Cows

Dairy cows often live bleak and unhappy lives, ending with slaughter at a young age.
Last Updated: February 29, 2016

Milk might seem a compassionate alternative to meat since the links between dairy products and animal cruelty aren’t generally obvious. The reality, however, is that the dairy industry is exceptionally unkind to its animals. And all dairy cows inevitably end up in the slaughterhouse.

We’ve all witnessed cows grazing grassy hillsides, and this sight doubtless gives many people reason to think that dairy cows have reasonably good lives. In reality, however, the vast majority of dairy cows never have the opportunity to graze outdoors. In Wisconsin, the state that still stamps “America’s Dairyland” on its automobile license plates, just 26 percent of cows graze pasture. The rest spend most of their lives chained or otherwise immobilized within cramped stalls. Most mega-dairies will confine upwards of 1000 cows in a single area.

For decades, cows have been relentlessly bred to increase milk yields. These breeding programs have been so successful that each cow typically produces four times more milk than did cows from the 1950s. Unfortunately, as milk production per cow has risen, disease rates have climbed as well. One of the most common illnesses associated with high milk yields is mastitis—the swelling of the mammary glands usually due to infection. Mastitis should concern any milk drinker wanting wholesome food. Milk from cows suffering mastitis inevitably contains elevated amounts of “somatic cells”—the dairy industry’s euphemism for pus.

Dairy cows are typically artificially inseminated once a year. Given that these pregnancies last nine months, this means dairy cows spend most of their lives pregnant. Like any other mammal, mother cows form powerful and immediate maternal bonds with their newborns. But in nearly all cases, the calf will be forever taken away from the mother just a day or two after birth. The dairy industry, after all, doesn’t want the calf drinking the mother’s milk—it wants all the milk to be packaged and sold. Calves are given a cheap formula that’s usually made from slaughterhouse blood products.

As you might expect, cows become extraordinarily upset upon having their calves taken away; it’s common for cows to bellow nonstop for days after being separated from their calves. In some cases, these normally gentle and placid animals will attack workers who’ve come to take their newborns. And during milking, some cows will deliberately throw kicks at employees. The problem is widespread enough that some dairies purchase metal guards that will prevent a cow from kicking while she is milked. The Centers for Disease Control has documented that in the United States alone, 108 workers were killed by beef and dairy cattle between 2003 and 2007.

The strain of repeated pregnancies and heavy milk production wears down the animals and frequently leads to serious health issues. One of the most widespread problems on dairies relates to “downer cows”—animals so weakened by the stresses of milk production that they’ve become unable to stand. A large-scale audit performed by the USDA in 1994 found that 5.8 percent of dairy cows entering slaughterhouses were severely lame.

Everything referenced so far in this article relates to fundamental problems that are structurally built into the dairy industry, and that can’t easily be addressed without rebuilding the industry from the ground up. But overt and deliberate animal abuse frequently enters the picture as well. There have been more than a dozen investigations revealing unconscionable cruelties at dairies, stockyards, and cow slaughterhouses. Perhaps the most disturbing of these investigations involved a facility raising dairy calves that allowed the animals to remain unprotected from the elements during a severe cold snap. That week, workers killed the severely frostbitten calves by splitting their heads with a pick-ax.

Fortunately, it’s easy to part ways with the dairy industry’s cruelty and abuse. Never has quitting dairy products required so little effort. Terrific vegan alternatives exist not just for milk, but also for cheese, ice cream, and even coffee creamer.