Dairy farming has a wholesome ring to it. After all, it’s not about the unnecessary slaughtering of innocent animals. Or is it?
What you don’t know about dairy farming can hurt you.
Not only are dairy farms dangerous for the animals who produce dairy products, but they’re also dangerous for humans. Ordinary products you pick up at the supermarket could have a nasty impact on your health.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about what dairy farming is and what it means for your diet, lifestyle, and commitment to animal safety.
What Is Dairy Farming?
Dairy farming is the practice of raising cows for the purposes of obtaining their milk. We most associate a dairy farm with the milk itself, but this agricultural practice also produces butter, cheese, yogurt, and other common household staples.
Just like with humans, female mammals produce milk to nourish their young. The milk contains lots of fat, certain proteins, bacteria, and other elements to help baby animals reach their greatest potential. In terms of consumption, cow milk is intended for baby cows. And when I say intended, I mean as in evolved over millions of years to be the nutrition of baby cows.
The same goes for goats’ milk, which is often used to produce cheese and other dairy products.
Dairy farming can only operate because animals like cows give birth to young. When cows have calves, they begin to lactate. Dairy farmers extract the milk from lactation for the purposes of creating milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products for human consumption. A little later we’ll get to what happens to the calves that their mothers’ milk was intended for.
The image you may sometimes see of a young man or woman manually milking a cow into a pale is extremely outdated. Modern dairy farmers use vacuum tubes and milk vats to streamline the process of collecting and processing milk.
On dairy farms, these animals have little utility beyond breeding and bearing calves.
Dairy Farming Statistics
There are more than 250 million dairy cows all over the world. In the United States, dairy cows collectively produce nearly 87.5 tonnes of milk every year.
Most dairy milk goes toward three specific purposes: drinkable milk, American cheese, and butter. The rest, a much smaller fraction, is used to create yogurt, ice cream, custard, sour cream, and more.
You might even be familiar with dairy farming mascots. Belle, for instance, is the jersey cow that represents Bluebell, perhaps one of the most popular brands of ice cream in the world.
Every year, Americans drink an average of 20.4 gallons of milk each year. That includes drinking it straight out of a glass — or carton — as well as consuming it on breakfast cereal and in other popular foods.
These facts remain true even though 65 percent of Americans are lactose intolerant. That means their bodies can’t properly digest lactase.
How Are Cows Treated on Dairy Farms?
If you imagine family-run farms full of bright-eyed children when you think of dairy farms, you might want to do some research. Today’s dairy farms don’t come out of Norman Rockwell paintings.
We humans have learned to mechanize nearly every aspect of our consumerism. We use factory farming methods to extract milk from dairy cows, which by definition means that these animals have become nothing but a means to an end.
Let’s look at some of the ways in which dairy farming abuses cows and other milk-bearing animals.
Forced into Reproduction Over and Over
Dairy farming has two main methods of production: manual and artificial. Some dairy farming operations still allow cows and bulls to mate naturally, but an increasing number use artificial insemination to speed up the breeding cycle.
It’s simple math: the more frequently a cow gets pregnant, the more milk she can produce.
Little is any thought is given to the cow’s rights as an animal to live a happy, natural life. There is nothing natural about modern dairy farms.
Cows that are forced to breed over and over again, regardless of the method, are treated solely as milk machines. They aren’t valued as animals but appropriated for human needs.
Imagine a human woman getting pregnant within a couple months of delivering a child. Then imagine her getting pregnant over and over again for the rest of their life. It’s hard on the body and mind, especially since cows’ calves are taken away from them just hours after birth.
Facing Subpar Living Standards
Cows are housed close together with other cows and forced to bear offspring after offspring. A dairy cow is no longer useful when she can’t procreate, because then she will also stop lactating.
Even during her calf-bearing years, she’s often stuffed in a tiny stall and fed unnatural substances (hormones, antibiotics) to impact her constitution and milk production. She doesn’t get to roam free as part of a herd or raise her calves as part of a family unit.
And no, cows aren’t humans. Neither are goats. Nevertheless, they deserve basic, common decency.
A cow that can’t move around develops all types of problems, from digestive issues to joint inflammation. Worse, the cows can’t escape their fates. They have no control over what dairy farming does to them, and no understanding or reasoning about their predicament as part of the merciless industrial machinery.
Standing on Concrete Floors
The concrete floors on which dairy cows must stand can cause them to develop abscesses and other diseases of the hoof. They lose their ability to walk properly, and their joints become overburdened by repetitive breeding and constant lactating.
