Dairy Cows: Their Tragic Role in Factory Farming

factory farmed dairy cows

We’ve all seen heartwarming photographs of dairy cows grazing on green calves and nursing their young. The reality for most dairy cows, however, is much different.

The law views animals as objects. In other words, they — and their byproducts — have value. If someone is willing to pay for an object, whether it breathes or doesn’t, a business can spring up around it.

Dairy cows are commercialized because they provide the milk that companies sell to consumers. Whether it’s in a gallon container, made into cheese, turned into butter, whipped into yogurt, or otherwise altered, it’s still a product.

Since dairy cows have the product, dairy farmers use them as objects. The cows are not viewed as sentient creatures but as means to ends.

Dairy cows live sad, lonely lives that cause both psychological and physical distress. Factory farmers separate the cows from their young almost immediately after giving birth and breed them as frequently as possible to increase milk production.

Let’s take a closer look at the lives of dairy cows and what we can do about the animal abuse they suffer.

What Are Dairy Cows?

dairy cows and factory farming

Dairy cows, from jerseys to holsteins, are cows bred for the specific purpose of producing large quantities of milk. They’re often smaller than cattle raised for beef. Of course, all dairy cattle are heifers since only female cows produce milk.

Long ago, dairy and beef farmers ran most of their operations concurrently. However, as factory farms learned how to breed certain types of cows to produce more milk, those lines became sharper. These days, most factory farms specialize in either dairy or beef.

Unlike on a family farm, where small children might milk the family cows, taking only what they need, today’s enormous operations use elaborate infrastructure to extract the milk from postpartum heifers. Dairy cows live in narrow stalls or pens and denied socialization.

Dairy Cow Statistics

stats of dairy cows

You might think that milk production would decline thanks to the popularity of vegan diets and the availability of cow milk alternatives, such as soy milk or rice milk. However, according to research conducted by the USDA, milk production has grown from approximately 1.4 billion pounds in 2008 to nearly 16.6 billion in 2018.

Furthermore, the average production of a single cow as of August 2018 was nearly 2,000 pounds. Consider the fact that none of a dairy cow’s milk goes to her young. It’s all harvested for human consumption in one way or another.

The huge production demand encourages factory farmers to breed more cows, extract more milk from heifers, and expand their operations.

Living Creatures Are Being Separated From Their Mothers Very Early

calves of dairy cows separated from mothers

The bond between a heifer and her calf isn’t much different from the relationship between mother and baby. Cows look after their young, bond with them, and teach them how to stay safe in this world. That important relationship doesn’t exist for dairy cows.

What happens to the calves of dairy cows?

In fact, most dairy cows are separated from their offspring within 24 hours of giving birth. The calves receive synthetic milk alternatives so their mothers’ milk can produce more money for farmers’ pockets.

Mother cows have been known to scream for their young, attempt to break out of their pens, break down fences, and go to other extreme lengths in their desperation for reunification. They want to spend time with their offspring. In fact, cows often bond with their mothers for life, remaining in the same herd, when allowed to live naturally.

The extreme distress these cows demonstrate often lead them to refuse water and food. They get sick, become malnourished, and are impregnated again within three or four months. The cycle continues, with each new baby taken away from his or her mother.

Female Calves

Female calves born to dairy cows typically live in small, dark enclosures until old enough to conceive a calf. They experience the same lives their mothers do, forcibly impregnated via artificial insemination and losing their calves one after another.

Many claim that dairy farming isn’t harmful because the cows are not killed. 

However, investigative reports from all over the world have shown how these animals are treated. When cows get sick or can no longer produce calves, they’re often bludgeoned to death. The same fate awaits female calves who fail to thrive.

This medieval treatment continues despite its exposure. Seeing videos of farm workers abusing these animals outright, above and beyond the already deplorable living conditions, hasn’t changed many consumers’ minds about the dairy industry.

Male Calves

Obviously, a heifer has a 50-50 chance of producing a male calf instead of a female. Since male calves can’t become part of the dairy operations, they face one of two equally horrific fates:

  1. Raised in tiny cages for several weeks until slaughtered for veal; or
  2. Fed into a beef farming operation in which they will eventually be slaughtered.

Both potential trajectories involve abuse, poor nutrition, inadequate socialization, and death. Remember that the law views animals as property, so factory farmers can get away with treating the animals brutally in exchange for the desired dollars.

Lives of Dairy Cows

Dairy cows’ living conditions vary depending on the type of operation. Many live indoors and are separated by stocks. They can’t turn around or move forward or backward. That way, farmers can extract their milk more efficiently.

Other operations stable animals outside, which gives them some much-needed sun exposure. However, they’re still separated from their herd mates, so they can’t form natural bonds, and they get hormones and other additives to help them produce more milk.

