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Dairy Diaries: The Life of a Dairy Cow

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

written by Gautam

Dairy is omnipresent in our food systems. We drink it with our breakfast, melt it over our pizzas, spread it on our toast, and whip it over our strawberries. Where does it come from? Cows, you may say, it’s what they do after all, right? We see their laughing faces plastered on cheese and idyllic scenes of them grazing blissfully in never ending pasture. Is that really the life they live?

For a lot of people, there exists a disconnect between the food they pick up at the grocery store and its long journey into the packaging. To remove this alienation and understand the life of a dairy cow, we can start asking ourselves some questions. Why do mammals lactate in the first place? And why do dairy cows only live for about 3 to 5 years when their wild-dwelling cousins can live for up to 25?

Let’s go beyond the supermarket shelf and read the story of 250 million mothers.

1. The journey to her first pregnancy

To answer our first question, mammals (human or cow) lactate to feed their new-borns. What that means is that to milk a cow, you must first get it to give birth.

Typically, cows are ready to mate when they are 20 to 30 months old. The farmers have other plans, and artificially inseminate her when she is only around 15 months old. To do this they put her in an enclosure (called a cattle crush) to restrict her movement, and then stick an arm into her private parts, followed by a long tube containing some diluted sperm ‘extracted’ from a bull (an ugly process involving anal probes and electric stimulation).

She has 9 months after this violation before she gives birth to a little calf. As she begins to produce milk - milk that is produced for baby calves to drink - the calf is taken away from her since the milk is reserved for human customers. Allowing the calf to freely drink it would reduce the farmer’s yield.

2. Motherhood

Separating the mother and calf is an anguishing experience, as any mother can testify to. The bond between the cow and her baby is strong, but is broken too early, mentally affecting both mother and calf. Cows can sometimes cry out for their babies for days after they are separated. Now that the pesky calf is out of the way, the milking can commence. She is milked for 10 months, during which she is already on schedule to be impregnated once more. She is on course to give birth again only a month after she stops lactating for her previous birth.

The physical and emotional duress is not over. With her next calf also being separated from her, her cries do not waver. This isn’t the sort of thing that one would get used to. The cycle continues for another 3 to 5 years, at which point her body has called it a day and she begins to ‘run dry’.

3. Deciding the calf’s fate

Remember that calf that got separated from its mother? Let’s pay them a visit real quick. If the calf is male, one of three things can happen to them. They can be killed almost immediately, and sold off as veal. Remember, male cows cannot be milked and aren’t quite so profitable. If they aren’t killed immediately, they are killed in another 18 months. In rare cases they are raised to be used for their sperm.

If the calf is female, farmers rejoice! They are ready to walk in their mothers’ footsteps and join the milk herd. They are fed formula milk and isolated from their mother while they wait to become fertile and ready to be inseminated.

4. An early retirement

Now to answer our second question. The repeated cycles of pregnancy and milking, the confinement induced lack of exercise, and the use of yield-increasing hormones cause unnatural levels of strain on the cow’s body. This cuts their life expectancy down to 5 years or less. Constant milking also causes a painful infection of the udders called mastitis. They often also lose strength in their legs and cannot hold themselves up any longer. These ‘downer’ cows are forklifted and dragged into their ride to the slaughterhouse. For anyone that thought that dairy didn’t involve death, there’s plenty of it to go around. Some also practice impregnating the cow one last time so that when she is slaughtered pregnant, the skin of her foetus can be used for ‘luxurious’ ultra-soft leather. How sick!

For anyone that thought that dairy didn’t involve death, there’s plenty of it to go around.

So what should we do about this? We would never stand for such a life for the mothers and daughters of our human societies, nor would we for our feline and canine companions. Why should we compromise on our values for the cows?

If you don’t want to contribute to this vicious system, fret not! There are amazing cruelty-free alternatives to just about any dairy product. With new offerings popping up almost every week, making the switch is as easy as ever.

Further watching:

*Trigger Warning* Dairy is truly scary. This video takes you behind the scenes, exposing the industry for what it really is. If you don’t like what you see, quit dairy and not with your wallet.

Image credits:

Photos by cottonbro

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