Furthermore, concrete floors allow feces and urine to collect. Cows are often left to stand in their own filth because they lack room to move.
Urine and feces promote bacterial growth and create unsafe conditions for the cows. Specifically, the urine and feces weaken the hoof walls and create bacterial infections that cows need to be fed antibiotics against.
Existing on Crowded Lots
Space comes at a premium on a dairy farm. The more cows a farmer can force into a certain square footage (up to legal limits) results in higher profits.
Cows and other dairy animals are social creatures, but they’re not meant to stand flank-to-flank. They’re meant to roam, choose their own company and social relations, to enjoy open pastures, and procreate naturally.
Dairy farming precludes this right. The animals are crammed as tightly as possible to maximize milk production. The dairy cows often stand in tiny stalls that don’t allow them to even turn around, much less wander.
Dairy Cows Live in Their Own Feces
Think about the last time you drank a glass of milk or poured cheese on a baked potato. The animals that produced your dairy products were forced to live in their own filth.
While that is certainly harmful to the animals, it’s also dangerous for human beings. Urinary and fecal contaminants routinely come with milk and other dairy products. You either accept it, or refuse to buy those products.
Vegans who refuse to consume dairy products want whole, delicious, uncontaminated food. They don’t want to live on sustenance that could make them sick.
Forced to Produce Far More Milk Than They Should
Cows and other livestock are only meant to give birth to young at certain intervals. The cow’s gestation cycle mimics the human one, producing one calf per year at about nine months between conception and delivery.
They’re given specific hormones and other chemicals to produce more milk than their calves need. This increases farmers’ profits but decreases the animals’ quality of life.
Nobody wants to see that happen. Imagine giving a human woman drugs that would cause her to produce more milk than her infant required. Such a travesty could impact not only the woman but also her growing child.
Mothers and Calves Are Separated at Birth
The emotional bond between a parent – in the cow’s case, a mother – and a child is one of the strongest experiences a human can have. That bond has been forged by millions of years of evolution in mammals, like cows and humans alike.
Dairy farming doesn’t care about fostering important emotional relationships. It’s all about profit. That’s why tragically mother cows are separated from their calves at birth.
Nevertheless, dairy farming often requires separating dam and calf within 24 hours of the calves’ birth. Mother and child can’t bond because they’re separated too early, resulting in significant damage to both the dam and calf.
We know that the mother-child bond in humans is cemented through voice, proximity, and skin-to-skin contact, as well as nourishing the child with milk. Cows are no different.
And what happens to the calves? They are either removed to raised for veal (more on that below), bred as eventual replacements to their mothers, or killed – sometimes in the vicinity of their grieving mothers.
This is one of the major tragedies perpetuated by the dairy industry, every day, around the world.
Antibiotics and Hormones in Dairy Farming
The important thing to understand about dairy farming is that it’s far from natural.
Dairy farming isn’t quite as rife with antibiotic and hormone usage as beef farming, but it still occurs. Mass-spectrum antibiotics are designed to prevent cows from getting sick in the short term, but in the long term, it can result in antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria. Additionally, it depletes the cows’ natural intestinal flora.
Hormones might cause a cow to grow faster than it should so it can breed and begin producing milk. That means those hormones get passed on through the cow’s milk and wind up in gallon jugs on supermarket shelves.
Antibiotic-resistant pathogens are a real existential risk to the health of not just cows but humanity itself. Pathogens are known to have jumped from livestock to humans in the past, and factory farming – including dairy farming – is putting the planet’s population at a constantly increasing risk.
Negative Side Effects That Dairy Farming Has on Cows
Dairy farming is particularly harmful to cows, especially in large operations where profits supersede any other priority. Cows don’t get treated well because, frankly, improved living conditions would cut into profit margins.
As mentioned above, dairy farming involves cramped living conditions that put stress on the cows. They aren’t able to follow their instincts to graze, interact with one another, and roam across the grassy land.
Additionally, since calves are not naturally weaned from their mothers, but taken from them almost immediately, cows experience a profound sense of loss. They don’t get to nurture their young and bond with them. Instead, they’re attached to machines that vacuum the milk from their udders.
Diseases Caused by Unconventional Living Standards
If you have kids, you might remember that your child got sick more often upon going to school. That problem worked itself out as your child developed a stronger immune system.
This is because germs can pass more easily from one sentient being to another when they’re put in close quarters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Kindergarten classroom or a dairy farm.