Living Standards of Dairy Cows

If you’ve never visited a dairy cow operation, you might not know what it looks like. Let’s take a look at a few facts that might give you a better understanding of what dairy cows experience during their lives.

Living in Crowded and Packed Lots

factory farmed dairy cows confined

Have you ever developed a sudden panicked feeling in a crowded room, such as at a concert? Imagine living in that environment for your entire life.

If you watch cows in their natural environments, you’ll notice they spread out. Even heifers give their calves near immediate autonomy. The mother will check in with the baby frequently, but also allow the calf to roam.

Similarly, although cows are intensely social creatures, you’ll see that they keep space between each other unless there’s a reason to come together. Cows might spend a few minutes grooming each other, for instance, then amicably amble away.

Dairy cows don’t get those luxuries. They live in small pens with no room and no pleasure. They never get the opportunity to explore their world naturally, and many develop serious illnesses and other conditions because they’re kept in such close quarters.

Having to Stand and Sleep on Concrete Floors

If you’ve ever stood or walked on concrete for a long time, you know how sore your feet can get. Cows experience sore hooves, knees, other joints, and other similar problems because they’re forced to remain on such an unyielding surface.

Cows should roam and graze on soft grass. Their hooves aren’t built for supporting their weight on concrete, and many cows eventually go down and never get back up. Those animals are slaughtered because they’re no longer useful as money-making machines.

Not Being Able to Move Freely

You might have experienced stiff joints and sore muscles after standing, sitting, or lying in the same position for too long. Our bodies have pressure points that, when tested too much, signal for us to move due to pain.

Cows are very different physiologically from human beings, but like people, dairy cows need to move around to stay healthy. They get exercise, move their joints, build their muscles, and experience relaxation. Dairy cows are denied those rights.

Living in Their Own Waste

Manure and urine are extremely toxic. You wouldn’t want to stand in your own excrement all day, yet dairy cows face this treatment for their entire lives.

They get acute respiratory distress from the ammonia that comes from urine, for instance. As manure decomposes further, it creates bacteria that can infect cows’ hooves. Worse, if a cow sustains an injury, the open wound gets exposed to these biological hazards.

The Treatment That Dairy Cows Receive

the treatment of dairy cows

There’s no need for dairy farmers to use their hands to milk their cows. Instead, they use machines that act as vacuums for dairy cows’ udders. The machinery sucks the milk from the cows and stores it in vats for processing.

As you might imagine, dairy cows’ udders get extremely irritated during this process. The seal that must form around the teats produces sores and irritation. Those might get infected, especially in dairy farming operations where farmers don’t check their cattle for health and wellness.

Essentially, biology aids in dairy farming.

A cow’s body, just like a human’s, determines how much milk to produce based on depletion. Since lactation is intended to nourish baby calves, the cow’s body will produce more milk if the reserves get depleted.

Consequently, dairy cows produce considerably more milk thanks to mechanical milking. It’s also highly unnatural.

Dairy cows only need to produce as much milk as their calves will drink. By increasing milk production, the heifers’ udders and teats become irritated. Eventually, the cows stop producing milk.

Entire Life of Confinement

No animal — dairy cows included — is built to spend a life in confinement. Cows need to roam, explore the world, find fresh grass, locate water sources, and tend their young.

By treating them like lactose vending machines, factory farmers destroy the animals’ spirits and prevent them from experiencing the world as they were intended. Unfortunately, millions of cows endure this treatment, but there’s nobody to save them.

Dairy Cows Reproduce at an Unnatural Speed By Force

Pregnancy and delivery are extremely taxing on an animal’s body — including a human’s. New mothers, whether bovine or human, need time to rest, recuperate, and bond with their young. They don’t want to give up their babies and get pregnant again right away.

How do cows continuously produce milk? By staying pregnant and producing as many offspring as possible. Mammals only produce milk when they have a youngster to nourish.

The more important question is how do cows produce milk when not pregnant? It’s possible to artificially stimulate lactation through hormonal interference. However, such a practice can eventually stop the cow from producing milk at all, which effectively ends her life because she’s of no further value to the farmer.

Dairy cows have no choice. The farm needs to make money, and that only happens when the cows produce milk. Since milk comes from cows that have been bred, rapid breeding cycles run rampant on factory farms.

Sick Dairy Cows Many Times Are Left to Die in Agony or Are Brutally Killed

A dairy farmer has no use for a sick or injured cow — or calf, for that matter. Instead of treating the source of the problem, the farmers either wait for the cow to die on her own or slaughter her via exsanguination.

In other words, the cow bleeds to death after the farmer slits her throat.

