Dairy – bad for animals and the planet

Scary Dairy

It still surprises many to hear that in order to produce milk an animal first needs to be pregnant – it’s one of the dairy industry’s biggest misconceptions and it’s a perpetual cycle of suffering! To meet the demands of modern high yielding dairy farming we push Britain’s farmed animals to the limit.

Dairy cows

Cows are highly social and intelligent animals. Find out about their nature, how they are farmed and how they are killed.

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We may not associate goats with endurance, incredible agility and toughness but they are quite remarkable animals.

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There are many common questions about the dairy industry as we simply aren’t told the truth and are brought up with a false idea of what dairy farming is.

Here, we summarised the main ones. Simply click on each to open up an answer.

Don't cows need to be milked?

Cows only produce milk when they give birth to a calf and, in nature, they would only produce as much as the calf needs and when the calf is weaned, the milk production stops. Even when they are milked at a farm every day, the amount of milk they produce gradually decreases so they are impregnated every year to keep the milk flowing.

For more information, click here.

Cows just give milk, it’s natural, what’s wrong with that?

Cows only produce milk when they give birth to a calf and in nature they would only produce as much as the calf needs and when the calf is weaned, the milk production stops. Even when they are milked at a farm every day, the amount of milk they produce gradually decreases so they are impregnated every year to keep the milk flowing.

In order for us to have the cow’s milk, her calf has to be removed shortly after birth so he/she doesn’t drink the milk a farmer can sell. Calves are placed in individual stalls or pens at just a few hours old and fed an artificial milk replacer or surplus milk. Both mother and her calf suffer immense stress as a result and call for each other for days.

For more information, click here.

Isn’t a lot of the land where cows graze impossible to utilise in any other way?

Some people claim that most pastureland is not suitable for growing crops and therefore it’s better to use it for animals to graze on.

The truth is, a lot of the land currently used to graze cattle is perfectly suitable for growing trees which could provide fruit and nuts and this would also bring many benefits to the environment (eg trees prevent soil erosion, increase the water-retention capacity of land, improve air quality).

Grazing animals compact the soil which makes it harder to grow crops on it. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to cultivate land that’s been compacted by hundreds of animals – it’s a reversible process and it’s entirely possible to cultivate such land.

What happens to dairy calves?

A cow would naturally suckle her calf for nine months to a year but calves born on dairy farms are taken away from their mothers within a few days of birth – usually between just a few hours and three days. A strong mother-infant bond is formed between cow and calf immediately after birth and the separation is extremely traumatic.

The calves are then placed in individual pens and fed a commercial milk replacer, either from an artificial teat or a bucket. Occasionally, they get surplus milk or milk that would be refused from milk processing due to hygienic reasons.

Young calves are very susceptible to disease. Diarrhoea (known as scours in the farming sector), often caused by low-quality or incorrectly prepared milk replacer and subsequent malnutrition and dehydration, is the main cause of calf death. To reduce the risks, dairy calves are weaned on to solid food by five weeks of age – much sooner than is natural for them.

Under the welfare regulations, calves may be housed in individual stalls or hutches (indoors or outdoors) until they are eight weeks old but after reaching this age, they have to be group housed. Individual housing denies calves vital exercise and social contact. Group housing allows more natural social behaviour but also increases the risk of airborne diseases such as pneumonia – the most common disease of weaned calves. Essentially, it is impossible to artificially rear calves in a way which fulfils their natural needs and behaviours without compromising their health.

Female calves will eventually enter the dairy herd, replacing worn-out cows, being forcibly impregnated for the first time when they’re only 13-20 months old.

Male calves are of no use to a dairy farmer. All bull calves are removed from their mothers after several hours or maximum two days and housed in stalls or hutches and fed milk replacer just like female calves. If not shot shortly after birth, they will be sold on to beef farms through livestock markets or raised for veal. They spend most of their short lives – usually between six months and one year – confined in buildings and yards. High mortality rates in these systems are common as it is not financially worthwhile for farmers to treat illnesses.

The current estimates are that around 95,000 bull calves are shot within hours of birth in the UK. Viva! filmed the shocking fate of the male calves at farms supplying milk for the confectionery giant Cadbury. For more information and footage, click here.

For more information on the dairy industry, click here.

The UK has high welfare standards, isn't that enough to ensure the animals are happy?

Although the UK has welfare standards prohibiting some cruel practises – eg veal crates or calf mutilations beyond certain age – it doesn’t mean dairy cows live a happy life.

Cows would normally form herds with complex social structure where daughters stay in the herd and bulls migrate. None of this is possible on a dairy farm and cows are permanently stressed by the unnatural conditions.

All dairy cows have their newborns taken away from them within two days and they spend seven months of each year both pregnant and producing so much milk it could feed eight calves. That’s the reason so many of them suffer from serious deficiencies, exhaustion and lameness. And because their udders work so hard, sooner or later dairy cows develop mastitis – a painful udder infection.

The very basis of animal farming is about minimising costs and maximising profit. Minimising costs comes with minimising cow movement which means limited or zero grazing where cows spend most of or their entire lives indoors. It also means minimising costs when it comes to treatment so as long as cows produce enough milk, they won’t necessarily get the veterinary treatment they need.

