The Devastating Impact of the Dairy Industry on the Environment

dairy industry and the environment

There is a lot of misinformation out there.

Data usually comes from two different sides, typically from industries that pay for the studies and biased results.

In the book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, Marion Nestle discusses this problem in great detail.

To make matters worse, these biased studies find their way to social media where things are shared recklessly by people unable or unwilling to dig a little further. Because of this, false and biased information spreads quickly and people build opinions that aren’t based in reality.

It can be hard to understand what actually happens beyond social media echo chambers.

And while it may seem comfortable to accept information that aligns with your chosen narrative, it can also be extremely dangerous.

When it comes to politically charged topics, things become even more complicated.

People prefer to stick with the narratives presented from their side of the aisle. So if scientific data comes along that clashes with the narrative they follow, people will tend to blame “fake news” due to their unwillingness to accept (or even consider) information that doesn’t align with their political affiliation.

This is happening a lot more in the Age of Social Media. Because people’s newsfeeds are constantly bombarded with the same talking points, the same articles from the same sources, and the same memes, it becomes much more difficult to engage in civil discourse with someone that votes differently from you.

Pressing issues like climate change are now polarized and discussing ways to decrease humanity’s role and impact has become more challenging than ever.

To make things more challenging, talking about major contributors to climate change, like factory farming and dairy farming, challenge people’s habits. If there is one thing people do not like, it is changing their habits.

So how is factory farming, especially dairy farming, causing such a large impact with climate change?

What is the Dairy Industry

The dairy industry is the large-scale practice of breeding and raising cows for the sole purpose of using their milk for the production of food.

There are many different products that come from the milk extracted on dairy farms. Most of these products become food for human consumption. Some of the most common products are milk, ice cream, butter, yogurts, and cheeses.

Many people have a false image of what the dairy industry is and what a dairy farm actually looks like. The reality for dairy cows is far different than what the cartoon on your milk carton might otherwise suggest.

In fact, many vegetarians continue consuming dairy products because they believe that because dairy cows aren’t killed, it is okay to consume their milk. That is the justification of many vegetarians (myself included!) before becoming vegans.

The shocking realities of the dairy industry are becoming more exposed with time and people are beginning to see the truth behind their milk and cheese.

It almost seems that many people just assume cows produce milk because that’s what cows do. They seem to forget that cows produce milk because they become pregnant just like us.

Because of this, the dairy industry produces a reality of cyclical suffering and systemic cruelty for the dairy cows that are forcefully impregnated from a very young age and then sent to slaughter when they can no longer produce. And all of the males from those forced pregnancies? They are either slaughtered shortly after being born (as that’s cheaper than raising them) or sent off to become veal.

Not quite the same as the happy cow on the green pasture in front of the red barn.

How Many Dairy Cows Are There Worldwide?

At any given moment, there are approximately 264 million dairy cows living on dairy farms around the world.

Those cows produce an average of 600 million tons of milk against their will.

The authors of Profits, Costs, and the Changing Structure of Dairy Farming share some fascinating statistics about dairy farms in the US.

For example, the number of US farms with dairy cows dropped by 88% from 1970 to 2006. The total number of dairy cows in the same time period fell from 12 million to 9.1 million. But during this time period, the US population grew as did its consumption of dairy products. But how is that possible if there were 3 million fewer cows in 2006 compared to 1970? Cows were bred and forced to double their milk production. Because of that, total milk production went up, and the average milk production per farm increased twelvefold.

There are many different factors that make it possible for cows to produce so much more milk. One of the main reasons was the efficiency of factory farming. With this efficiency comes far more cruelty to the cows as corporations implement techniques to ensure higher productivity and higher profits.

Beyond the treatment of the cows in the dairy industry, there is another sinister aspect that has global implications.

The Dairy Industry Contributes to Many Negative Impacts on Our Environment

Urbanization has taken so many people off of farms and into the city. Because of that, there is a major disconnect when it comes to the average person and what they believe when it comes to their food.

Most people don’t know what happens on a farm or how the food they eat gets to their plate.

The complexity of today’s food system is known to very few people.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people aren’t aware that factory farming plays a huge role in climate change. It isn’t something that is talked about openly in the mainstream media. Even major organizations that fight for the environment fail to take animal farming seriously when it comes to trying to find solutions.

That’s one of the main points of Kip Andersen’s groundbreaking documentary Cowspiracy. In the film, he searches high and low for answers from major corporations that simply ignore the obvious fact that animal farming is playing a major role in the accelerated heating of our planet.

So where does dairy farming stand in all of this?

Water Usage on Dairy Farms

water usage dairy cows

People who pay attention to factory farming and its consequences know that factory farms consume a lot of water.

Did you know it takes 15,415 liters of water to produce just one kilogram of beef?

The average American will consume approximately 40 kilos of beef per year. That’s 616,600 liters of water just for beef consumption per person.

What about the water needed to run a dairy farm?

Drinking Water For Cows

Cows consume a lot of water on a daily basis just to stay hydrated and healthy. A single dairy cow can drink as much as 150 liters of water per day. In 2018, there were approximately 9.4 million dairy cows in the US alone.

