The Amazon Rainforest is being cleared of an area the size of a soccer pitch every minute. Most of this is not for agriculture that directly sustains humans, but for cattle farming — to provide grazing land for cattle and land for growing feed crops.
When we consume the products of cattle farming, we might feel distant from these concerns. After all, why should someone enjoying beef in one corner of the world care about what is happening to a rainforest miles away? Yet cattle farming presents a serious problem for us all. If the Amazon forests were to be destroyed completely to meet our demands, the world would experience more droughts, a warmer climate, and massive flooding. And this is just one of the examples of how cattle farming is destroying our environment, placing the future of people and the planet in danger.
So what exactly is cattle farming, and why is it bad for the environment?
What Is Cattle Farming?
Cattle farming, simply put, is a form of business aimed at raising cows, bulls, oxen, and calves to be used for various purposes, the most prominent being dairy, beef, and leather.
Dairy cows are those cows who have the capacity to give birth and produce milk for their babies. That milk is then taken to be marketed for consumption by humans. Cattle farmers specifically breed dairy cows to produce large quantities of milk. In the U.S., the Holstein-Friesian and Jersey breeds are usually used on dairy farms.
To keep the production of milk constant, a cow has to continue lactating. This is ensured by impregnating the cow every year via artificial insemination, a method that uses the sperm of bulls considered to be genetically superior to inseminate cows and ensures profitable offspring. The calves hardly taste their mothers’ milk—they are rather put on a soy milk formula. Calves who are capable of future dairy production undergo the same cycle as their mothers, and those who cannot produce dairy are put to use in other industries.
Beef cattle are bulls and calves raised to be killed for meat. Many of the calves are turned into veal, by being killed 2-3 days after birth, and sometimes even after 2-3 hours. The rest are raised to be fattened for beef. Just as with dairy cows, beef cattle are selectively bred, to help produce and sell different commodities, like leaner meats. Most beef cattle in the U.S. are put in enclosures where they survive in unsanitary conditions, while only a small percentage are given access to pasture.
Often thought of as a “byproduct” of the dairy and meat industries, leather has in fact become one of the main sources of profit for cattle farmers. Leather is the skin of a cow, bull, or calf. It is usually young calves that are killed, for their soft and unmarked skin.
How Is a Cattle Farm Maintained?
Maintaining a cattle farm mainly requires pastures for early feeding, and “feedlots” where cattle are fed grains to be fattened up for slaughter. It also involves handling, grazing, housing, fly control, and reproduction.
Cows need to be handled in a way that prevents stress or injury to them, and that ensures their overall well-being. But quite the opposite is the hallmark of cattle farming. Cows are stationed on concrete floors for a long period, damaging their hooves and also causing sore joints. Many dairy cows are milked using machines, which among other things cause mastitis, leading to pus formation in milk. Cattle handling also involves literally breaking up families, by separating lactating cows from their babies, so that the milk can be used for dairy and the babies can be used as meat.
Cattle farming needs ample pasture space for grazing. After a few weeks, calves and young cows then have to move to a feedlot to be fattened for meat. The problem with the feed given to cattle is that this diet is mostly focused on producing more milk or better meat, without much concern for how good the diet is for the cattle themselves. Sometimes, instead of being transferred to feedlots, cattle are allowed to feed on mostly grass and are labeled as “grass-fed” cattle.
A lot of the time cattle are not given access to pasture for grazing for very long. It is common for certain meat and dairy items to have a specific “pasture-raised, free-range” label on them to verify that cattle did indeed get some access to pasture, yet these terms don’t have legal backing when applied to cattle.
Housing for cattle needs to fulfill many requirements, including cleanliness, personal space, and proper ventilation. But in reality, the cattle industry hardly meets these needs. Living a life of confinement, dairy and beef cattle are kept in unsanitary conditions, amidst their own feces, and are forced to inhale toxic fumes. Living with no personal space, cattle also have to deal with crowding, and at times suffocation. It is a life of being rooted to one spot, with just one imposed purpose—to be put to use for humans.
Seemingly harmless, flies carry a lot of diseases that cattle are susceptible to. Given the unclean housing conditions and crowding in cattle farms, fly numbers increase. Farmers often use pesticides and insecticides to deal with the problem, but that causes more problems than it solves. Firstly, all the surroundings get contaminated with the chemicals used in pesticides. This includes the air, and the food for cattle, which invariably leads to milk contamination and harm to cattle health. Cattle farms become hotspots for bioaccumulation of substances within animals, which ensures that these problems persist for a long time.
To ensure a steady supply of milk and to have calves for leather and veal, reproduction is necessary. However, if left to exercise their own will, cows will rarely become pregnant every year, given the mental and physical toll that pregnancy takes on their bodies. Hence cattle farm management involves artificial insemination to ensure that the cow gets pregnant every year with good genes, ensuring a continuous supply of milk, meat, and other products for humans.
Over time, repeatedly giving birth leads to ruptures of the uterus and weakening of their bodies far ahead of the usual timescale. After 5-6 years of continuously giving birth, they are sent to be slaughtered. In some countries that do not allow cattle slaughter, they are instead left on the streets, where they can eventually die from eating plastic.
How Much Does a Cattle Farmer Make Per Cow?
