Like humans, cows must have babies in order to produce milk. (Coincidentally, the mother cows' gestation period is nine months long, just like ours.) In the dairy industry, cows are kept in a state of almost constant pregnancy. 2 months after their calves are born, the cows are re-impregnated via artificial insemination.
Artificial insemination has become increasingly popular since the 1950's, as it allows farms to control the genetic tendencies of their herds. Traits such as fertility, milk production, butter fat production and protein content of milk are particularly sought after. As a result, dairy cows often go through their lives without once seeing a bull.1
During artificial insemination, a farm worker forces his or her arm, up past the elbow, into the anus of a cow, and manipulates a implantation device in her vagina through her cervix and into her uterus, where the semen is released.2
What about the bulls who provided that semen? Like the cows, they may never see a member of the opposite sex. Semen is instead obtained through a variety of methods. One of the most popular involves a "teaser" animal –typically, another bull, and generally a castrated one. The non-castrated bull mounts the teaser, but just before he ejaculates, a farm worker grabs his penis and directs the flow of semen into "a radiator-like hose lined in latex."3 4
In order to get the maximum amount of milk from each cow, calves are taken away from their mothers within days or even hours of birth. Female calves are generally kept to replace spent dairy cows; male ones are sold for beef and veal. It has been said that there is a chunk of veal in every glass of milk. Learn more about the veal industry here.
Recombinant bovine somatotropin, otherwise known as rBST (more commonly referred to as rBGH), is a synthetic growth hormone meant to increase milk product in dairy cows. It is not allowed in Canada. (Six other hormonal growth promoters are approved for use with Canadian beef cattle, however.)5
Despite the lack of added artificial hormones, Canadian cows produce approximately 9,519 kg of milk every year, seven times more than they would in nature. 6
When milk production drops after four or five years, the spent cows are sent to slaughter and turned into hamburger. (The natural lifespan of a cow is 20 to 25 years.) 7
Constant pregnancy and milkings are physically demanding, as is the unnaturally rich diet the cows are fed in order to maximize milk output. The result is a myriad of conditions; these include ketosis, laminitis, Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne's disease, as well as mastitis.8
Mastitis, a stress-related bacterial infection characterized by a painful, grotesque swelling of the udder, reduces the quality of the milk by changing its composition and increasing its somatic cell (pus) count.9 The National Mastitis Council estimates that the condition results in excess costs of $200 per year per cow. In Quebec, in fact, it is the second most common reason for culling. 10
Canada's dairy cows are frequently tail-docked; this procedure began in New Zealand but in recent years has spread to North America. (It is illegal in the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway.)11
Tail-docking is done through the application of a tight band close to the top third of the cow's tail, causing the tail to eventually atrophy. It then either falls off or is cut off with a short instrument.
There are numerous animal welfare concerns associated with the procedure; cows with docked tails have the potential to develop chronically painful tumours known as "neuromas." These findings are have been described as "comparable to those observed in humans experiencing phantom limb pain following amputation."12
The tail is immensely important to the cow, who uses it constantly to shoo flies from her legs and hindquarters. When the tail has been docked, she is unable to protect herself. Cows with docked tails have been observed swishing their tail stumps, stomping, shaking their heads and ears, twitching, and even running away in an attempt to escape flies. In test groups, twice as many flies have been observed on the hindlimbs of cows with docked tails as on those in the non-docked control group. 13
Those in favour of the procedure claim that it improves cleanliness, udder health, milk quality, and the convenience of farm workers, but the benefits appear to be anecdotal. Even the industry journal Dairy Herd Management admits that this appears to be based on "personal on-farm observation rather than controlled research."14 A 2002 study in a British Columbia dairy farm indicates that cleanliness and other such factors do not appear to be affected by the presence of tail-docking. It found "no difference between cows with intact tails and those that had been docked in terms of any of our cleanliness measures, somatic cell counts (a measure of udder health), or cases of mastitis as diagnosed by the herd veterinarian."15
For more pictures of dairy cows, please click here.
