vegan milkshakes at university fresher fairs! 

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Social Media Images to Share

Dairy Takes Babies Away

Suggested caption: Mothers and daughters naturally stay in the same herd for life. The dairy industry takes babies away a few hours after birth just so humans can have her milk. This is traumatic for both the mother and the baby, who will never see each other again. Choose vegan.

Not your mum? Not your milk.

Not your mum? Not your milk.

Suggested caption: Like us, cows only produce milk when they have a child to feed. Mothers have their baby stolen within hours of giving birth, all so humans can drink her milk made for her baby. Not your mum? Not your milk! Choose vegan.

Is dairy really worth deforestation?

Is Dairy Really Worth It?

Suggested caption: Dairy is the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the EU food system and a leading cause of global warming. Next time you buy dairy, ask yourself: is it really worth it?

Think veganism is 'extreme'?

Think Veganism Is Extreme?

Suggested caption: Which one sounds more extreme to you?

Mothers not machines

They Are Mothers, Not Machines

Suggested caption: Cows are socially complex animals who form bonds for life. Mothers stay with their daughters for life in the wild, but the dairy industry takes this away. Mothers are treated like milk machines, routinely impregnated and separated from their babies just so humans can have her milk. Choose vegan!

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