Whether it is a slice of pizza gooey with stretchy mozzarella or a super sweet Asian yogurt drink labeled as “probiotic,” dairy products are popular in the United States. Though the per capita consumption of liquid milk (including eggnog) dropped from 247 pounds in 1975 to 141 in 2020, the amount of cheese and nonfrozen yogurt consumed per person has increased. The numbers may tell us that the dairy industry is persisting, but they also hide that industry’s reality—the violent mistreatment that cows, goats, and other animals typically experience in a business that puts a “for sale” sticker on every part of their bodies.
What Are Dairy Cows?
Dairy cows are female cows who are bred and raised so that their milk can be used for human food. Food products made from cow’s milk can be served in liquid, solid, dry, canned, and frozen forms, and include milk, cheese, whey, buttermilk, yogurt, evaporated and condensed milks, and milk powders.
Which Cows Are Used as Dairy Cows?
The dairy industry in the U.S. prefers specific breeds of cows for milk production: Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, and milking shorthorn are popular. In the past, Devon cows have been a favorite breed. Today, most U.S. dairy cows are black-and-white Holsteins.
What Is the Difference Between Dairy Cows and Other Cows?
All cows are emotional and social beings, but dairy cows are typically seen as nothing more than the source of materials for milk and cheese factories. One obvious difference between a dairy cow and some other cows is that dairy cows are typically slaughtered at young ages, while cows who are seen as companion animals or who have been rehomed at animal sanctuaries are able to live as long as 15 to 20 years.
Are Dairy Cows Treated Well?
The vast majority of dairy cows are not treated well. Most dairy cows live in factory farms, technically known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). They either live in open barns or in individual stalls where they are tied in place, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.
Crowded and Packed Lots
The typical dairy cow does not have enough space to lie down. The recommended space is 100 square feet, but they normally only get 23 to 38 square feet of space. Cows need space to rest for 10 to 14 hours each day.
Standing and Sleeping on Concrete Floors
Most dairy cows live for at least part of the year in indoor facilities, where they stand on concrete floors for 10 to 12 hours per day. Concrete floors result in foot and leg injuries, including swollen joints, lameness, and ultimately “downer” cows who are unable to stand any longer.
One of the most common housing systems for lactating dairy cows in the U.S. is freestall. About 40 percent of dairy operations use freestall as a primary housing method, with or without access to open or dry lots. Freestall housing can be described as “resting cubicles” that cows can “enter and leave at will.” But these cubicles are much smaller in relation to the cow’s body than an office cubicle is to a human. Each cubicle is separated by metal rails that are nearly the height of a standing cow. The floors of these freestall barns are usually made of concrete. Sometimes they are covered in mattresses or rubber mats. The cubicles are set up as rows that line the walls of a barn. Each row of cubicles spills directly into a wide concrete hallway that is also referred to as a manure alley. The cows walk on the alleyway to get to their feed platform. These conditions prevent them from lying down as they would in nature.
Unable to Move Freely
About 4 out of 10 dairy operations in the U.S. kept their lactating cows in tie stalls as their primary housing method. Living in pastures is the primary housing type for only about 1 in 10 dairy cow farms, whether the cows were dry (11 percent) or lactating (8 percent). Pasture is the natural environment for a cow, and it is where they are most comfortable lying down, grazing, and chewing cud (or “ruminating”). Of the 40 different types of observed behaviors that cows engage in on pasture, most are far easier in an open and grassy environment than in the indoor housing that most dairy cows experience.
Zero-grazing housing systems—that provide cows no access to pasture, whether they live in tie stalls, freestalls, or open and dry lots—drastically restrict cows’ behavior. No pasture means less ability for cows to move, explore their environment, change their posture, and have social interactions. On pasture, activities that cows enjoy include grazing, browsing, eating, standing or walking beside other cows, doing nothing, vocalizing, traveling, running, sleeping, licking their own bodies, sitting, rubbing against and licking other animals, sniffing, digging into the ground with their nose or foot, rubbing their neck on the ground, and beating vegetation with their horns. Life in zero-grazing housing systems prevents many of these behaviors, as the cow is fitted into a stall where she cannot turn around, and where it is difficult to reach out to groom another cow.
Living in Their Own Waste
“[D]airy cows are in these corrals where they’re living in their own waste,” according to animal welfare investigator Pete Paxton on the Farm Sanctuary website. Paxton describes how the dairy farm housing facilities for a cow enforce a compounding series of offenses against her body throughout the course of her life.
Do Dairy Cows Have to Be Pregnant to Produce Milk?
Yes, being pregnant is necessary for a cow to produce milk. Each time they give birth, which is about three or four times total before they are killed, their bodies produce the coveted milk that is meant to feed their children. Instead, farmers take the milk from the cows and sell it for human use.
What Happens to Dairy Cows When They Are Not Milked?
Throughout the day, a dairy cow living in a freestall barn might walk to eat from the feed trough, and she might walk to get milked two or three times a day. Dairy cows with little to no access to the outdoors who are able to do so typically lie down in their stalls to rest, despite overcrowding or poor bedding options.
Sick Dairy Cows Are Brutally Killed or Left to Die in Agony
Because dairy cows are valued only for the milk they produce, the dairy industry has devalued their lives to the point where these individual animals are not worth tending to when they are sick. Investigative author Katheryn Gillespie described one such cow in her 2014 doctoral dissertation as follows:
“The cow with #743 stuck to her side lay in one of the holding pens behind the California auction house. Her legs splayed out behind her at an unnatural angle; she was unable to get up. From the catwalk above, I watched her struggle to move her legs into a position where they would hold her weight. These futile attempts exhausted her and her breathing was labored as saliva foamed from her mouth. Now and then, she bellowed hoarsely. Like the other animals who appear at auction, the effects of her use in the dairy industry were legible on her body. Her tail was docked short. Her over-full udders were crushed beneath the weight of her body. Her ears were tagged.