So-called “stunning” mechanisms are used to render the animal unconscious before being bled out. However, we have no way of knowing how much the stunning itself hurts, and the end result remains the same. Another dead cow.

Being Fed Food That Makes Them Produce More Milk Rather Than Maintain Health

It’s all about the cash in dairy farming. Many operations feed dairy cows such unnatural diets that their udders swell so much they can’t remain on their feet. The food is designed to enhance milk production rather than to keep the animals healthy.

Dairy Cows Often Face Serious Diseases During Their Lives

diseases contracted by dairy cows on factory farms

In dirty environments where animals are housed extremely close together, diseases can thrive. Bacterial and viral infections plague many dairy cows, and dairy farmers don’t want to spend the money necessary to treat these conditions.

As mentioned above, for instance, the ammonia from standing urine can cause breathing problems in cows. Their entire respiratory systems become irritated and inflamed, which makes breathing more difficult.

There are several other health issues that plague dairy cows, many of which wouldn’t be a problem if those cows were allowed to roam free.

Mastitis

It’s true that mastitis — an infection of the udder that can cause clogged milk ducts — occurs in all mammals. In some cases, it’s not preventable. However, it’s more common in dairy cows because of the machines that extract their milk.

Infections cause pus to develop in the milk, which means that pus finds its way into foods like milk, cheese, and butter. This is because the body produces white blood cells to reduce infection, and dead white blood cells clump together with diseased tissue, which is then released from the teat.

Nobody wants to drink a glass of pus for breakfast, and now cow wants to endure the excruciating pain of having her milk drained while her udder and teats remain inflamed and tender. Human women often complain of pain during the first few days or weeks of nursing. Infection increases that pain across all mammals.

Reproduction Problems

Cows aren’t designed to be systematically impregnated to increase their milk production. In the wild, mating takes place based on how cows interact with one another socially and based on the females’ heat cycles.

Reproduction problems arise when cows endure too many pregnancies over years of captivity. They might birth stillborn calves, have calves with deformities, or miscarry their calves. Additionally, they can develop diseases of the reproductive organs, including various cancers.

Many factors contribute to reproductive problems among dairy cows, including diet, lack of exercise, and multiple pregnancies. We’ll talk about morbidity a little later, but for now, know that dairy cows don’t live nearly as long as their free brethren. Since dairy farmers have no “use” for a cow that can’t procreate, these cows often face slaughter or die from disease and neglect.

Lameness

Cows’ hooves are remarkably strong, but they also have weaknesses. The tender flesh in the frog of the hoof can become infected, particularly when cows stand in urine and feces. These infections often abscess, resulting in severe lameness.

Additionally, as I talked about before, standing on hard concrete surfaces has a negative impact on dairy cows’ bones and joints. These structures break down over time because the cows never experience any relief.

An astounding number of dairy cows wind up falling down without the ability to get back up. Again, they become useless to the farmers, so they’re expendable.

True animal lovers tend to cows and other animals with love and care. They treat lameness and other conditions so the animals can thrive. While it’s important to limit human interference with the animal kingdom, humans and other animals can live in harmony and companionship.

Dairy cows, unfortunately, never experience this relationship. On a factory farm, dairy cows are materials on a factory line.

Extreme Stress

Pregnancy alone causes stress in every mammal. Hormone levels are different than they are when a human or cow is not pregnant, the body must swell to make room for the baby, and nutritional needs change. When a cow’s needs aren’t met during pregnancy, her stress escalates precipitously.

Stress also comes from the crowded conditions, the often abusive interactions they have with humans, and the factory-like extraction of their milk. Plus, when denied the opportunity to bond with their calves, cows become frantic, depressed, anxious, and hopeless.

If you’ve ever had a stressful experience, you know what it did to your body and mind. You might have felt weak, tired, vulnerable, anxious, depressed, and/or frustrated. Perhaps you couldn’t eat, sleep, or relax.

Cows experience the same things when overly stressed.

Genetic Mutations of Dairy Cows

genetic mutations of dairy cows

It’s important to understand that genetic mutations occur both naturally and as a result of selective breeding. In many cases, genetic mutations produce good results. For instance, you might have heard that mutts often have fewer health problems than purebred dogs because they lack the vulnerabilities inherent to specific breeds.

The same can be true of dairy cows. When farmers manipulate the gene pool to produce healthier cows, those cows benefit. However, messing with genetic code can also have a deleterious effect on the cattle.

It’s also true that certain genetic modifications actively harm cattle by making them too large for their bone structure and other problems. Cows are only meant to produce a certain amount of milk, and stretched udders might prevent cows from lying down or moving normally.

