Noah Bergh was in pre-primary school when he came home one evening in March of 2019 with a permission slip to visit a Brownes Dairy farm. Noah, already vegan for two years, felt sad when he heard about the planned excursion. According to his mother Natalie Bergh, “When he got home, he asked me, ‘Don’t the other kids know they take away the cows’ babies and kill them?’” Noah told the kids in his class that he wasn’t going because he is vegan and “loves cows.” He added, “I thought the farm owners might tell me it was good to kill and eat animals and drink their milk and it’s not even true.” The permission slip outlined that children would learn how “happy, healthy cows give us more and better quality milk.”
Noah is part of a minority of children who understand how much suffering occurs in the dairy industry. Most children are not privy to evidence of animal cruelty in the dairy industry, as teachers and parents do not provide them with this information. Australian children as young as age five are influenced to believe that cows’ milk is humanely sourced and healthy for humans. Accurately educating children, who are naturally inclined to care about animals, about industrial animal cruelty would be to the detriment of the multibillion-dollar dairy industry.
Brownes Dairy is one of many industry leaders pushing to incorporate dairy “education” into the Australian school curriculum. Dairy Australia, a company owned by the beverage conglomerate Lion, has also created multiple propaganda-based education initiatives. Schools nationwide annually participate in Dairy Australia’s Cows Create Careers initiative, a program that encourages children in years six and seven to explore the idea of working in the dairy industry. Farmers visit schools and conduct “education” programs that depict dairy industry careers in a positive light. Since the conception of Cows Create Careers in 2004, more than 50,000 Australian students have participated in the program.
Between 2017 and 2018, Dairy Australia spent $4.45 million dollars on “industry risk and reputation management” to “protect its reputation by managing short- and long-term risks facing dairy production,” according to the Dairy Australia website. In this same time period, Dairy Australia allocated a further $6.86 million dollars towards community marketing to “improve customer trust.” Dairy Australia allocates a portion of its budget every year to “activities that protect the sector’s right to operate.” Industry leaders in the dairy sector are committed to ensuring that the public views dairy products as humane and healthy; they accomplish this objective in part by spending heavily on propagandic marketing efforts.
Dairy Australia sponsors an interactive website where educators and students can participate in online quizzes, watch videos, and download classroom activities. A video on the website, titled “When Do Cows Make Milk?”, explains how cows cannot “create” milk without being impregnated. The video presents no information about what happens to female cows once they are no longer able to become pregnant and therefore no longer able to produce milk. The video does not mention the fate of male calves, who are never able to produce milk. (The brutal reality is that aged female cows and male calves are often killed, as the 2018 documentary Dominion demonstrates.) Dairy Australia’s video neglects to mention that cows in the dairy industry are forcibly and painfully impregnated with farmers’ fists. The video does not convey the reality that many, if not all, factory farming practices favor profit maximization over animal welfare. Disturbing truths such as these are concealed from the children in Australian schools.
The Dominion documentary, produced by Chris Delforce, contains video footage of Australian dairy farms obtained during undercover investigations. The footage shows dairy cows limping with broken legs; rather than receiving medical care, the injured cows are ushered with a stick into the “knocker box,” where they receive a bolt-gun shot to the head. The same documentary shows bobby calves—male cows—being shot in their heads with bolt guns at days to weeks old. The dead calves are then tossed into garbage bins as “waste.” Killing male cows at birth and female cows once they are too old or weak to produce milk are considered standard (and legal) industry practises in Australia. Slaughtering a cow by a bolt gun to the head is considered by the dairy industry to be “humane.”
