Worldwide, 270 million dairy cows produce more than 650 million tonnes of milk annually. This huge volume of milk production means that dairy cows, who are intelligent, empathetic and affectionate animals, endure uncomfortable and stressful conditions that do not meet even their most basic needs.
The familiar image of the happy dairy cow is part of an advertising and marketing strategy that is used to sell us dairy products. The reality of the life of a dairy cow is another reason why switching to delicious plant-based alternatives makes sense.
Dairy cows are bred to maximize milk production; the average milk yield per cow has risen dramatically over the years. While calves require about eight liters of milk per day for healthy growth, modern dairy cows on industrial farms produce up to 50 liters per day or as much as 12,000 liters of milk per year. Producing milk at this rate is physically exhausting and comparable to a human running 1½ marathons daily.
Cows on dairy farms experience health problems, including lameness, malnutrition, and painful infections such as mastitis, which is an inflammation of the udder, usually due to contaminated milking equipment or bedding. This is one of the reasons why cows are regularly treated with antibiotics.
A cow's natural lifespan is 15-20 years, but commercial dairy cows are usually slaughtered once their milk production declines, between 4½ and 6 years of age. Cows who don't conceive or produce enough milk are killed at an even younger age. Cows are knocked unconscious with a stun bolt gun before slaughter, but for many cows this is ineffective and they are conscious throughout the ordeal.
Cows in their natural state
Cows are intelligent, inquisitive, and emotional individuals. Under natural conditions, they live in herds of around 20 cows, together with their young, and establish clear social hierarchies. They like to spend most of their time grazing across several kilometers of land per day.
Cows have long-term memories and build close, lifelong friendships, learn from one another, and mourn the loss of friends and family members. Mother cows share a strong bond with their calves. They are physically affectionate towards their offspring and watch over their calves together with other females in the herd. Like humans, mother cows produce milk in order to feed their young.
Every cow is a social individual with its own needs – space, grass to graze on, and community with other cows. The reality of life on dairy farms is very different. While living conditions vary, even pasture-fed or 'free-range' cows may only have access to pastures for up to five months of the year, living isolated lives installs or cubicles for the rest of it. Cows seen grazing in fields are usually beef cattle or dairy cows before their first calving.
At the other end of the scale, cows experience intensive indoor confinement. On many commercial dairy farms, cows live in cramped stalls, restricted with a chain or rope. They are unable to walk, turn around, groom, look to the side, or interact naturally with other herd members.
It is common practice for dairy cows to live in 3.4 to 4 m² cubicles, with areas for resting, walking, feeding, and milking. More often than not, the cubicle floors are made of concrete slats, which are slippery and stressful for cows to move around on.
Cows also undergo a painful dehorning procedure, usually without anesthetic. Cows grow horns in order to communicate between herd members, but most modern farmers dehorn calves to save space and reduce the risk of cows injuring each other due to their stressful living conditions.
Calves and their mothers
Like all mammals, cows only produce milk after giving birth. They are forcibly inseminated each year in order to maintain a high level of milk production. After being born, calves are taken away from their mothers within a few hours. This is a deeply traumatic experience for both the calf and their mother who will be inseminated again six to eight weeks after giving birth.
Female calves are isolated in pens for the first eight weeks of life and spend the remainder of their lives producing milk for the dairy industry. Male calves and 'surplus' females are commonly sold to fattening farms, where they gain weight until they are slaughtered and sold as veal. A significant proportion of veal produced in the European Union comes from dairy breeds.
A kinder alternative
Those who work with cows can attest to their rich emotional lives. As sentient beings, they should have a right to a life that is free of unnecessary suffering. It's harrowing to note that, in the EU, there is no specific legislation concerning the welfare of cattle.
With so many delicious plant-based alternatives on offer, there's no reason to support consumer demand for dairy products. Take the opportunity on this year's World Plant Milk Day to make the switch, and choose plant milk.