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Cows for Dairy

Three of Maybelle’s babies were taken from her before she found a loving home at Woodstock Sanctuary.



On the day of her birth the calf is taken away – never to see her mother again.  This and next 2 photos by Jo-Anne McCarthur


Alone and afraid, she’s locked in a hut for the next several months and then raised for milk production, repeating the cycle of cruelty.


A cow gives birth to a beautiful little girl at a dairy farm. She instantly bonds with her baby, who will soon be stolen from her so her milk can be sold for human consumption.

Hooked up to milk machines

Hooked up to milking machines

Dairy cows on dry lot

Conditions at large-scale dairy farms are bleak

Cruel separation of mothers and calves

Like all mammals, cows only produce milk to feed their young.  Humans are able to consume all the milk and dairy they want (but don’t need) only by keeping cows pregnant and lactating, then taking away the calves for whom the milk is intended. And while it’s common knowledge that humans have no nutritional need for breast milk after infancy, we rarely question the bizarre practice of consuming, into adulthood, the specialized breast milk from mothers of other species—milk that these mothers produce for their own babies, babies we force them to become pregnant with, then cruelly tear from them at birth, so we can drink the devastated mother’s milk. The dairy industry is based on the systematic sabotage of mothering.

Separation of cows and their calves is an unavoidable fact of milk production on all farms, big or small. Cattle are highly social creatures, and in natural herds, the most important and lasting relationships are between mothers and their young. The powerful bond between mother and calf persists long after the calves have matured, with mothers and their offspring remaining together as grazing partners for years. But on dairy farms, calves are forcibly taken from their mothers within a few hours of birth. This cruel separation is highly traumatic for both of them:

“The very saddest sound in all my memory was burned into my awareness at age five on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. A cow had given birth to a beautiful male calf…On the second day after birth, my uncle took the calf from the mother and placed him in the veal pen in the barn—only ten yards away, in plain view of his mother. The mother cow could see her infant, smell him, hear him, but could not touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she poured forth—minute after minute, hour after hour, for five long days—were excruciating to listen to. They are the most poignant and painful auditory memories I carry in my brain.” Michael Klaper, M.D.

Overproduction and Disease

Annual milk production per cow has risen from 2.3 tons in 1940 to 10.1 tons in 2007. That’s roughly 100 pounds of milk a day, ten times more than cows would produce naturally. (5) This dramatic increase is due to several factors, including selective breeding, high-protein feed, mechanized milking and the injection of cows with rBST, also known as bovine growth hormones (BGH). Due to potential impacts on human health, these synthetic hormones were banned in the European Union and Canada in 1999. (6) According to John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University, “the amount of work done by the dairy cow in peak lactation is immense. To achieve a comparable high work rate, a human would have to jog for about 6 hours a day, every day.”

The most “cost-effective” way to extract such an unnaturally high volume of milk from cows is with mechanized milking machines, several times a day over a 10-12 month period. The method and frequency of mechanized milking commonly causes teat lesions and painful mastitis (inflammation of the udder). Clinical mastitis is the most commonly reported health problem in the U.S. dairy industry, responsible for 16.5% of all recorded pre-slaughter dairy cow deaths. The trauma caused by milking machines to fragile teats, as well as genetic manipulation for extremely high milk yields both contribute to this painful swelling and irritation of the cows’ mammary glands. (7)

The Fate of Surplus Calves


Day-old “surplus” dairy calves shot in the head. (Photo: Channel 4 UK)

Like humans, cows carry their babies for nine months.  To keep them producing milk, cows on modern dairy farms are artificially inseminated year after year.  This constant impregnation creates a huge surplus of calves. Female calves are raised for milk production. At a time when they should be sleeping curled in their mothers’ warmth, the infant calves are isolated in individual crates. After several weeks they are moved to small groups where each calf has as little as 35 square feet (6’x6′). (1) Throughout their adolescence they are fed a milk replacement, while humans drink their mothers’ milk.

Male calves are deemed useless to the dairy industry.  According to the USDA, “only a small percentage” of male dairy calves are raised as steers, as dairy cows are not considered the desirable breed for beef. (2) Instead, most male dairy calves become veal, and spend their brief, miserable existence confined or chained in lonely stalls before they are brutally slaughtered for their tender flesh. Around 700,000 calves are slaughtered for veal in the U.S. each year.  Please read more about their plight at our Veal page.


