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Cows for Dairy

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

Cows are emotionally complex, social animals who develop close relationships with other cows.  Mothers and calves have especially close bonds.  Cows are deeply devoted to their young, and the bond formed between a mother and her calf remains long after the baby is an adult, with mothers and their offspring remaining together as grazing partners for years.  Sadly, dairy cows are unable to experience this relationship.

As consumers, the reality of life as a dairy cow is frequently kept from our awareness, and as such, we often do not realize how cows are negatively impacted by industry practices.  Growing up in a culture that promotes the consumption of cows’ milk, we inherent certain perceived “truths” about dairy cows that are often actually fallacies.  Learning the facts is empowering, because it is with that knowledge that we can then begin to make informed decisions about the products we choose to consume.

Milk Misconceptions

For many of us, when we take a moment to examine any assumptions we have about dairy cows, three things quickly come to mind (in no particular order):

1. Dairy cows need us to milk them.  We’re helping them!

2. Dairy doesn’t hurt cows.  Milk consumption does not require cows to be killed.

3. We need their milk to be healthy.  How else would we get the calcium our bones need?

As it turns out, these are all beliefs that many of us have about milk consumption, that just aren’t true!

Don’t Cows Need to Be Milked?

Unbeknownst to many people, cows do not always have an abundant and constant supply of milk.  Like all mammals, cows only produce milk to feed their young, so in order for a cow to produce milk, she must first give birth.  To ensure steady milk production, cows on dairy farms are impregnated once a year.  This is usually done through what the industry calls artificial insemination (a euphemism that hides the force involved in the act).  Once a pregnant cow gives birth, she and her calf are separated so that the her milk can be taken for human consumption.  This separation is tragic for both the mother and calf.

What’s common knowledge to farmers, but unknown to most consumers, is that mother cows continue to search and call frantically for their babies for days after their calves have been taken away. If mother and calf have been separated by a fence, the mother will wait by the fence in vain, through rain or scorching heat, foregoing meals and water. Some mothers will even break through fences and wander for miles in search of their babies. (1) Dairy calves are taken from their mothers usually within 1-48 hours, as further bonding would make separation even more traumatic and could affect the mother’s milk production.

Mother and Calf

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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

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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.

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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 Consumption Doesn’t Hurt Cows, Right?

Wrong. The constant impregnation of cows that drives the dairy industry creates a huge surplus of calves.  While female dairy calves are raised to replace their mothers, male babies are useless to the dairy industry. According to the USDA, “only a small percentage” of male dairy calves are raised as steer, 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. They never sleep next to their mothers’ warm bodies, and they never receive the mother’s touch or nourishment that they cry out for until the moment they are brutally slaughtered, at anywhere from a few days to six months old. If you consume milk, cheese or butter you are supporting the veal industry. Please learn more about this connection, and about the lives and deaths of calves raised for veal, at our Veal page.

Dairy cows themselves are also slaughtered at a fraction of their natural life span. The constant cycle of pregnancy and intensive milk production takes a heavy toll on their bodies. When their milk production begins to decline, usually between 3 to 4 years of age, dairy cows are slaughtered for ground beef.

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)

Abuse

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

Dairy cows on dry lot

Conditions at large-scale dairy farms are bleak

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)

Mutilations

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 Humane Dairy Farms?

The cruel separation of mother and calf is an unavoidable fact of all dairy production, on all farms. Humans do not need to drink cows’ milk. There is nothing humane about exploiting the reproductive systems of other animals, or cruelly separating mothers and their offspring, or needlessly slaughtering baby cows. And all adult dairy cows — on factory farms or small farms, organic or free-range–are mercilessly slaughtered after a brief life of involuntary servitude. Please read more about humane farming practices here.

Isn’t Milk Important to Good Health?

Human beings are the only animals to routinely consume the mammary gland secretions of another species. We have no biological or nutritional need for any breast milk past infancy–much less the breast milk of another species. Though the facts on milk tend to get whitewashed, the truth is that cow’s milk is only nature’s perfect food if you’re a baby cow. Mother’s milk is species specific. (4) The composition of each animal’s milk has evolved over millions of years to perfectly meet the unique nutritional needs of the young of that species. Since a calf doubles her birth weight nearly four times faster than a human infant does, the concentrations of protein and calcium in cows’ milk are nearly four times higher than those found in human breast milk. If humans didn’t need the amount of calcium found in cows’ milk during our greatest time of bone growth – human babies double in weight in six months – then why would we need it as adults, after our bones have stopped growing? (5)

