The UK is the tenth-largest milk producer in the world. In 2014, dairy milk was worth around £4.6 billion in market prices, accounting for 17.8% of the nation’s total agricultural output.
Currently, there are around 1.8 million dairy cows living in the UK. Although this number is not the highest it has ever been, the milk yield per cow has increased by 93% since 1975. You read that correctly; modern day dairy cows have been genetically manipulated to produce 93% more milk than they did 40 years ago. This, in turn, means that the total domestic milk production in the UK has increased since the 70s, despite the fact that there are actually less dairy cows now then there have been in previous years.
Have you ever questioned why we, as a nation, drink so much milk? Have you ever wondered why we are the only species that will continue drinking milk into our adult years? Or, why we are the only species that will happily drink the milk of another species? Don’t you think it’s a little strange that we have been brought up to believe that this behaviour is not only normal, but encouraged?
I’d like to introduce you Dairy UK, the Dairy Council, and DairyCo.
Dairy UK refer to themselves as the ‘Voice of the Dairy Industry’. These guys own the Dairy Council and British Cheese Board, both of which serve solely to promote dairy products and defend the dairy industry’s interests through a range of ‘educational materials’ that are provided to consumers, health care professionals and schools. Dairy UK cover the supply chain, dairy manufacturers and co-operatives, farmer representatives, bottle milk buyers and milkmen.
DairyCo is a non-for-profit organisation that earns an annual income of £6.5 million from a statutory levy paid by dairy farmers on their milk sales. As well as working to improve their productivity and cost management, DairyCo will be ‘promoting the positive perception of dairy farming with the general public’ through advertising and ‘educational materials’.
These organisations strive to get people hooked on drinking milk at a young age. With projects such as ‘Food – A Fact of Life’, which will target children between the ages of 3 and 16, DairyCo will promote the idea that dairy products are an essential part of a young person’s diet. The European Union provides subsidies to schools through the European School Milk Scheme so that they can provide students with cheap or free milk, and they literally state that their aim is ‘to encourage children to consume milk and milk products, and develop a lasting habit of doing so.’
Start them on milk young, and you’ll have someone who grows up purchasing it for themselves long into their adult years, until they have their own children and the cycle of milk-drinking can continue indefinitely.
DairyCo even have a website to promote dairy products to consumers, which paints a comically idyllic picture of the ‘life of a dairy cow’, conveniently failing to mention the trauma of separating a cow from her calf, or what happens to unwanted male calves when they’re just a day or two old.
But hey, the UK dairy industry spent £124 million on advertising in 2012; they sure as hell aren’t going to make it easy for their consumers to see the truth behind how milk is made.
So, let’s get into what actually happens in the day-to-day life of a dairy cow.
Unlike in the meat industry, where the only cow that suffers is the one that is being slaughtered, the dairy industry ensures a life of misery for not only the dairy cow, but for her calves as well.
Just like humans, a cow has to have a baby to produce milk. So, we begin this story at conception.
To produce as much milk as possible throughout her life, a dairy cow will be impregnated for the first time when she is between 1-2 years old, to give birth 9 months later, and then re-impregnated every year until she is worn out and sent to slaughter at the ripe old age of 5 or 6. Cows, when left to their own devices, can naturally live into their 20s.
The majority of dairy cows in the UK are impregnated via artificial insemination. To impregnate the cow, she is restrained so she is unable to move, and a catheter is passed through her cervix and the semen is deposited in her uterus. Romantic, right? Unfortunately, the reality is that this procedure is uncomfortable and stressful for the cow, and it often results in injury, perhaps due to the fact that you don’t even need to be a veterinarian to do it. As long as you’re 16 or older, don’t have an animal welfare-related criminal offence on your record, and are in the process of completing or have already completed an approved training course (which all take place on working farms, using live animals for practice), you fit the bill as someone who can legally inseminate a cow. Congratulations!
Most dairy cows are impregnated using AI because it’s cheaper, but also because it allows the farmer to choose the breed of cow which sires the calves. But we’ll come back to that a bit later, because it plays an interesting part in what happens when it’s time for the dairy cow to give birth.
As well as artificial insemination, many dairy farms in Europe practice invasive embryo technologies. This is where embryos are removed from ‘high quality’ cows and transferred into ‘low quality’ surrogate cows, ensuring that the more valuable cows can produce more offspring than is naturally possible. To collect the embryos from the ‘high quality’ cows, they are flushed from her uterus using a catheter type instrument after she has been artificially inseminated. However, as this procedure happens a week after ovulation, the dairy cow’s uterus is more difficult to penetrate than it is during AI, and the embryo collection often results in bleeding or uterine rupture. It is considered to be so painful, that UK law requires the use of an epidural during the procedure.
