There are more than 91 million farmed cattle in the United States — raised for a variety of food and consumer products including beef, veal, dairy and leather. Investigators and veterinarians alike have found evidence of suffering on cattle farm operations, and a growing body of research suggests that cows are capable of feeling pain and distress.
How Many Cows Are Killed Each Year?
According to the most recent global figures, compiled by Faunalytics in 2022, a total of 293.2 million cattle were slaughtered in 2020. While that number may sound staggering, it is in fact lower than the total number of sheep (590.5 million), pigs (1.5 billion) or chickens (more than 70 billion) slaughtered annually worldwide.
How Many People Are Killed by Cows Each Year?
Annually, the deaths of around 20-22 people in the U.S. are attributed to cows, according to most estimates.
In agriculture, tractors pose more of a danger than cows, accounting for 241 U.S. deaths per year. Yet the number of people killed by cows is higher than the average of five U.S. deaths linked to sharks each year.
Which Country Kills the Most Cows?
Globally, New Zealand slaughters the most cattle per capita.
The U.S. is the largest producer of beef in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2021, the U.S. produced 12.6 million tons of beef and veal, followed by Brazil at 10.4 million tons.
During one month in 2022, the U.S. slaughtered 2.81 million cattle for beef and 28,100 calves for veal.
The number of lives claimed by the cattle industry may be higher than we know, as a 2022 analysis by the Guardian showed that 166,000 cattle died before being slaughtered for human consumption — and such deaths had likely increased due to longer and more frequent transportation of animals.
How Many Cows Are Killed in the U.S. Each Year?
Beef consumption rates in the U.S. are four times the global average, despite clear evidence of the cattle industry’s devastating impact on the environment — especially in the forms of methane emissions and deforestation — as well as the suffering of cattle raised for food. To feed the nationwide demand for beef as well as exports, as many as 36 million cattle are slaughtered in the U.S. each year.
In 2021, the average American consumed 56.2 pounds of beef, based on food availability data from the USDA, which touts beef production as “the most important agricultural industry in the United States” because it brings in “the largest share of total cash receipts for agricultural commodities.”
How Are Cows Killed?
Cattle can live for 15-20 years naturally, but in the meat industry, cattle raised for beef are typically sent to a slaughterhouse at around 2-3 years of age.
Dairy cows are the exception, though they too are ultimately killed for meat. Raised on dairy farms, they are repeatedly impregnated and milked until their bodies, often weak, sick or injured, can no longer produce enough milk. This occurs at around 4 years old — at which time they are transported for slaughter. A paper published in Animals in 2021 suggests that dairy cows may experience a particularly painful and distressing slaughter thanks to experiences like violent handling during transport increasing their sensitivity.
Typically, dairy cows are used to produce ground beef and other cheaper products than their counterparts raised for meat — but when it comes to how they are slaughtered, all farmed cattle will meet the same end.
By law, cattle must be stunned to render them unconscious prior to slaughter, with some exceptions discussed below. The USDA considers an animal unconscious or “insensible” when they are unable to respond to stimuli or to the environment around them, and they must remain that way throughout the processes of hoisting into shackles, sticking (the cutting of the animal’s throat) and exsanguination (bleeding out).
This is most often achieved through the use of a penetrative captive bolt stun gun. Held against an animal’s head, between their eyes, as they are restrained or confined, these stun guns fire a retractable steel bolt into the brain using a blank cartridge or compressed air.
This method is intended to render animals unconscious instantly. Temple Grandin writes that “cattle shot correctly with a penetrating captive bolt have irreversible damage to their brain and they will not revive.” Non-penetrating captive bolts, she states, are not recommended for use in mature cattle and when these bolts are used, an animal “may revive unless it is bled promptly.”
The practice must be performed correctly by trained individuals with properly maintained equipment, however, or an animal may not be fully stunned, leading to pain and distress for the cattle at slaughter and potentially increased danger for workers, who are already at risk of injury from the involuntary kicking of successfully stunned cattle. Even when the captive bolts are fired correctly, research has shown that some cattle will remain conscious. The USDA refers to events in which an animal revives and must be stunned a second time as “egregious inhumane treatment.”
After stunning, cattle are hoisted and hung upside down in shackles by their hind legs. This must be done quickly so that animals remain unconscious for the steps that follow.
The animals are moved down the slaughter line, and a sharp knife is used to slice open their throats while another is used to sever their major blood vessels.
It is intended that cattle bleed out within seconds after these cuts are made, but this is not always the case. All the major blood vessels must be cut, and if, for example, only one of the two carotid arteries is severed, a cow can take over a minute to die.
Following slaughter, the animals’ bodies are skinned and eviscerated — the process by which their internal organs are removed. They will then be washed and inspected for contamination, and may be chilled for 24-48 hours before being processed into cuts of meat.
Do Cows Feel Pain When Slaughtered?
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act governs the slaughter of cattle and most other land animals raised for food, with the exception of poultry. This federal law requires that the animals do not feel the pain of slaughter, as they must be stunned prior to being killed. However, stunning procedures sometimes fail, even if administered correctly, resulting in the slaughter of fully conscious animals.
Knowing the point at which an animal loses consciousness is a vital part of understanding an animal’s suffering. Cattle who remain conscious after their throats are cut experience pain and distress, and slaughterhouse workers should check for any recovery of consciousness in animals who appear to have been effectively stunned, stunning them again as required.
Rough handling and grueling transport from farm to slaughterhouse — sometimes over long distances and through all weather extremes — adds to the animals’ pain and stress. Suffering can have an emotional impact, as well. Research shows that cattle are capable of experiencing sadness and anxiety.
Certain exemptions allow for methods without stunning to be used in religious slaughter such as shechita and halal. Examining data regarding these methods, researchers have found that not stunning cattle can increase the animals’ “risk for a prolonged period of pain and distress.” Some experience an accumulation of blood in their tracheas, leading to respiratory distress, and others take longer to collapse.
Animal Consumption Facts and Statistics
- Per capita beef consumption in the U.S. has generally declined since the USDA began recording this statistic in 1976, but was at its lowest recorded level in 1932 as the Great Depression gripped the country.
- East Asia represents the top market for exports of U.S. beef, purchasing $6.6 billion in exports between January and September 2022. Yet the U.S. also imports beef, mainly to bring in types of meat not produced within the country, such as certain lean beef products. Imports from Brazil have been increasing, despite ties between Brazil’s cattle industry (and that in the U.S.) and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The U.S. imported 100 million pounds of beef from the South American country in January 2022 alone.
- There are over three times as many beef cattle as dairy cows in the U.S. Milk production has not grown solely through the number of cows; the dairy industry has gradually shifted towards fewer but larger, more intensive farms and cows have been bred to produce more milk.
What You Can Do
Studies suggest the consumption of beef and other red meats increases one’s risk of conditions such as heart disease and certain types of cancer. In addition, cattle farming is a major contributor to environmental degradation, driving deforestation and emitting massive amounts of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into our atmosphere. Yet tens of millions of U.S. cattle are slaughtered for food each year.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.