Cows can’t endure such high demands on their bodies for too long and most of them are slaughtered at just over five years of age because they stop being profitable (due to infertility, low milk yield or an illness).

For more information click here or take a look at what our investigations into the UK dairy industry revealed.

Veal crates are banned in the UK so isn't veal high-welfare meat?

The vast majority of calves raised for veal worldwide are male calves that are by-products of the dairy industry. In many countries such as the USA – from which the UK imports a range of dairy products – veal crates are still a legal rearing system. These tiny wooden crates are so narrow that the calves cannot turn around for most of their lives, depriving them of exercise and preventing normal muscle development – to keep their flesh supple. They are also fed an iron-deficient diet to produce the anaemic ‘white’ veal prized by gourmets.

Veal crates were banned in the EU in 2007 but veal production (in any rearing system) still requires calves to be separated from their mothers within a day or two of birth. These calves are then placed in pens or hutches, alone or with several other calves, before they are sold to be reared mostly as ‘rose veal’.

Rose veal production differs from white veal in that calves may only be kept in individual stalls until eight weeks old after which they must be group housed. From birth, calves must be fed a diet which contains sufficient iron to avoid anaemia and from two weeks of age they must be provided with a daily ration of fibrous food to allow normal rumen development (rumen is one of cow’s stomachs). However, feeding the calves a bit better than what constitutes animal abuse is no sign of high-welfare and veal calves suffer immensely as they are denied many social and physical needs and are often made to endure weather extremes in their tiny pens. Rose veal calves are slaughtered at around six to eight months of age.

“The best conditions for rearing young calves involve leaving the calf with the mother in a circumstance where the calf can suckle and can subsequently graze and interact with other calves.”

Scientific Veterinary Committee, Animal Welfare Section’s Report on the Welfare of Calves

No dairy calves are allowed to enjoy these conditions.

For more information, click here.

How much milk does a dairy cow produce in a day?

Over the last 40 years, milk yield has more than doubled due to selective breeding (genetics) and the intensification of herd management. Dairy cows’ milk yield has increased from an average of 3,750 litres per cow per year (12 litres/21 pints per day) in the 1970s to 7,944 litres (26 litres/42 pints per day) in 2015.

The figures above reflect only the average per cow, some cows may produce significantly more (up to 50 litres a day). Either way it equates to six to ten times more than a cow would naturally produce to feed her calf (4-6 litres) and this takes a toll on her body. It’s the reason why dairy cows always look so skeletal – most of their energy goes into milk production – and are exhausted by the age of five or six.

Why do people talk about pus or antibiotics in milk, is there any truth to it?

When a cow is suffering from mastitis (a painful bacterial infection of the udder), her body produces large numbers of white blood cells which fight the infection in the udder. Many of these cells together with dead cells from the inner lining of the udder then pass out in her milk and the greater the infection the higher the number of these ‘somatic’ cells (which is a sophisticated name for pus) in the milk. An increased number of somatic cells indicates infection so whilst a certain level of somatic cells is considered normal, higher levels mean there’s an inflammation and the udder is shedding more cells than usual – white blood cells, dead cells and bacteria, in other words, the components of what we know as pus when it’s contained in an abscess.

The average number of ‘somatic cells’ in one mililitre of milk (1/5 of a teaspoon) is 200,000. Under EU regulations, milk with a somatic cell count as high as 400 million per litre may still be sold for human consumption. Some farmers feed milk which exceeds this threshold to calves.

Around 50 per cent of dairy cows suffer from clinical mastitis every year and 14 per cent of cows are culled as a result. Clinical mastitis produces symptoms such as swollen, hard udders causing a lot of pain to the cow and discoloured or clotted milk.

Antibiotics are routinely used to treat mastitis and may be injected up the teat canal or administered orally. To help decrease the occurrence of mastitis in dairy herds, most farmers practice 100 per cent dry cow therapy. This involves injecting a long-acting antibiotic into all four teats of all cows, whether infected or not, as soon as they enter their dry period (a couple of months before giving birth). There are strict limits on antibiotic residues in milk and milk containing more than the permitted trace amounts is rejected – however, small amounts may be found in milk and the widespread antibiotic use in the dairy industry is contributing to the antibiotic resistance issue.

For more information, click here.

Aren't organic dairy products are much more ethical than conventional ones?

Cows on organic farms are still impregnated every year to provide a continuous supply of milk and endure the trauma of having their calves taken away within two days of birth. They also carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation just like cows on conventional farms and male calves can be shot shortly after birth or raised for veal.

Organic cows are allowed to graze but, on average, they still spend over five months indoors (in sheds) which severely restricts their movement and natural behaviours.

Are goat’s milk dairy products better than cow’s milk ones?

There are tens of thousands dairy goats in Britain and most of them are kept indoors in massive zero-grazing units – apart from one, all large scale operations in the UK are now indoor, intensive farms. The system is the same as for cows – kids are taken away almost immediately after birth, the females replenish the herd and the males are killed at birth or sold for meat.