Incomes differ across farms, and depend on various factors, including their size, and how much farmers are willing to compromise on animal welfare to boost their profits. Given the fact that demand for one of the main products of cattle farming—dairy—is plummeting in the U.S., farmers have been facing losses and dumping milk in rivers and fields. There is not much clear data on how much cattle farmers make per cow, but on average farmers earn $300-700 a week. Again, this figure is changing with changes to consumption patterns worldwide, as people are demanding more ethical choices for food and clothing.
Why Is Cattle Farming Bad for the Environment?
Because of how normalized consumption of meat and dairy is, cattle farming is often romanticized as something essential and even empowering. But no matter how one looks at it, the facts still point to the overwhelmingly detrimental impact of cattle farming on the environment. Cattle farming is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases, thus being a major cause of climate change.
Cattle farming has also often displaced local communities who have ensured more regenerative and balanced uses of land in their environments. It causes air and water pollution. The industry also treats living beings as commodities and shows no consideration for their welfare. Finally, cattle farming depends on clearing the land of forests, which is the habitat of many animals, thus threatening biodiversity.
A cow produces approximately 37 kilos of feces every day. Now imagine 80-100 cows producing this much waste on a cattle farm every day. What happens to the waste? It either lies strewn around for the cows to live, breathe, and sit in it, or it is dumped on land or in bodies of water. Cattle waste contains a lot of nitrogen, which can contaminate water sources around farms over time. Nitrate contamination from a cattle farm infiltrated most of the wells in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin in just four years, forcing many people to relocate. The use of pesticides and insecticides on cattle farms just exacerbates the problem, by contaminating major water sources with harmful chemicals.
Overuse of Antibiotics
The easiest way for cattle farms to ensure the good health of animals is by feeding them antibiotics. However, this has a detrimental impact on the environment. The antibiotics may boost methane production in cattle, which means that their waste would release gases of even more harmful intensity. It has a more obviously devastating unintended consequence for humans too—overuse of drugs leads to the evolution of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
Inhumane Animal Care
At the very least, “humane” behavior implies that one shows compassion and respect for the individuality and existence of another being. This implies that if someone does not consent to their bodies being used to earn profits in the market, then that choice should be respected. We are one among a billion species that together are important for the planet to thrive.
However, nothing that happens on a cattle farm matches this description of being humane. Right from birth, cattle are segregated according to their commercial use. The lactating cow is assigned to spend the rest of their lives chained to machines that suck out their milk, the calves are either bred to become milk producers or are killed for meat, leather, and other purposes, and bulls are bred to extract their semen, or fattened up for beef.
Throughout this process, the calves get little to no access to the milk meant for them. The cows spread their time in crowded enclosures, in the same space, continuously for many years. Cattle born with horns are “dehorned,” which is a painful process that targets many nerve endings. They are sometimes kicked and beaten, and sick cows are left to die.
Global warming is one of the clearest aspects of climate change. Essentially, days become hotter as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increase. Methane and ammonia are the most powerful gases that lead to global warming, and data from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that animal agriculture is the leading industry producing these emissions. Beef and dairy cattle, in particular, are responsible for the release of GHGs because of enteric fermentation during digestion. This means that the process that cattle undergo to break their food into soluble components builds up a lot of harmful gases.
Grass-fed cattle are often considered to be a sustainable solution for global warming. However, not only do they release emissions, but they also use a lot of land and run the risk of overgrazing.
Cattle Farming Facts and Statistics
The world has 1.49 billion cattle being used to produce different commodities. From these cattle, the world takes 841.84 million tonnes of milk per year, and 71.61 million tonnes of beef. Beef, soy, and palm oil account for 60 percent of tropical deforestation. Soy production is not primarily driven by plant-based milk, but beef and dairy production, since soy forms a major component of cattle feed.
When we look at land use, agriculture takes up more than half of the world’s land resources, and 77 percent of this land is not even being used to grow crops for human consumption, but the grazing and feed of farmed animals, including cattle.
What You Can Do
The appeal of keeping cattle in dreamy meadows and earning a profit from them may motivate people to start a cattle farm, but the cost to animal welfare, the environment, and farmers is too great to consider the business sustainable. Instead, one can look at booming opportunities in plant-based farming, which does not require as much land and has a dramatically reduced impact on the climate. We can also adopt an ethical approach to life and go vegan. We also need to understand that as consumers, we can not only change what we demand but also how much we demand. With limited resources and billions of people, it makes sense to reduce our consumption and embrace minimalist living.
We can market umpteen “sustainable” solutions that still try to ensure a supply of beef, milk, and all the other products that rely on the commodification of cattle, but let’s face it — what will these solutions achieve if we only focus on the sustainability of humans and not of the earth as a whole? The hierarchies that we have created between us and other species are not compatible with sustaining the earth or, inevitably, ourselves. Cattle farming is not viable in the long run, and with the ethical and genuinely sustainable options available, it is time to shift to those options for good.
Nimisha (she/they) a is a freelance journalist primarily in the realm of sexuality, Indian politics and animal agriculture. They are a growth strategist, and they successfully run their own collaborative trekking project in India. They are a personal growth coach using alternative therapies.Their life and work is dedicated towards a just and equitable world.