According to Lion, “By operating in a transparent and responsible way, we can be a force for good.” Despite this claim of transparency, Lion Australia’s public relations team is unwilling to comment on the footage in the Dominion documentary. Lion instead participates in creating content to obscure children’s views of how dairy farms operate through Discover Dairy, an interactive education website that “brings the Australian dairy industry into the classroom.” The Discover Dairy website, like other dairy “education” websites of its kind, does not convey accurate information regarding the suffering of dairy animals. This website states that calves are separated from their mothers to give them “special milk” to help them survive in “a warm cosy shed”—propaganda such as this is blatantly false. The stated goal of Dairy Australia’s “Schools of Communications” team is to present dairy industry information, yet Dairy Australia—like Brownes Dairy and other industry leaders—conveniently excludes the facts of its cruelty toward animals.
Dairy Australia encourages teachers and students to contact its Schools of Communications team to ask any questions about the website’s content. I contacted the team to ask for comments regarding animal cruelty in the dairy industry, citing the multiple undercover investigations and documentaries that have exposed the industry’s secretive practices. A spokesperson told me, “We are involved with the milking but not necessarily what happens to the cow after. It’s up to the individual farmer who owns the cow.” The spokesperson went on to say, “I don’t know if [information about the animals’ treatment] would be information that we could give out because we don’t own the cows.” Formally, Dairy Australia takes a position of willful ignorance by abdicating all responsibility for the cows’ welfare. Esther Jones, an agricultural marketing and management consultant for Dairy Australia since 1999, admitted to me that dairy cows in Australia are slaughtered after giving birth to, on average, just six calves. She went on to say that many male calves, slaughtered when they are merely days old, are used for veal.
The position of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)—a charity that, by its own definition, “by all lawful means aims to prevent cruelty, promote kindness to, and alleviate suffering of all animals”—is that if bobby calves cannot be euthanized on farms, then they should be at least 10 days old before being subjected to transport. If slaughtered, the killing should occur within 12 hours of the cow’s last feeding. Farm animals in Australia are not protected by law to the same extent as companion animals; as such, the RSPCA is unable to pursue legal action against agriculture companies for using cruelly intensive farming practises. Despite the RSPCA openly disputing many of the practises common in the dairy industry, Australian children continue to be educated about “humane farming” by dairy industry professionals.
According to Animals Australia, an animal advocacy organisation that seeks to “expose and prevent animal cruelty,” the average lifespan of a dairy cow is 20 years, yet few commercial dairy cows age past seven years. Vegetarians who abstain from eating meat for ethical reasons may be surprised to learn that dairy cows are slaughtered before they reach the halfway point of their natural lifespans. Uninformed consumers may think that by not eating meat, they are not causing animals to suffer or die. Vegetarians, by consuming dairy products—such as cheese, yogurt, and milk—still contribute to an industry that sends animals to slaughter.
More consumers are removing dairy from their diets in favour of plant-based alternatives. The demand for soy, almond, oat, macadamia, and rice milks is increasing; plant-based milk now accounts for about seven percent of all milk consumed in Australia. Eliminating animal dairy products in favor of plant-based milk has health benefits, too. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, one cup of soy milk has 277 milligrams of calcium, while cows’ milk has only 119 milligrams of calcium per cup. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, after conducting medical research for over 40 years and dairy research for 20 years, has discovered a correlation between dairy consumption and cancer. The findings of Campbell’s studies are documented in his best-selling book The China Study, published in 2005. Children in Australia deserve access to plant-based milk and education about its benefits equal to—or greater than—their exposure to the animal-based dairy industry. The dairy “education” that Australian children currently receive is entirely one-sided and not at all reflective of the many plant-based dietary options that are readily available to Australian consumers.
Natalie Burgh is proud of her son Noah for choosing to stay home from a school excursion that, in her words, “normalises cruelty.” Burgh stated that she “hopes that more children can have access to the evidence of cruelty in the dairy industry so that they aren’t missing the whole story of the horror behind closed doors.” Noah added, “It would be nice if the kids in my class could understand why I’m vegan and to love all animals.” Dairy cows will continue to suffer so long as industry professionals and Australian educators persist in obscuring the truth.
Jade is a writer and filmmaker focused on exposing animal agriculture in Australia.