Certain genetic mutations can prove so dangerous that they impact the lives of millions of cows. In 2009, for instance, researchers discovered a dangerous genetic mutation that they traced back to one extremely prolific bull whose offspring, including granddaughters and great-granddaughters, numbered in the millions.

By focusing on eliminating harmful genes rather than producing “super cows,” dairy cows would have a much greater quality of life.

Continuous Circle of Life For Dairy Cows

If you’ve read this far, you have a pretty good understanding of what dairy cows endure on a daily basis. It’s a continuous cycle that involves each cow’s daughters, sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

The increasing demand for milk products combined with the technological advancements that allow farmers to collect milk more efficiently have increased reproduction rates and introduced record numbers of dairy cows into the world.

Unfortunately, those cows don’t get the chance to just be cows. Instead, they’re forced into reproductive servitude. The male cows get butchered at just a few weeks of age for veal, the female cows get their minimum needs met until they reach puberty, and the cows in the entire operation endure terrible living conditions.

How Long Do Dairy Cows Live?

One of the greatest injustices inherent to the dairy cattle industry is the reduced lifespan for cows involved in it. A cow in a natural environment, with access to adequate nutrition and hydration, can live for 20 years or more.

Even companies in the industry, such as Alberta Milk, admit that dairy cows live an average of just five years. Many don’t even reach their fifth birthdays, and all are raised for the intention of providing milk — not for their young, but for human consumption.

This reduced lifespan might seem merciful. After all, now that you’re aware of how dairy cows live, would you want to endure that abuse and neglect? However, all sentient creatures deserve a chance at life. By crippling these animals, we deny them that.

The Fight For a Humane Living Standard For All Dairy Cows

There’s good news after all these bleak, depressing facts. While we can’t change the dairy industry overnight, we can work toward a better world for dairy cows. By educating the public, spreading awareness, refusing to buy food that was produced via cruelty, and contributing money and time toward humane causes, you can make a huge difference.

The dairy industry doesn’t just impact dairy cows. These animals consume tremendous amounts of food-quality grain. If the dairy industry didn’t exist, we could use that grain to feed hungry humans and stop overpopulating the world with cattle.

Additionally, we would improve soil quality by cutting down on manure and urine production and allow the cows who breed naturally to raise their offspring as they were intended to do.

Helping the Cause

One of the best ways in which you can contribute to the cause is by spreading awareness to the people around you. Don’t preach to your friends and family, but share what you’ve learned. They’ll make their own decisions about what businesses they support, but you never know when you can change someone’s mind.

You might also volunteer with an organization that’s fighting for dairy cow rights. Join peaceful protests, donate your money to help feed rescued cattle, donate your time and energy to protect cows, and spread the word via social media.

Go One Step Further and Free All Dairy Cows

No, you shouldn’t trespass on a dairy farm and let all the cows loose. Not only would you probably not succeed, but the animals would have no place to go. There are peaceful ways to free all dairy cows.

Maybe you have a dairy ranch. You might consider changing how you approach your operation for the betterment of the cows. Give them more space, better feed, and as little human intervention as possible.

Becoming Vegan

becoming a vegan

Companies don’t listen to picketing signs and social media flame wars. They listen to their pocketbooks. If you can take dollars away from dairy farmers, you’ll be part of the cause to improve cows’ lots in life.

When you don’t consume dairy products — including milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cream — you tell the dairy farmers you don’t appreciate how they treat their animals. If enough people adopt a vegan diet, more dairy operations will shut down.

Veganism is all about protecting animals. By abstaining from consuming all animal products, you save the world one sentient creature at a time.

Donate To or Join an Organization to Fight For Animal Rights and Freedom

Your time and money are extremely valuable. You don’t have to spend every waking hour working for animal rights groups, but you can get involved in more subtle ways.

For instance, you might organize a neighborhood meeting to educate your neighbors about cattle farming. Explain the horrid conditions they endure and show them what dairy cows must suffer for them to get their milk.

There are tons of local, national, and worldwide organizations devoted to ending animal cruelty. You can help not only dairy cows, but other forms of animal abuse, whether from factory farming or other sources.

Conclusion

Do you believe that dairy cows deserve better conditions than they get? Have you found yourself tearing up while learning about how these beautiful creatures get abused and slaughtered? You’re not alone. The facts about dairy farming are tough to absorb.

Here at Sentient Media, we believe that all sentient creatures deserve rights and respect. That’s why we publish news and instructional resources for everyone to consume. We want people to know how animals suffer at the hands of humans and what we can do about it.

If you’re concerned about the plights of dairy cows, don’t hesitate to stand up for their rights. The more we do to hamper factory farming, the better. Sign up for our newsletter so you never miss the latest information on animal matters.

Have you considered cutting dairy products out of your diet?

Mikko is the founder of Sentient Media.

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