Dairy cows must be pregnant in order to give milk, and their female offspring either become dairy cows themselves or are slaughtered immediately. The male calves, however, are a byproduct. Some are sold for beef, but most become veal. The veal industry was actually developed as a result of these "extra" calves.16
Veal is the meat of calves who were taken from their mothers at only a few hours old, raised in intense confinement, and killed at four to six months of age. They are fed a liquid diet intentionally deficient in both iron and fibre; the resulting anemia makes their meat extremely white and tender. To better restrict muscle development, veal calves are chained by their necks inside a two-foot wide crate for the entirety of their short lives. They are unable to turn around, stretch, or even lie down comfortably.17,18
Calves kept in these crates exhibit classic symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as head tossing and shaking, kicking, scratching, and stereotypical chewing behavior. 19 This last symptom is in part the result of having been separated from their mothers; as babies, the calves are driven to suckle and chew anything they can. The company of other calves becomes even more necessary without the presence of a mother cow, but crates separate them and make socialization impossible.20,21
Restricting muscle development makes the calves' meat tender, and anemia makes it pale. Despite being ruminants, the animals are denied hay or grains; they also are not allowed bedding of straw or corncobs. 22 The iron- and fibre-deficient diet fed to veal calves results in extreme weakness, as well as diarrhea. Between 2.5% and 8.8% of them die or are culled due to illness before they reach slaughter.23Veal calves also commonly develop ear, respiratory, and digestive infections; the latter two are leading causes of death. 24 Approximately 87% of them suffer ulcers.
Veal calves sometimes present a challenge at slaughterhouses, which are built for larger animals. Though some slaughterhouses have narrower chutes and smaller killing boxes to accommodate calves, the relentless speed of the killing line and the electrical systems moving the calves along means that many are still conscious when their throats are cut. As one slaughterhouse worker explained:
In the morning the big holdup is the calves...To get done with them faster, we'd put eight or nine of them in the knocking box at a time. As soon as they start going in, you start shooting, the calves are jumping, they're all piling up on top of each other. You don't know which ones got shot and which ones didn't get shot at all, and you forget to do the bottom ones. They're hung anyway, and down the line they go, wriggling and yelling. The baby ones — two, three weeks old — I felt bad killing them so I just let them walk past.25
For more pictures of veal calves, click here.
Giving Up Dairy
Interested in cutting milk from your diet but concerned about calcium? The good news is that dairy by no means has a monopoly on calcium!
Good plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens like broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and swiss chard, all kinds of beans, chickpeas, tofu, fortified orange juice, and much more. Learn more about non-dairy sources of calcium here.
There are numerous other conditions and diseases associated with dairy consumption, including cancers, cardiovascular disease, allergies, obesity, constipation, diarrhea, diabetes, and of course, lactose intolerance.26
Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
Between 65% and 75% of the human population is lactose intolerant because our bodies generally lose the ability to break down lactose, or milk sugar, after infancy. While people with European ancestry generally have fairly low rates of lactose intolerance (between 5% and 60% suffer from some degree of it), between 75% and 90% of people of African descent are lactose intolerant. 80% and 100% of the native population of North America is also lactose intolerant, and rates are similarly high for people from East and Central Asia.27,28
“I no longer recommend dairy products...[T]here was a time when cow’s milk was considered very desirable. But research, along with clinical experience, has forced doctors and nutritionists to rethink this recommendation.” —Dr. Benjamin Spock
- 1. MSNBC, Dairy farmers drive bull market in cattle semen, 20 July 2006
- 2. O'Connor, M.L., Pennsylvania State University, Artificial Insemination Technique
- 3. MSNBC, Dairy farmers drive bull market in cattle semen, 20 July 2006,
- 4. Rice, Pamela, 101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian, 2005, Lantern Books
- 5. Health Canada, Questions and Answers: Hormonal Growth Promoters, 4 February 2005
- 6. Veg.ca, Milk: A Natural Choice?
- 7. Dr. Bob's All Creatures Site, Life Span of Animals, 2006
- 8. Farm Sanctuary, Dairy Production
- 9. Veg.ca, Milk: A Natural Choice?
- 10. "Symposium Dedicated to Understanding Bovine Mastitis Held in Quebec." Canada NewsWire release, 20 Oct 2004
- 11. Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, Tail Docking Dairy Cows, Fall 2002
- 12. American Veterinary Medicine Association, Backgrounder: Welfare implications of tail docking of dairy cattle, April 25, 2006
- 13. ibid
- 14. Quaife T., Dairy Herd Management Tail docking makes little sense. 16 October 2002
- 15. Dr. Clell V. Bagley D.V.M., Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle
- 16. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Veal Calf Husbandry
- 17. ibid.
- 18. Farm Sanctuary, Veal Production
- 19. ibid.
- 20. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry
- 21. Chai Online, Veal Calves Factsheet
- 22. Smith, John M., Ohio State University Fact Sheet: Raising Dairy Veal
- 23. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry
- 24. PubMed, The effect of low dose oral human interferon alpha therapy on diarrhea in veal calves., 1993
- 25. Eisnitz, Gail, Slaughterhouse (New York, 1997), p. 43
- 26. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Health Concerns about Dairy Products
- 27. Lactose Intolerance by Ethnicity and Region, ProCon.org
- 28. Harvard School of Public Health, Calcium and Milk, 2007