Osteoporosis

In fact, there is significant and consistent scientific evidence demonstrating that the animal protein in milk and other dairy products actually leaches calcium from bones. The 12 year long Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, based on 77,761 women, found that those who consumed the most calcium from dairy foods broke more bones than those who rarely drank milk. (6) Worldwide, the incidence of osteoporosis correlates strongly with animal protein intake. The countries with the highest consumption of dairy products (United States, Sweden, Israel, Finland, and the United Kingdom) also have the highest rates of osteoporosis-related hip fractures. (7)

Here’s how milk causes calcium loss in bones: like all animal protein, milk protein acidifies the body’s pH, which in turn triggers a biological correction. The body’s natural response to over-acidification is to release stores of calcium, an excellent acid neutralizer. And the largest and most accessible repositories of calcium in the body are – our bones. Once calcium is pulled out of the bones, it is excreted in urine, so rather than increasing the body’s net supply of calcium, milk in fact decreases it. (8) Thankfully, there are many other (and much more healthy) ways to get calcium into your diet.

That’s Calcium.  Not Cowcium.

Despite what the dairy industry would have you believe, cows’ milk is not the only source of calcium; and it certainly isn’t the best source. In fact, cows get calcium from plants. And so can you!  Here are a just a few great sources:


visual adapted from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Cancer

In the most comprehensive study to date on the relationship between diet and human health–The China Project— Dr. T. Colin Campbell found that casein, a protein found only in milk from mammals, is “the most significant carcinogen we consume.”  “What protein consistently and strongly promoted cancer? Casein, which makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein, promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer, even at high levels of intake? The safe proteins were from plants, including wheat and soy. As this picture came into view, it began to challenge and then to shatter some of my most cherished assumptions.” — Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study

In addition to the casein hazard, most commercial milking cows receive antibiotics and are injected with a genetically engineered form of bovine growth hormone (rBGH). A synthetic hormone used to artificially increase milk production, rBGH also substantially raises blood levels of the insulin-growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in those who drink it. Higher levels of IGF-1 are linked to several cancers. (9)

Diabetes

There is increasingly strong evidence that type 1 Diabetes, the incurable form of childhood-onset diabetes that has baffled doctors for decades, is triggered by feeding cows’ milk to infants. (10)  Watch the brief clip below for a clear explanation of the relationship between milk consumption and diabetes.

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Cardiovascular Disease

Dairy products—including cheese, ice cream, milk, butter, and yogurt—contribute excessive amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat to the diet. Diets high in fat and saturated fat increase the risk of heart disease, among other serious health hazards. In two studies, hypertension—a known risk factor for heart disease—was greatly decreased among patients who avoided consumption of any animal products. Research consistently demonstrates that, in combination with exercise and smoking cessation, a low-fat vegan diet can not only prevent heart disease, but may also reverse it.

For more on the health risks of dairy, please visit:

http://pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/health-concerns-about-dairy-products
http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/030400pudairyproductsfalsepromises.htm
http://milkmyths.org.uk/
http://pcrm.org/health/health-topics/cheese-facts-and-alternatives

And read for free Chapter 3 of Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health, a groundbreaking new book on the history of dairy consumption. In Whitewash, leading doctor and nutritionist Dr. Joseph Keon reveals how North Americans unwittingly sabotage their health by drinking milk. Citing extensive scientific literature, Whitewash builds an unassailable case that not only is milk unnecessary for human health, but its inclusion in the diet increases the risk of, or directly causes, many serious diseases, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes, vascular disease, and Crohn’s disease.

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(1) Global Action Network, Cows
(2) USDA, Food Safety & Inspection Service Factsheets, Meat Preparation, Veal From Farm To Table 
(3) Vegan Peace, Animal Cruelty, Dairy
(4, 5) McDougall, John, M.D. “Dairy Products and 10 False Promises”
(6) Goldschmidt, Vivian, “Debunking the Milk Myth: Why Milk Is Bad For You and Your Bones”
(7) McDougall, John, M.D. “Dairy Products and 10 False Promises”
(8) Goldschmidt, Vivian, “Debunking the Milk Myth: Why Milk Is Bad For You and Your Bones”
(9) Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, Milk and Cancer Risk: PCRM’s IGF-1 Study
(10) Goldfarb, Marcia, “Relation of Time of Introduction of Cow Milk Protein to an Infant and Risk of Type-1 Diabetes Mellitus
(11) Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, “Health Concerns About Dairy Products

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