Once the dairy cow is impregnated, it is common practice on UK dairy farms to use rectal ultrasound, involving the insertion of a long probe of about a finger’s thickness into the cow’s rectum until it lies over her uterus. Inserting or entering this probe incorrectly can damage the rectal tissue and internal organs, causing an enormous amount of suffering for the cow, which is why you’d hope that only a qualified professional veterinarian would be permitted to perform the procedure. Alas; just as is the case with AI, non-veterinarians are permitted to carry out rectal ultrasounds, despite the high risk of causing the heifer unnecessary suffering.
Because she will be re-impregnated while still lactating from the previous pregnancy, the average UK dairy cow will spend 7 months of every year being pregnant and producing huge amounts of milk simultaneously. After years of genetic manipulation, her average milk yield can range between 25-50 litres a day; 7-14 times more than what her calf would drink. To keep up with this physical demand, the cow will have to eat over 4 times the amount of food than a beef cow at pasture would, which is an exhausting feat in itself. The pressure of the whole experience means that she will only complete 4 lactations on average before she becomes ‘unprofitable’, either through low milk yield, infertility or disease, and is sent to slaughter.
Throughout her short life, the average dairy cow will spend 6 months of each year housed inside, in a cubicle unit. Between the months of April and October, most dairy herds will be allowed to graze outside, however there is an increasing number of dairy farms that have adopted a zero-grazing system where cows will spend their entire lives indoors. While indoors, the cows are fed wet, fermented grass and high protein concentrate, which in turn will cause the cows to produce wet manure. Poor hygiene conditions in this kind of living situation contribute to mastitis (which I’ll tell you about shortly) and lameness; some of the most common health problems the modern dairy cow will face.
Once a dairy cow joins the cycle of pregnancy and constant milking, she is allowed up to two months off from her workload a year. This ‘drying off’ period occurs during the last month or two before her calf arrives, when her udders are given a small amount of time to heal and regenerate before the hard work begins again. This little ‘holiday’ comes just before the dairy cow is allowed to enjoy her first 12-72 hours of motherhood.
Then, there’s the birth of the dairy cow’s calf; an unwanted by-product of the dairy industry. Remember what I said about farmers choosing the breed of cow that would sire the calf? Well, a lot of farmers will choose to inseminate their cows with the sperm of a much larger breed of cow, so the unwanted little baby that is born will be made of more meat, and therefore be worth more money. The problem with this is that the calves are often so big that their mothers struggle to give birth to them, often resulting in severe injuries such as internal haemorrhaging, nerve paralysis and pelvic fracture. Sometimes, the calves are so big that the cow is unable to give birth naturally at all, in which case they must undergo caesarean section. However, this procedure is costly, so to avoid this, farmers will often induce calving before the cow reaches full-term, a process that is extremely stressful for her and her baby. These calving issues are what NADIS claim is responsible for 46% of ‘downer cow‘ cases; when a cow is physically unable to stand up, often due to temporary nerve paralysis. If downer cows are left too long without medical attention, the condition can cause permanent damage to the nerves and muscles in her legs, as her 700kg body cuts off the blood supply to them.
Regardless of the way a dairy cow’s calf is brought into the world, the joy its mother will feel upon its arrival will be agonisingly short-lived.
The fate of a calf born to a dairy cow depends entirely on its sex. However, whether it is a male or female, the calf will be separated from its mother a couple of days after it is born, to ensure that it doesn’t consume too much of the milk that the farmer is intending to sell for human consumption. In their natural habitat, a calf would suckle from its mother for at least the first 9 months of its life. But, even in the limited time calves are given with their mothers on a dairy farm, a strong emotional bond is formed between the two animals, just as it would between a human woman and her newborn baby.
If you’re a mother, try and imagine the trauma of having your baby taken away from you two days after it was born. Gone with no explanation, never to be seen again.
As you can imagine, this separation is highly traumatic for the cow and her calf. They are both known to bellow for one another, and it’s not uncommon for the mother to break separation fences in order to be reunited with her baby. The stress of this separation takes a physical toll on the dairy cow; she is known to experience changes in her sleeping and feeding behaviour, loss of appetite, and an increase in her heart rate and levels of stress hormones. However, she doesn’t have time to dwell for too long; milking will begin immediately after the loss of her calf, and in 2 to 3 months she will be re-impregnated to begin the cycle all over again.