Unfortunately, dairy farm puts cows in much closer quarters than students are in their desks. Germs can run rampant through an entire farm, but the farms don’t halt operations to heal the cows – they can’t halt, because their costs would increase and they would no longer be competitive in the eyes of the consumers who a very used to paying a certain price for milk, day in day out. Production continues.
Nobody wants to think about drinking the milk of a diseased cow, but it happens. Remember, in the vast majority of cases dairy farmers put profits first.
Cows, like other livestock, are meant to roam. They need to stretch their legs, feel the soft earth beneath their hooves, and graze for long periods of time.
When cows are denied those basic animal rights, they can become lame. Their hooves get overgrown, they develop abscesses, and they develop joint problems.
Since they’re bred to simply stand for milk production, no veterinarian treats their lameness. They’re forced to endure this torture until they eventually fall down and cannot get back up again, or until they are no longer productive. Descriptively of the whole industry, dairy cows at the end of their lives are called “spent cows”. No longer of value, often too weak to even walk to their own slaughter.
Artificial insemination introduces an entirely new problem with dairy farming. In many cases, reproductive problems render a cow unable to get pregnant, which means she’s useless to the dairy farmer.
These animals are destroyed because of their inability to procreate.
Some reproductive problems result in stillborn calves, which may not stimulate lactation sufficiently. Again, this hurts the dairy farmer’s profit margins, so he destroys the cow producing “substandard” calves.
And the cycle repeats itself. Female calves get injected with hormones and bred as soon as they reach puberty. Male calves often get sent to the operation’s beef program or sold to a beef farmer so it can be killed for its meat as soon as it’s large enough.
If You Drink Milk, You Might Be Drinking Pus, Too
Cows, just like any other mammal, can develop a condition called mastitis. It occurs when the mammary glands and udders become inflamed and infected. The disease causes the cow to produce pus, which is essentially dead blood cells mixed with diseased tissue.
Mastitis occurs because of unsanitary milking equipment, cows living in close quarters, and other problems associated with dairy farming. This doesn’t mean, however, that the cow is taken off the milk assembly line.
The FDA says that milk is “safe” to drink because it’s pasteurized. However, most parents wouldn’t want to feed their children pus even if they boiled it to sanitize it themselves first. Would you?
Negative Toll on The Environment
Dairy farming is inherently bad for the environment because it creates an unnecessarily high number of cows who must consume radical amounts of grain to stay alive until they are eventually slaughtered or die of disease.
The manure runoff created by dairy farms is inherently unsafe. It makes the ground near dairy farms infertile and unsafe to use, and it creates issues with the local water table.
The Veal Industry
People who talk about dairy farming as a peaceful, non-violent industry often neglect to talk about the veal industry (though, as you’ve seen above, there’s very little non-violent about dairy). Veal is a more palatable word for the meat that comes from calves.
What most people don’t understand is that cows are extremely social animals. Cows and their young have been known to bond for life in the wild, and the weaning process is extremely protracted in nature, often lasting for much longer than a calf would normally drink.
Cows on dairy farms are ripped away from their mothers, which is cruel enough. Then, if they’re candidates for the veal industry, the calves are placed in small crates to stunt their growth and prevent normal musculature from developing.
Their muscles atrophy. They develop chronic diarrhea, become inordinately stressed, and often cannot stand by themselves. They’re kept in these inhumane conditions for up to six months.
Those calves are then slaughtered for their meat. Dairy farmers can often make more from the veal industry than from selling milk because veal is considered a “luxury” food and therefore goes for much higher prices on the open market.
If you’re a parent, you know that you or your female companion produced milk to nourish your baby (in most cases). That’s the natural progression. A mother’s milk production helps fortify babies, improve their immune systems, and ready them for eating solid foods.
Calves are no different. They need milk from their mothers to develop strong digestive systems and to build strong bones and muscles. Without it, they suffer.
Humans are built to drink human milk until they are weaned onto other foods. The same goes for calves.
Drinking cow’s milk is not only unnatural for human beings, but it also supports a vile industry in which animals are caged, neglected, and often abused. Furthermore, it permits dairy farms to continue their work.
There are plenty of alternatives, from soy milk to almond milk to oat milk. These beverages can taste much like cow’s milk, but they don’t contribute to cruelty. Whether you’re craving a cold glass of milk or your recipe calls for milk, you don’t have to use the bovine variety. Unless you’re a baby cow, it’s not for you.