Just in drinking water, that is approximately 1,410,000,000 liters of water every single day that is being used to hydrate dairy cows so they can produce milk.

But that’s not where the water use on a dairy farm stops.

Water Usage to Produce Food for Cows on a Dairy Farm

water usage to grow soy

On factory farms, cows don’t eat the different kinds of grass that they are designed by nature to consume. Instead, they consume different types of grains, corn, and soy.

Growing soy and grain takes immense resources when it comes to water. Especially considering a lot of it is grown in regions where the soy is grown all year.

Take Brazil, for example. Brazil grows more soy than any country in the world besides the United States. But what makes Brazil different is that it can grow all year because of the climate. The weather can permit two to three harvests per year.

However, it doesn’t rain all year in Brazil.

The state of Mato Grosso produces the most soy out of any Brazilian state. But there are many months throughout the year that see very little rainfall. Water irrigation systems are put in place that use large quantities of water to grow the soy that is used to feed dairy cows.

Cleaning Facilities on Dairy Farms

It’s important to remember that factory farms are filthy places.

Imagine living with tens of thousands of people in extremely confined spaces. Now imagine not having the ability to use a bathroom.

Factory farms get very dirty very quickly. And the dirtier they get, the higher the risk of cows becoming contaminated with bacteria and spreading diseases.

Because of that, it’s necessary for farmers to keep the animals and the facilities as clean as possible. That requires a lot of water.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services, dairy operations can use upwards of 150 gallons of water per day per cow in total, including the water used for drinking and cleaning.

The Impact the Dairy Industry Has on the Environment and Climate Change

There are many factors on a dairy farm that negatively contribute to the environment.

Cow’s produce a copious amount of waste. Each cow produces on average 37 kilos of waste every single day. That is more than one ton of waste every 25 days.

Now let’s multiply that by 9.4 million dairy cows in just the US alone and you can see that we have a major problem.

That waste needs to go somewhere and not all of it is properly taken care of.

According to the USDA, the waste from just 200 dairy cows produces as much nitrogen as the sewage from a community of up to 10,000 people.

This waste, if not treated properly, can contaminate local drinking supplies and the soil. If a farm closes, the land will take a very long time to recover. While some farmers might argue that fertilizer is good for the soil, that isn’t the case when it comes to waste from factory-farmed animals.

Bad Manure Handling Can Affect Prairies, Wetlands, and Forests

Taking care of manure on factory farms is no walk in the park. It takes a lot of resources, water, and labor to do it right.

And because many farms like to maximize profits above all else, the handling of manure can be an ecological disaster for surrounding areas.

The manure from animals on a factory farm is full of antibiotics and chemicals. Because these cows are living in mass in confined spaces, they need to be heavily medicated in order to prevent the spread of disease.

These chemicals can plague native ecosystems. The local wildlife can suffer dramatically as well as foreign toxins enter their water and food supply.

Toxic Air from Dairy Farms

Beyond waterways, aquifers, and soil contamination, another thing that plagues local residents surrounding dairy farms is the air.

That might be hard to understand until you get close enough to a factory farm and see for yourself.

Dust is a major issue in rural communities close to factory farms. This is a problem that goes beyond the dairy industry. Poultry farms and pig farms are also complicit in this pollution problem.

The toxic dust that is kicked up by tens of thousands of animals can hover around the farm like a low-lying cloud and spread for miles beyond.

Many farmers suffer from respiratory illnesses because of ammonia-laden dust. People in the surrounding communities also suffer from this. And while the humans are able to take medicine or wear masks, the animals on the farms themselves cannot and suffer the most from living in and breathing in the toxic dust.

What You Can Do About It?

go vegan soy milk

For people that aren’t ready to become vegan or even consider vegetarianism, the best thing to do is actively avoid products that come from factory farms.

Supporting small, local farms is the best way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. It is also the best way to reject the horrific treatment and systemic abuse billions of animals suffer on factory farms every single year.

While local farms are a better choice than factory farms, the exploitation and slaughter of sentient beings are still wrong.

Take a Vegan Lifestyle

The best thing you can do is quite simple. You can go vegan and choose not to support animal farming.

This is the answer to a growing number of people going vegan around the world.

While going vegan isn’t as easy for some as it is for others, it is becoming easier each passing day.

More and more vegan products are hitting shelves as the demand is steadily going up and to the right. This makes the transition to veganism a lot more convenient than it used to be not too long ago when eating out meant choosing a house salad or combining a few sides into a dish.

And while it might not be as easy in smaller cities or rural areas to find as many options, things will continue to get easier as more and more people become vegan and demand options.

There are many benefits to going vegan beyond helping the animals.


The reality of dairy farming is far from the happy, smiley cow on green pastures you see on the milk box. It’s a lot darker and more sinister.

The dairy industry is destructive to animals, people, and the environment.

And while many people become vegetarian and continue consuming dairy because the cows “aren’t killed,” the truth is setting many more people free.

Cutting dairy will prevent cows from the pain and suffering of living an enslaved life of misery. It will also do wonders for the environment and the rural, often very poor, communities surrounding dairy farms. And it will make you healthier.

With so many reasons to cut dairy from your diet, the only question left to ask is: Will you stop consuming dairy?