Dairy products is a huge business all over the world, but how often do we stop and think about the cows who give us the milk, ice cream, milk shakes or cheese that we gladly pick up at the store?
Lots of people don’t give the cows a second thought when if they pass a field with grazing cows walking around peacefully or standing there ruminating and what looks like lost for the world, in her own thoughts.But how are their life really? Do they get to walk around, enjoy the fresh grass? Give birth to a beautiful little calf that they get to keep a close eye on, nurture? After all, cows are very maternal animals that truly enjoy the company of other cows and their calves. They are social animals with the ability to nurture friendships, anticipate the future, and experience pain, fear, and anxiety, just as the pets we keep at home.
The reality in which the dairy cows live in
As with all other mammals they produce milk when having a baby, and I know I don’t have explain to you about how THAT happens (the brutal truth is there is no stork arriving with them)!
Dairy cattle will normally have their first calf at two years of age, and will be milked two or three times per day for 10 months with a two month rest before calving again. In the UK, the average working lifespan of a dairy cow is around four lactation’s (milk-producing periods), and hence many dairy cows are slaughtered when they are about 5 years old. So all they know about life is stress and too many cows are not even allowed out on that green field, but spend their lives inside until they are packed onto a truck and taken to a slaughter house. Since the 1950’s, artificial insemination (AI) is used at most dairy farms. After being painfully inseminated, they carry their young for ten months. Since the mother’s milk is harvested for human consumption, her baby is taken from her right when he is born. This separation is a devastating and traumatic event for both the mother and the baby. Some cows wail for days, and even starve themselves over the loss of their baby. There are reports of cows breaking through fencing and chasing after trucks in order to get close to their calf. Hormone treatments are sometimes given to dairy cows in some countries to increase reproduction and to increase milk production. The hormones are used to produce multiple embryos have to be administered at specific times to dairy cattle to induce ovulation. Frequently, for economic considerations, these drugs are also used to synchronise a group of cows to ovulate simultaneously.
About 40-60 days after birth, the cow is then inseminated again, in a circle that goes on until she can’t give as much milk to be valuable to the farmer and are sent of to the slaughter house where new agony and cruelty awaits. A dairy cow with untreated mastitis (common and very painful.)
Calves are taken from their mothers within 12-24 hours of birth. If nature was allowed to take its course calves would suckle from their mother for several months, even up to a year. Mother cows, like most mammals have a strong maternal bond. One study found that this bond was formed in as little as five minutes. And that calves with no interaction with their mothers or only interaction through a fence, “induced significant increases in walking, butting, urinating, and vocalizing”. (Here) On dairy farms, mother cows can be heard bellowing out wildly trying to find their babies as well as running after the cattle trucks that take their babies to separate farms. This event is hugely stressful for both the mother and the calf and the mother coldly are returned to the milking herd to maximise profits until pregnant again. And although the same study reveal that a later separation would be better for both the mother and the calf this is ignored simply for profit.
The female calves born on dairy farms might replace their “spent” mothers. Though cows can live more than 20 years in a natural setting, on production farms their health deteriorates by age five. No longer able to produce enough milk, they are deemed useless by the dairy industry and are sent to slaughter. Male calves born on dairy farms are raised for veal, living lives of confinement and malnourished until they are slaughtered at six months old to end up on a plate or as clothing.
The cycle of painful artificial insemination, calf separation, over milking, and slaughter happen even on dairy farms that call themselves “humane” or “organic” because a dairy farm can not operate without these practices in place. This cycle is all a dairy cow will ever know.
So a dairy cows life are not the happy life farmers want us to see, with ”happy” cows peacefully spending their days on wide green fields. It is to be confined, repeatedly impregnated, separated from their babies, forced to produce an unnatural amount of milk, plagued by painful utters, and thrown away within five years, at which time they are sent to slaughter. Dairy cows are viewed as no more than milk production machines. Image source here