Abuse on dairy farms is well documented and rampant.  Mothers and babies do not want to be separated and cows will fight to stay with their calves.  There is also a huge percentage of “downed” cows and calves in the dairy industry– cows unable to stand or walk at a normal pace because of illness or injury. Undercover investigators on dairy farms all over the country have documented repeated and extensive abuse of dairy cows by workers, including:

  • Violently punching young calves in the face, body slamming them to the ground, and pulling and
    throwing them by their ears
  • Routinely using pitchforks to stab cows in the face, legs and stomach
  • Kicking “downed” cows (those too injured to stand) in the face and neck – abuse carried out and encouraged by the farm’s owner
  • Maliciously beating restrained cows in the face with crowbars – some attacks involving over 40 blows to the head
  • Twisting cows’ tails until the bones snapped
  • Punching cows’ udders
  • Bragging about stabbing, dragging, shooting, breaking bones, and beating cows and calves to death

Sick or injured dairy calves had their heads bashed in with a hammer at E6 Cattle. (photo: Mercy For Animals)

In March of 2011, A Mercy For Animals undercover investigator  documented deplorable conditions and brutal mistreatment of animals at E6 Cattle in Hart, Texas.  E6 rears dairy replacement calves, confining approximately 10,000 calves and subjecting them to lives of prolonged neglect and misery.  Abuses uncovered included:

  • Workers bludgeoning calves in their skulls with pickaxes and hammers – often involving 5 to 6 blows, sometimes more – before rendering the animals unconscious
  • Beaten calves, still alive and conscious, thrown onto dead piles
  • Workers kicking downed calves in the head, and standing on their necks and ribs
  • Calves confined to squalid hutches, thick with manure and urine buildup, and barely large enough for the calves to turn around or fully extend their legs
  • Gruesome injuries and afflictions, including open sores, swollen joints and severed hooves
  • Ill, injured and dying calves denied medical care
  • The budding horns of calves burned out of their skulls without painkillers

You can watch the devastating footage from that investigation here.

Confinement and Poor Welfare

In addition to the misery of repeatedly having their calves taken from them, dairy cows suffer high rates of disease and injury, as well as emotional anguish from poor and restrictive environments. Over 90% of dairy cows are confined in primarily indoor operations, with between 75 and 90% being tethered by the neck in indoor stalls. (3) Cows kept in tie-stalls are confined except when they are milked, severely restricting natural activities such as walking, exploring, socializing, and grooming and licking of hindquarters.  All of these behaviors are essential to a cow’s wellbeing. Inability to exercise or socialize is extremely depressing for cows, who are highly social creatures with a strong instinct to graze and interact with other individuals. Research has shown that tethered cows develop abnormal, nervous behaviors to compensate for their barren environment and poor welfare. These include repeated rolling of the tongue, bar biting, licking of the stable equipment, and increased sniffing and licking of the ground. (4)


Cows raised for milk also endure excruciating mutilations, such as tail docking – a painful, defenseless procedure in which up to two-thirds of a cow’s tail is amputated, without anesthetic. This cruel practice is performed for the sole reason that farmers do not like cows’ tails swishing in their faces at milking time. A USDA survey in 2001 found that 50% of U.S. dairy operations practiced tail-docking (8), which is accomplished by the application of a tight, rubber ring that restricts blood flow to a selected portion of the tail, which then atrophies and falls off, or is removed with a sharp instrument. Without a tail, cows are unable to prevent painful fly bites, and the pain and discomfort in the remaining stump is thought to be comparable to chronic phantom pain in humans after limb amputation. (9)

In addition to tail docking, the vast majority of producers de-horn the cows. Common methods of de-horning include applying caustic pastes, “scooping” out the horns, or searing them with a hot iron. (10)

All Dairy Cows Are Slaughtered While Still Young

In natural conditions, cows can live for over 20 years. But in the dairy industry, after being forced to produce unnatural quantities of milk for 2-4 years straight, dairy cows begin to decline in milk production, at which point they are slaughtered for ground beef, used mostly for hamburgers. Of the roughly 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., nearly 3 million cows are milked each year to the point of exhaustion, then slaughtered. (11)

What About Humanely Raised, Happy Cows?

All milk production depends on the use and abuse of reproductive systems that do not belong to us, and on the cruel sabotaging of motherhood.  All dairy cows, on all farms, big or small, are repeatedly constrained and traumatically inseminated, forced to give birth and grieve the loss of their babies prematurely torn from them, and are all ultimately themselves brutally slaughtered.  We have no biological or nutritional need for cows’ milk or dairy products; therefore, our consumption of them is merely for pleasure. This consumption, and indeed the entire dairy industry, is predicated on heartless theft–theft of mothers’ milk from other animals, theft of babies for whom the milk is intended, and theft of life from babies and mothers alike. If you believe that it is wrong to harm and kill animals for pleasure, then you should not consume milk or dairy products. Please visit our Milk Myths page to learn more about the humane and health myths of dairy, and visit our Vegan Food and Nutrition page for tips and links to delicious dairy alternatives.


(1) UC Davis Veterinary Medicine, Heifer Care From Weaning to Calving

(2) USDA Government Factsheets, Veal From Farm To Table

(3) A Humane Society of the United States Report: The Welfare of Cows In the Dairy Industry

(4) Munksgaard L and Simonsen HB. 1996. Behavioral and pituitary adrenal-axis responses of dairy cows to social isolation and deprivation of lying down. Journal of Animal Science 74(4):769-78.

(5) USDA Charts and Maps, Milk Production and Milk Cows


(7) A Humane Society of the United States Report: The Welfare of Cows In the Dairy Industry

(8) U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 2002. Dairy 2002. Part III:

(9) American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007. Policy statements: tail-docking of cattle.

(10) Cattle Today,

(11) U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2009. Livestock slaughter: 2008 summary