When I first noticed her, she was lying in a pen, with a small herd of other cows standing around her, waiting to be auctioned. Over the course of the two hours I spent at the auction, I kept checking in on her from the cat walk. At one point, the auction workers came and herded the other cows into the adjacent pen and closed the gate
behind them, isolating the cow with sticker #743. They bound her back legs together with a cord to see if that would help her to stand. She still could not stand. Milk and blood leaked from her udders onto the manure-covered ground beneath her.
The cow with #743 was what the industry terms a ‘downer.’”
Downed cows, or downers, are cows that are unable to get up and walk on their own. Rather than treat the cow’s ailments, dairy farmers typically have their workers kill downed cows with a bullet or captive bolt gun. Unfortunately, sometimes the captive bolt gun does not work and a downed cow wakes up in a pile of carcasses, only to “die slowly atop the murdered cows she once lived with.”
Fed to Produce More Milk Rather Than Maintain Their Health
Dairy cows are fed an energy-rich diet that’s often made up of “grains or slaughter waste,” according to a report by The Humane Society of the United States, even though cows are naturally herbivores who would be eating grass and plants all day long if not in captivity. The reason for feeding today’s dairy cows high-energy foods is to sustain their “abnormally high milk production” that outpaces by four times what cows were producing 70 years ago. As a result, the cows can experience a condition known as rumen acidosis as the acid levels in their digestive system become so high that they get sick, sometimes fatally. Conventional diets of dairy cows also contribute to laminitis, a condition that painfully inflames their hooves and makes it hard for them to walk.
Why Is Milking Dairy Cows Bad?
Milking dairy cows is bad because it is usually done in a way that shortens cows’ lives and puts them at risk of disease and severe distress.
About 1 in 4 dairy cows has an infected udder, a condition known as mastitis, which is a major cause of death in dairy farms. Mastitis is preventable with better hygiene practices, but it continues to be “the most commonly reported health problem in the U.S. dairy industry.”
The entire dairy industry is built around a cow’s reproduction cycle, to the detriment of their health. Farmers selectively breed dairy cows for the amount of milk they can yield, making them more likely to experience stress and disease. Modern dairy cows have been bred to produce too much milk, making it harder for their feet and legs to support their bodies.
The lactating dairy cow typically gets a roughly 50-day period when she’s allowed to stop lactating, in order to optimize her body for her next pregnancy. During this abrupt “dry off” period, the cow’s udders can become engorged with “large quantities of milk.” The pressure from the milk can lead to cows feeling discomfort and spending less time lying down.
Otherwise, dairy cows are milked for 300 days of the year. The dairy cow gives birth about once per year starting at the age of two, until she is about five years old (with a range of three to seven total years of life). Once it is more difficult to impregnate her artificially, or when she slows down in her ability to produce milk, the exhausted cow is considered “spent.” Her life is useless to the industry without an active reproductive system, so she is sent to a feedlot where she will be fattened and slaughtered for the beef industry.
The overall built environment of dairy farms contributes to lameness—specifically, concrete flooring and lack of exercise in pastures. Lameness is a symptom that means it is hard for the cow to move her foot or leg because it has become infected or injured. Because of the extraordinary amount of milk that dairy cows give, they constantly lose body mass and body fat, including in their feet, which means that their feet are no longer cushioned. This lack of cushioning is just one of many factors that contributes to lameness. Lameness is not a disease, it is a symptom, yet along with other forms of injury it ranked as the highest cause of death (20 percent) of dairy cows in a 2007 government survey.
Life as a dairy cow is filled with sadness and emotional trauma due in part to family separation. Female cows that have not yet had calves, or babies, are called heifers. Heifers are artificially inseminated by hand, or raped, repeatedly. Then just a few hours to a few days after giving birth, the mother is separated from her baby. Farmers send calves away to other farms to be raised, until they are slaughtered or returned to the dairy farm to be impregnated.
What Would Happen if We Stopped Milking Cows?
It is hard to know what would happen if people stopped milking cows. We do know that cows that are not milked in the dairy industry are not as valuable to dairy farms. These cows are often sold to be slaughtered to make food or other consumer products such as fertilizer, leather, glue, cosmetics, soap, and pharmaceuticals.
How Long Do Dairy Cows Live?
Dairy cows live to be about six years old, at which point they have been so stressed and belabored that they can no longer produce milk. A mother cow’s sons are killed at 16 to 24 weeks of age, as are any daughters who are unable to reproduce or become dairy cows.
Are Dairy Cows Used for Meat?
Yes, dairy cows end up as products of the beef industry. “Spent” dairy cows are sent to be slaughtered and turned into ground beef. Their male offspring are also raised for their meat on veal farms.
The Road Ahead
Whether it occurs on a large farm or a smaller, family farm, the business of milking cows is filled with agony for mother cows and their babies. Animal advocates from within the dairy industry, in academia, and at nonprofit organizations have chronicled at length the realities of life as a dairy cow. With this knowledge, consumers of milks, cheeses, yogurts, and other dairy products can gain a more informed idea of how food is made in the U.S.
Hemi is a writer and educator.