As for the calves, the future is just as bleak for them as it is for their mother.
Every year, 21,000,000 dairy calves are slaughtered across the globe for their meat. 8% of all calves are either born dead, or die within the first 24 hours of being born. 14 out of every 100 dairy heifers born alive won’t make it to their first calving, and 15% of those that do will be slaughtered before their second lactation.
The life of a female calf will go in one of two directions. If she is a pure dairy breed, she may enter the herd of dairy cows at the farm she was born on in order to replace the 25% of ‘worn out’ cows that are slaughtered every year. Even if she does enter the herd, she will only be allowed to suckle from her mother for her first day of life. However, due to years of genetic manipulation, dairy cows have such huge, distorted udders that the calf will often struggle to reach her teat and will be separated from her mother before the day’s end, to be fed on a commercial milk replacer from a bucket or automatic feeder. A calf that is intended to join the dairy herd will be turned out to pasture when she is a few months old, and impregnated for the first time just after her first birthday, destined to repeat the cycle of suffering that her mother has endured.
Sometimes the pure dairy breed calves may be considered surplus to requirements on their birth farm, so will be sold onto another dairy farm when they are as young as 7 days old. They will travel hundreds of kilometres, stressed and susceptible to diseases that their young bodies haven’t built a resistance to.
The other route for female calves is one that will land them in the slaughterhouse before their second birthday. Dairy/beef crosses will be sold from the dairy farmer into a semi-intensive system where they will be reared for beef.
As is the case with female calves, half of male calves born will be a pure dairy breed, whilst the other half will be a dairy/beef cross. However, neither type of male calf is of any use to a dairy farmer because neither can produce milk, so all will be separated from their mothers no longer than two days after being born, and either be sold and raised for veal, or shot. It is currently estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 bull calves a year are shot within hours of being born in the UK. Those that are shot will either be sent off to be incinerated or rendered, or collected by local hunt kennels to be fed to the dogs.
This cycle of inhumane living conditions, physical and emotional anguish, forced impregnation (known otherwise as rape), and death is what is required to produce the cow’s milk you buy in the supermarket. It is not listed on the label, nor shown in advertising. But it happens. And while you continue to purchase the product, you are enabling and supporting this process.
Horrors of animal agriculture aside, cow’s milk is plain gross.
So, I mentioned mastitis briefly earlier. Mastitis, when it comes to dairy cows, is a bacterial infection of the udder. It currently affects around 30% of British dairy cows at any one time, with 1,000,000 cases occuring every single year. Symptoms of this painful infection include discolourated or clotted milk, and swollen and hardened udders.
British dairy cows contract mastitis from contagious or environmental pathogens. These pathogens thrive in the filthy living conditions that dairy cows are forced to endure, and can be passed from cow to cow via the milking machine. As the milk industry pushes for a higher milk yield every year, it becomes harder to combat these pathogens due to the sheer size of dairy herds in modern milk production. Even if mastitis is treated with antibiotics, the bacteria which causes the infection becomes resistant very quickly. This is why it remains a major reason for premature culling; as many as 17% of dairy cows were culled because of mastitis in 2011.
When a cow suffers from mastitis, she will produce an increased number of white blood cells to try and fight the infection. These blood cells will travel to the udder, and will pass through with the milk she produces along with dead skin cells from the inner lining of her udder. These cells, known as ‘somatic cells’ (any cell of a living organism other than the reproductive cells) are allowed to remain in the milk that is sold to the public, up to a quantity of 400,000,000 cells per litre. Somatic cells are not synonymous with ‘pus’ cells, as there would still be a high volume of somatic cells in the milk of a healthy cow. However, the fact that there are 1,000,000 reported cases of mastitis infections in our 1,800,000 dairy cows every year, means that the somatic cells that are in dairy milk that is sold to the public are more than likely coming directly from the teat of a diseased cow.
It is estimated that approximately 75% of the adult human population is lactose intolerant. As the only species that will continue to drink milk into their adult years, and the only species to drink the milk of a different species, perhaps this percentage is so high because cow’s milk was simply not intended for us. Why do we continue to inflict such suffering on these animals and their babies simply to take something from them that never belonged to us in the first place?
Fortunately, there are countless non-dairy milk alternatives available, should you decide to put a stop to supporting the milk industry. Find one that’s right for you.
Do what’s right for your health, the animals, and the planet; go vegan.