For more information go to the page on dairy goat farming.

Isn't dairy environmentally friendly?

There are 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK. Most of them give birth to a calf each year and they all have to be fed and the farms need to be maintained using electricity, fuel and vast amounts of water. Dairy farming also means endless battles with slurry and continuous emissions of methane (one of the main greenhouse gases) resulting from cows’ digestion.

When it comes to milk itself, the chain beginning with the milking of the cows, storing and processing their milk and ending with a customer taking the finished product home, eats up large amounts of energy and fuel and is responsible for even more emissions of greenhouse gases.

Carbon footprint refers to the emission of three major greenhouse gases produced in agriculture. These are carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) – produced in one of the cow’s stomachs as a result of food fermentation and from stored manures – and nitrous oxide (N₂O) produced as a result of soil management and the application of fertiliser and manure. Methane is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as potent (DairyCo, 2012) and these conversions are usually reflected as ‘CO₂ equivalents’(see below).

The total carbon footprint of the UK dairy sector, including emissions from dairy farms, transport, distribution, processing and end use, is estimated to be 15.5 million tonnes of CO₂  per year (Carbon Trust, 2011). Just for comparison, if you drive to and from work every working day for an average of 40km (25 miles) a day, your car’s yearly emissions of CO₂ will be around 1.35 tonnes.

Aspects of milk production

When assessing environmental impacts of dairy products we need to take the following into consideration:

  • farm inputs – production of the feed crops (soya and maize, mostly grown in the Americas), import of the crops, production and import of special feed for the animals, use of fertilisers and pesticides on the farm, production and transport of bedding, tools, machinery using fossil fuels, water for the animals and also used to clean the farm premises
  • dairy farming itself – breeding of cows and their daily life, maintenance, manure/slurry management, silage, pasture maintenance, milking parlour
  • transport to and from the dairy farm
  • milk processing – this includes separation, pasteurisation, homogenisation, secondary processing, packaging, maintenance and running costs of all the processing plants and factories
  • final dairy product packaging
  • dairy product transport to the retail distributor
  • dairy product retailing and transport to the consumer
  • dairy product utilisation – cooking, baking, heating, etc.

The dairy industry is also notorious for causing three to five times as many serious water pollution incidents as the beef sector (the vast majority relate to slurry and silage liquor) (Foster et al., 2007).

To produce just one litre of cow’s milk, it takes 1,020 litres of water (Ercin et al., 2012) when all steps of its production are taken into account – that in itself makes dairy very environmentally unfriendly.

Agri Assist, 2011. UK Dairy Industry Carbon Footprint. Morrissons Farming.
Carbon Trust, 2011. Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator. Guide to the Dairy Sector CTG033. Carbon Trust, London.
DairyCo, 2012. Greenhouse gas emissions on British dairy farms DairyCo carbon footprinting study: Year one. AHDB, Kenilworth.
Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), 2014. 2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures and 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures by Fuel Type and End-User.
Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y., 2012. The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products. Ecological Indicators. 18: 392 – 402.
Foster, C. et al., 2006. Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A report to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Manchester Business School. Defra, London.
Foster, C. et al., 2007. The Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts Associated with Liquid Milk Consumption in the UK and its Production. A Review of Literature and Evidence. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London.
Mekonnen, M. M. and Hoekstra, A. Y., 2011. The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.15, 1577-1600.
Mekonnen, M. M. and Hoekstra, A. Y., 2012. A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Ecosystems. 15: 401–415.
Isn't it better to drink local cow's milk than buy plant milk from abroad?

Many plant milks are made from crops grown in Europe – soya, oats, almonds or hempseed. As such, these plant milks are always more sustainable and environmentally friendly than animal milks.

A cow has to eat a lot of food to just maintain her body, even more when she’s pregnant and lactating. All dairy farms, even those where cows graze for at least half a year, supplement their diet with high-protein and energy feeds – it’s a must as these cows are made to produce so much milk that they simply have to have concentrated food to be productive. These feeds are often made with imported crops but even if the crops were local – it’s still more environmentally friendly to use them for plant milk rather than use them for animal feed, only a fraction of which is then turned into milk.

How about buffalo mozzarella or camel milk?

The rush to exploit animals for their milk has seen other species added to the ranks of milking machines. Camel milk is the latest fad to hit British stores. Most is from the Middle East, where animal welfare may not even meet basic UK standards. Photos from a European camel farm show animals that are mostly housed and in a climate that is completely alien to them.

The situation with buffalo dairy farming in Italy, where most of buffalo mozzarella is produced, has been so appalling and cruel to the animals that it led to many investigations and initiatives to address the main issues. However, with rising popularity of the product, there have been no reports of improved conditions at the worst farms and the animals still suffer immensely. Buffaloes are intensively farmed, often without even their basic needs being met and newborn males are deemed so worthless that many are just dumped by the roadside or left to die in a pile of manure. Even at what would be considered ‘higher welfare’ farms, the cows are still impregnated and give birth yearly, having their newborns removed – an event which traumatizes both mother and baby – and suffer a host of welfare issues.


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