There are approximately 270 million cows in the world that are used for their milk, and cow’s milk has long been a staple of the American diet. While dairy milk is often seen as a “wholesome” product for the whole family to enjoy, it might be seen differently if more people were aware of how the dairy industry operates. Fortunately, consumers have an ever increasing array milks to choose from, since cow’s milk is now facing some worthy contenders from the plant-based dairy industry.
Modern cows are descended from the wild aurochs that once grazed across large areas of Asia, North Africa, and Europe. It is estimated that they were first domesticated between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Scientists believe that Neolithic farmers in Northern Europe and Britain were likely among the first to take the milk of cows for human consumption. The ability to digest different species’ milk spread with a genetic mutation called “lactase persistence” that allowed weaned humans to continue to digest milk. Over time, domesticated cattle became integral to how human societies plowed the earth and fed themselves, and dairy products ultimately became part of modern industrial agriculture, with the first milk truck introduced in 1914.
In the U.S., the most common cows used for milk production are Holsteins, with their famous black and white spots. Jersey, brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, milking shorthorn, and red and white Holsteins are other types of cattle that are used by dairy farms.
A lactating female cow used for dairy usually costs anywhere from $1,500 to $2,100. Lactating cows can cost $2,000 a year to feed, and high-producing cows can eat 110 to 120 pounds of wet feed or 50 to 55 pounds of dry feed per day.
Just like human mothers, cows are not magical milking machines and must give birth to begin lactating. Cows produce breast milk to feed and nourish their young.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around 150 million households worldwide milk other species of animals for human consumption. Countries in the Global North rely heavily on large-scale industrial enterprises—called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the U.S. Over 96 percent of milk and milk protein supplements (casein and whey) that are sourced and sold in the U.S. originate from CAFOs. Lower-income countries in the Global South are more likely to rely on smaller family farms. The amount of milk obtained from all of these enterprises annually is approximately 850 million tons, coming from cows, buffalo, goats, sheep, and camels. Cows’ milk is more than 80 percent of the total.
Under natural circumstances, lactating cows usually produce about one gallon of milk each day, or three to four liters. However, due to genetic manipulation and artificial high-protein diets, cows today produce 20 to 25 liters (~6-7 gallons) a day, or 22,000 pounds of milk each year.
Selective breeding and high levels of forced milk production cause numerous health issues for cows, including infertility, lameness, and mastitis.
Infertility on a dairy farm can be a death sentence. Cows must give birth to produce milk. An infertile cow, or even a cow experiencing a decrease in fertility, causes the farm financial loss and will be sent to slaughter.
Due to the unhealthy conditions in CAFOs, which can see thousands of cows crammed together in unsanitary indoor spaces, cows can become lame. Lack of exercise and standing on concrete floors for prolonged periods often result in ulcers in their hooves. Lameness can also be triggered by infections such as foot rot and digital dermatitis, which occur when cows are forced to stand in their own feces.
Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands that many animals in the dairy industry endure. It causes painful swelling or hardening of the udders. It is often attributed to the crowded, poorly ventilated, and unhygienic living conditions of cows, but can also be caused by milking machines damaging cows’ teats. It’s one of dairy farms’ most frequently cited reasons for sending cows to slaughter.
Dairy farms are able to sell milk from infected cows, however. As quoted in Encyclopedia Britannica’s online site ProCon.org, “You may be horrified to learn that the USDA allows milk to contain from one to one and a half million white blood cells per milliliter (That’s only 1/30 of an ounce). If you don’t already know this, I’m sorry to tell you that another way to describe white cells where they don’t belong would be to call them pus cells.” And according to this site, “The 2003 FDA Pasteurized Milk Ordinance sets the maximum level of somatic cells allowed in Grade A milk at 750,000 cells per. milliliter – a level that has been in effect since at least 1999.”
How Many Years Can a Cow Produce Milk For?
Dairy cows are usually artificially inseminated and forced into pregnancy again within three months of giving birth. Cows used for high production are allowed to live on average for less than three years, though on some farms cows are kept alive to produce milk for four to ten years. Once their time is done on the dairy farm, they are slaughtered and their flesh is sold as low-grade beef.
Cows that are used for milk today often live in unhygienic, cramped, and unnatural spaces. They live a life of forced reproduction, only to have their babies removed from them once born. They are forced to repeat this process so that humans can keep consuming their milk.
If dairy cows have mastitis, as discussed before, then milking can be painful. Although the act of milking a cow itself may not be painful if they are healthy, the conditions of confinement, giving birth over and over again, and the process of being slaughtered causes cows to suffer.
The majority of dairy cows in the U.S. don’t have access to grazing pasture for most of their lives, and they are often kept in sheds. This is known as “zero pasture.”
Before slaughter dairy cows are typically crammed into transport trucks where they can go without water, food, or rest for days. They also endure extreme temperatures and overcrowded conditions. By the time cows reach the slaughterhouse, many of them are too injured or sick to walk. These cows are called “downers” by the industry and will be dragged off the truck by ropes and chains. The cows who are healthy enough to walk but are too scared to exit the transport truck are often shocked with electric prods.
After they are unloaded, cows are forced through a chute and are met by a captive-bolt gun that shoots them in the head, which is meant to stun them. Because the lines move so quickly, cows are not always rendered insensible to pain. Cows are then shackled and hung by a hind leg and large blood vessels are severed to induce bleeding.
A long-time slaughterhouse worker told The Washington Post in 2001 that he frequently had to cut the legs off completely conscious cows. He also reported that many cows were still alive and conscious for as long as seven minutes after their throats had been cut.
The life of a calf born into the dairy industry is not a happy one. If a cow used for dairy has a baby that is male, they will often be sold for veal or cheap beef. If she gives birth to a female, her baby will most likely be consigned to the same life of forced impregnation as all female cows.
Because the breast milk of cows is taken from them so that humans can consume it themselves, their baby calves, if male, are often slaughtered early on in life.
Calves are castrated by banding to cut off blood supply to the scrotum, by surgical procedure, or by crushing the spermatic cord. New Mexico State University says, “Pain is inherently a part of castration and cannot be avoided. The pain of castration occurs first as acute, short-term pain associated with the actual castration procedure. Chronic pain is the longer-lasting pain that occurs in the days following castration until the injury is healed.”
Although some countries have banned tail-docking, countries like Canada and the U.S. continue to allow it. Tail-docking is the act of cutting off a portion of a cow’s tail to make the milking process easier for farmers.
The best way to help cows that are suffering in the dairy industry is to not purchase cow's milk. There are many delicious plant-based milks from around the world that are growing in popularity. Have you ever considered trying oat, soy, potato, almond, coconut, or rice milk? What about cashew, hemp, or pea milk?
New types of dairy-free milks are hitting the shelves every day. It’s easy to figure out which plant-based milks are the healthiest for you and which ones are best for the environment. There are even countless recipes online that can show you how to make your own plant-based milks at home on a low budget.
Don’t forget that yogurt, butter, ice cream, and cheese are typically made from the milk of cows, too. There are so many wonderful and tasty alternatives to all of your favorite dairy products, and free plant-based and dairy-free grocery shopping guides to help you find them.
In addition to ditching animal-based dairy, you can speak up for cows in the dairy industry by voting to support animal-friendly legislation and candidates, lobbying to end dairy subsidies, talking to friends and family about the issues, protesting, leafleting, joining demonstrations, writing, bearing witness, and educating others about standard dairy industry practices that cause cows to suffer.