One of the dairy industry’s biggest misconceptions is the very nature in which cows produce milk. It still surprises many to hear that in order to produce milk a cow first needs to be pregnant, just like us, and that she needs to give birth every year to meet the demands of our high yield modern dairy farming cycle.
Starting from around the age of 15 months a heifer is artificially inseminated (AI) with semen mechanically drawn from a desired bull, often a beef breed – resulting in bigger, bulkier calves that can, and often do, lead to birthing difficulties. Permanent nerve damage through problematic calving affects a mother’s ability to control her back legs, so to prevent her from doing the splits and causing herself further damage, farmers shackle her hind legs together with ‘hobbles’ like a dangerous criminal. Although horrifying to see and certainly to hear an animal dragging around chains it is considered standard practice in the industry, as a means to keep her moving to the milking parlour in order to exploit every last drop of milk she produces.
Following a nine month pregnancy the calf is typically removed from his or her mother within 48 hours. The industry argues that this is for the health of the calf! They say that they can better measure the amount of colostrum – a form of milk containing antibodies to protect newborns against disease – the calf drinks if it is given artificially. In reality it’s simply so we, as human society, can steal all her milk for our own consumption.
The separation process is a painfully emotional experience with mother cows bellowing for days, looking for their lost babies. The female calves, or the ‘replacement milking herd’, are shifted to isolated hutches (think outdoor dog kennel), sometimes just metres away from their mothers. Here they’ll legally spend up to eight weeks before being transferred to group housing with other young females awaiting a life sentence of suffering.
It is not uncommon however to find calves up to six months of age still living in isolation, struggling to get inside the hard plastic hutches designed for much smaller animals. On a farm in South Devon, footage obtained by Viva! Campaigns showed calves of more than 12 weeks old still living in solitary hutches with little room to turn around let alone exercise. They were without food, without water and without their mums.
If the calf is born a male he becomes a useless ‘by-product’, sold for cheap meat (beef as well as veal) or killed on-farm. The young calf, for example, at the centre of a 2011 Viva! Campaigns investigation into dairy farms supplying Cadbury was shot in the head on the back of a truck and his body handed over to the local fox hounds for food. He was just one of an estimated 95,000 calves that meet their end this way in the UK every year.
The perpetual cycle of forced pregnancies, swift separations from their young as well as unnaturally high milk yields undoubtedly take their toll. For at least seven months of the year she is both pregnant and lactating from a previous pregnancy, visiting the milking parlour twice a day to release an average of 14 litres a time. That’s approximately 28 litres of milk a day!
Having been through the process three to four times by the age of five or six she is exhausted and experiencing a complete body breakdown. The fuel her body needs to meet the demands of intensive dairy farming simply cannot be met and the reason why dairy herds are often found looking emaciated with their pelvic bones, spine and ribs almost sticking right through their skin!
Once her milk yield drops or pregnancy becomes difficult she’s ultimately sent to her death, killed for cheap beef at a fraction of her natural 20 year lifespan.
The Holstein cow, synonymous with British dairy farming, is easily recognisable due to her distinctive black and white or red and white colour pattern. Her ability to produce extraordinarily high milk yields is what makes the British Holstein a perfect ‘commodity’ to exploit. As the predominant breed she produces an average 25 litres of milk every day, with British Friesians – a slightly smaller breed carrying more flesh – averaging 20 litres a day. Pedigree Holsteins however average upwards of 28 litres a day and at peak lactation it’s not unusual to see daily production levels hit 40-50 litres.
Through selective breeding these cows now produce six to 10 times more than what they would naturally to provide for their calf and it takes its toll. Her huge udders make walking and lying difficult and the metabolic stress on her body is so intense it often causes her severe health problems (such as lack of calcium, resulting in ‘milk fever’).
Milk fever is a disease caused by low blood calcium levels. It is most common in the first few days of lactation, when demand for calcium for milk production exceeds the body's ability to mobilise calcium reserves. However, it can occur at any time when the cow is simultaneously pregnant and lactating, which is generally the norm in the dairy industry.
Low blood calcium levels disrupt normal muscle function throughout the body, causing general weakness, loss of appetite, difficulty standing, inability to get up and eventually heart failure. It can be treated but many cows die before the problem is discovered as the disease develops quickly.
Low calcium levels (hypocalcemia) are naturally more common in older animals and in certain breeds (such as Jersey cattle) but due to the high demands of the dairy industry, young cows develop milk fever too.
Zero-grazing means feeding cattle a diet of silage (wet, fermented grass) and high concentrate (a mixture of cereals, rape meal, sunflower meal, maize and soya) in a system that does not involve any time at pasture. Essentially zero-grazing and intensive dairy farming are extensions of the winter period, where all cows are kept indoors or in a yard.
This method deprives the cow her natural environment and ‘increases the risk of lameness, hood problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections’. Intensifying the industry through zero-grazing methods accommodates much larger herds, up to approximately 8,000 individuals if mega-dairies become the norm, and as a result heightens the physical and mental strain these animals live under.
There are an increasing number of UK dairies shifting to zero-grazing, which is not just worrying for the animals but also our environment. Excessively large herds create excessively large amounts of slurry (waste) that ultimately impacts concentrations of greenhouse gases, risks water pollution and escalates the spread of disease.
The dairy cow is arguably the hardest worked of all farmed animals, forced into a perpetual cycle of dual pregnancy and lactation, confined to live more than half the year in barren sheds and fed unnatural mixtures of silage. Not being able to consume enough food to keep up with the demands of nurturing an unborn calf while still lactating from a previous pregnancy, whether zero-grazed or not, leaves her in a constant state of ‘metabolic hunger’. It is therefore ‘normal’ for cows to draw on their body reserves to meet these requirements, resulting in a ‘coat rack’ appearance where her bones and spine protrude. This is an indication of malnourishment.
Other common conditions that dairy cows suffer include mastitis (a painful infection of the udder) and lameness (due to foot problems and leg damage):
Mastitis is an inflammation of the udder tissue and very common among dairy cows. It is caused by bacteria entering through the teat and releasing toxins, which leads to damage of the milk-producing tissue and canals throughout the udder. The body fights the infection by releasing white blood cells and when they destroy the bacteria, the resulting liquid (white blood cells with bacteria remains forming pus) is excreted through the teat.
Usual signs of mastitis are swelling, redness, heat, hardness and pain. It is often transmitted by contact of the teats with the milking machine and through contaminated hands or materials. It can be treated with antibiotics but milk from those cows is not usable so cows with mastitis that hasn’t become life-threatening are often milked anyway as the allowance for somatic cells (pus) in milk is quite high - up to 400 million somatic cells per litre (EU regulation).
Lameness in UK dairy cattle is at an ‘unacceptably high’ level, according to Defra, and is a major cause of pain and discomfort to the animals. The average number of lame cows in a herd is 17 per cent – although at some farms this number is as high as 49 per cent. Approximately 80 per cent of cases of lameness are due to foot problems, such as sole ulcers, white line disease, digital dermatitis and laminitis, and the remaining 20 per cent due to leg damage from badly designed cubicle houses or injury during calving.
There are a number of complex factors leading to these painful conditions but generally they occur because of the excessive demands farmers place on their herds to produce high milk yields. Abnormally large udders push the cow’s hind legs apart and forces her to adopt an irregular gait, putting extra pressure on the outer claws of her hooves; nutritionally deficient feed concentrates absorbed by the blood stream irritate the soft tissues in her soles; and the accumulation of bacteria-ridden highly-acidic slurry around passages in which some cows are forced to stand in, due to their size and insufficient cubicle lengths, are breeding grounds for infection.