What Happens to Dairy Cows When They Get Old?

In the dairy industry, a cow’s life is segmented into predictable, routine steps to help farms make the most profit. We took a closer look at what happens next.

dairy cow barn

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The term “dairy cow” makes it sound like the whole reason for the cow’s existence is to produce dairy. In some ways, that’s true, from the perspective of dairy farmers. But critical animal studies scholars like Kathryn Gillespie point out that a dairy cow is just like any other cow, and it’s better just to call them cows so that we see them as whole beings and decouple them from their role in society as milk dispensers. The primary difference between dairy cows and other cows is that industrial food companies use dairy cows for their milk.

What Are the 5 Stages of a Dairy Cow’s Life?

In the dairy industry, a cow’s life is segmented into predictable, routine steps to help farms make the most profit. Animal and environmental advocates are familiar with how these stages unfold. In their book “Cowed,” Gail and Denis Hayes describe the life of a cow they name Little Clover, a typical dairy cow, most likely to be a black and white Holstein. In a 2013 article, Kathryn Gillespie also describes the life of a dairy cow, its options and reactions shaped by the fact it has been bred by industrial dairy farmers to produce more milk that tastes better to humans.  


After growing in her mother’s womb for nine months, Little Clover is born “on a farm with over a thousand cows,” write Hayes and Hayes. But it’s also possible that as a U.S. dairy cow she’s born on a small farm. She stays with her mom for a few hours. Then a farmer or a farmworker takes her to another stall, pen, or hutch. The reason given for separating Clover from other cows is to prevent her from catching diseases. 

If Clover is female, she might be raised in that same farm, sold to another dairy farm, or “raised by a heifer-growing contractor off-site,” writes Gillespie. For the next six to eight weeks, Clover lives by herself. Farmers feed her discarded milk or milk replacer. For the first two weeks of being separated from her mom, Clover’s mother will bellow for Clover. Clover will also be dehorned, vaccinated, and have any “extra” teats cut off

Dehorning is painful, no matter how it is done, especially in the United States where there is no regulation around the practice and it is performed without pain relief medication or anesthesia. 


At six months old, Clover is probably living with other calves indoors. She’s probably eating too much grain, and not enough grass. The grain makes her grow faster, but it may be too fast for her bones to support her body. The grains can also give her stomach problems. If she does get to go outside, it may be in a dry lot where the ground hurts her hooves.

By six months old, slightly more than half of the dairy farms in the U.S. docked the tails of their calves in a 2008 study. Another third of cows’ tails were docked before they gave birth. Tail docking is another painful amputation that cows often endure without anesthetic. The procedure has been banned in many countries, and some U.S. states, but a 2010 study found that 69 percent of dairies in the U.S. still docked cows’ tails

Over the past decade, however, North American animal advocates have found allies in industry-friendly groups that have opposed tail docking, including veterinarian associations and the U.S.-based National Milk Producers Federation. The practice seems to be on the decline, though far from eradicated. In 2014, about 1 in 3 cows had their tails docked in the U.S., according to a USDA survey published in 2018. 


A yearling is a cow that is 12 months old. When a cow reaches about 15 months old, the farmer or farmworker uses their hands to artificially inseminate the cow. One hand goes into the cow’s rectum. The other hand goes into the cow’s vagina with an insemination gun. The farmer uses the gun to leave another cow’s semen in the cow’s cervix. For the next nine months, Clover is pregnant with a calf of her own. She is moved to live with other pregnant cows a month before turning two years old. 


At 24 months old, Clover will give birth. Before this point, Clover is unable to produce milk. After her calf is taken from her, Clover is ready to be milked. She joins other cows two or three times per day in the milking parlor. There, a machine is attached to her teats to relieve them of the milk in her udders. 

Two or three months after giving birth, Clover will become pregnant again. Throughout her pregnancy, she will continue to be milked until about two months before she gives birth.

Mature Cow

According to Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website, the mature cow is an adult cow of five years in age, weighing in at more than 1,500 pounds. Clover probably will not get to be five years old, however, because she “will have only two or three lactations before she’s ‘spent’ and slaughtered,” write Hayes and Hayes. 

How Many Years Do Cow Live?

Cows can live to be about 20 years old on average. Big Bertha of Ireland lived to 49 years old. But cows used for their milk only live for about four years. 

How Many Times Can a Cow Give Birth in Its Lifetime?    

Cows in the dairy industry typically give birth two or three times before they are slaughtered, according to Hayes and Hayes. Meanwhile, Big Bertha holds a world record for “lifetime breeding,” birthing 39 calves over the course of her 49 years. 

What Happens to Milk Cows When They Get Old?   

Cows who are used for their milk are typically killed before they get old. When these cows are considered “spent,” they are turned into hamburger meat. About 20 percent of the beef consumed by humans in the U.S. comes from slaughtered dairy cows. 

What Problems Can Forced Milk Production Cause?  

Sadly, the selective breeding of cows used for their milk means that they will be weaker than other cows, including having trouble walking on their own. In addition to dying early, they are more likely to have problems with their fertility and metabolism. They’ll also be more likely to get diseases like mastitis. Mastitis, lameness, and infertility were the top health problems affecting cows in a 2014 USDA survey of U.S. dairy farms. 


Nearly all dairy farms reported reproductive problems in their herds of cows in a 2014 survey of dairy farms by the USDA. About 1 in 12 cows in the U.S. had infertility problems. By breeding cows to produce ten times the amount that a calf would actually need, and by making cows live in barns or dry lots with dirty and wet floors, dairy farms are responsible for reproductive problems such as infertility in cows. 

According to animal welfare scientists, solutions for reproductive problems include selectively breeding cows for lower milk yields, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and serving more nutritious foods. Farmers can also practice better handling of cows before, during, and after they give birth. 


More than 1 in 6 cows were identified as suffering from lameness in the 2014 USDA survey. Lameness is caused by genetically selecting cows for high milk yield, poor quality food, and by cows standing on floors that are too hard, wet, and unsanitary.

To improve cow welfare with respect to lameness, animal welfare scientists say that (as with infertility) it is important to breed and feed cows so that they produce less milk, and also to offer preventive foot care (i.e., podiatry). Preventing lameness also means giving cows better food and softer, cleaner, and grippier floors than are present in today’s factory farms.


More than a quarter of cows in U.S. dairy farms experienced mastitis in the 2014 USDA survey. This is an especially painful condition for lactating cows. Mastitis and symptoms like lameness and infertility are problems that arise when the dairy industry breeds and selects cows for high milk yields. Further causes of mastitis are “dirty infrastructure,” and “bad milking practices,” according to animal welfare scientists Ariel Tarazona, Maria Ceballos, and Donald Broom in a 2019 article that connects animal health and welfare issues to the health of humans and the environment.

To improve cows’ chances of avoiding mastitis, farms should select cows for lower milk yields, spend more time cleaning and disinfecting where they live, and use better milking practices. 

How to End This Cycle of Cruelty

As with any other social problem, there are many ways to help end harm to cows on a systemic level. Specific improvements in animal handling practices in the dairy industry and in the genetic selection and housing of cows can prevent diseases and painful health problems from occurring. Trying to view cows in a different light that goes beyond what is considered normal is another useful approach. Critical animal scholars do this when they examine the terms they use to talk about cows, such as when they remind us that these are cows used for their milk rather than dairy cows. 

The Road Ahead

How industrial dairy farms see and treat cows results in significant and preventable pain and suffering—from diseases like mastitis to isolating baby cows from their mothers—and early deaths. Movements to see animal health as one with human health, or to think and talk about animals in a different way, are examples of how we can end animal cruelty in the dairy industry.

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