Instead of roaming in fields, playing with their friends, and lazing around in the sunshine, millions of cows spend a significant portion of their lives inside factory farms. These industrial facilities are a far cry from what many people still picture when they think of a farm. Cows are kept in crowded group housing or in small, individual pens, either outdoors (on mud or concrete) or in poorly ventilated barns. There is often not a blade of grass in sight.
Factory farming is a system of mass-producing animal products for human consumption that relies on keeping huge numbers of fast-growing animals packed together in as little space as possible to reduce cost and maximize efficiency. Animals are treated like commodities rather than living beings, and profit is prioritized over animals’ needs.
Based on 2017 data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Sentience Institute estimated in 2019 that 70.4 percent of cows in the U.S. live in factory farms. A farm is typically classed as a factory farm, or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), if it holds more than 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef cattle. Some of the biggest industrial facilities hold as many as 150,000 cattle.
As we will see, there is some variation in what happens to cows in factory farms, depending on whether they are raised for beef, dairy, or veal. But they are all kept in unnatural conditions, denied basic freedoms, and ultimately killed.
The U.S. is home to more than 9 million dairy cows. Many of these intelligent, sensitive individuals face intense confinement in unsanitary conditions and are treated like milk-producing machines. Then, after a life of suffering to produce milk, they are sent to slaughter the minute they become unprofitable.
Many people seem to be under the impression that cows make milk simply because they’re cows, but the reality is that cows, like humans, only make milk to feed their babies. Cows farmed for dairy are forcibly impregnated and then have their young taken from them soon after birth, so that their milk, which would naturally be suckled by a calf, can be sold for human consumption. This process, which is emotionally traumatizing for the mother cow and her baby, is repeated in a continuous cycle. Cows possess strong maternal instincts to protect and care for their children, just like all mammals, including cats, dogs, and humans.
Intensively raised dairy cows have been selectively bred over time to produce unnaturally high quantities of milk. The amount of milk produced by a single cow has doubled in the past 40 years, which puts an immense strain on her body. To further increase milk yield, they are sometimes injected with bovine somatotropin, a growth hormone that has been linked to increased risk of mastitis, infertility, and lameness.
Rather than being allowed to graze on grass and other vegetation as they would naturally, dairy cows in factory farms are fed a diet high in processed cereal grains such as corn and wheat. These grains are cheap to buy and maximize the cows’ milk yield but, because they are high in starch and low in fiber, they can cause digestive illness in cows.
Despite having a natural lifespan of around 20 years, mother cows used in the dairy industry are typically killed at between 4.5 and 6 years of age. At this point, their bodies are no longer able to produce enough milk to make it profitable to keep them alive. Their meat is sold as low-grade beef and may be added to pet food.
Cows who are too sick or injured to even move, labeled “downers,” are killed on-farm. These animals are commonly shot with a captive bolt gun that fires out and then retracts a metal bolt, or with a firearm that uses a free bullet.
Others are sent to slaughterhouses and enter the human food chain as cheap, processed meat products such as ground beef. After a long journey on a filthy, overcrowded truck, without food and water, these cows are lined up, restrained, stunned, and have their throats slit. Pre-slaughter stunning is supposed to render animals unconscious and unable to feel pain, but it does not always work and animals can suffer a slow, painful death.
Around 30 million cattle in the U.S. are raised for beef. These animals are seen as commodities rather than individuals and face similar treatment to dairy cows, with the key difference being that they are farmed for their flesh rather than for milk.
Cattle raised for beef typically start their lives grazing in pastures, but while they have some freedom to live naturally during this time, they are not free from harm. Many are forced to undergo painful amputations such as dehorning and castration.
After around six or seven months of grazing outdoors, the majority of cattle are moved to facilities known as feedlots, or stockyards, to be fattened up before slaughter. The sheer size of factory farms means that while only a small minority of feedlots are large enough to be considered factory farms, these facilities produce 80 to 85 percent of the cattle finished in feedlots. Around 40 percent of fed cattle are produced by feedlots large enough to hold 32,000 or more cows.
In feedlots, cattle are commonly fed a high-calorie diet that includes large amounts of processed grains, primarily corn and sorghum (milo), to make them gain weight quickly. Feed often contains added vitamins, minerals, and drugs such as tylosin, an antibiotic given to cattle to reduce the prevalence of liver abscesses caused by their unnatural diet. To force them to grow faster and convert the food they consume into weight more efficiently, beef cattle also have steroid hormone drugs implanted into the back of their ears.
Cattle are usually killed for beef when they are between 15 and 28 months old. This falls far short of a cow’s natural lifespan of 20 years.
When they reach market weight, cows are crowded onto trucks and taken on a long, stressful journey, either to an auction or directly to the slaughterhouse. This often involves them being prodded with electric goads that deliver a shock to force them to move.
At the slaughterhouse, cows are killed and their bodies are cut into pieceson a fast-paced disassembly line. They are typically shot in the head with a captive bolt gun, hoisted up by their legs, and then have the major blood vessels in their neck cut with a knife to cause a rapid loss of blood so that they die from a lack of oxygen to their brain.
Veal calves are primarily young males who are unwanted by the dairy industry because only females produce milk. Although veal is produced on a smaller scale than beef and dairy, the treatment of individual calves in the industry is every bit as much a cause for concern.
Veal calves are typically taken from their mothers within their first 24 hours of life and transported to the farm where they will be raised for their flesh. As cows form strong bonds with their calves almost immediately after birth, this separation causes distress for both individuals.
In traditional veal production, calves are tethered inside tiny, individual stalls (known as veal crates) that are not much bigger than themselves, and that severely restrict their movement. The purpose of this is to keep them weak so that their flesh will be tender to consume. Many veal factory farms are moving away from this extreme confinement and are instead keeping calves in groups inside larger pens, but, even in these, calves live on hard slatted floors and cannot take more than a few steps.
Veal calves in factory farms are not allowed to suckle from their mothers as they would naturally. Instead, they are fed an artificial milk replacer liquid from a bucket or an automatic feeder. To give veal its desired pale color, the calves’ diet is purposefully low in iron, which can make the calves anemic.
Most veal calves are slaughtered when they are only about 16 to 18 weeks old. Others have even shorter lives. “Bob” veal is the flesh of newborn calves who are killed at less than three weeks of age.
After a brief life, veal calves, many of them weak and sickly, are loaded onto trucks for the second, and last, time. Live transport is tough for any animal to endure, but the young age of these calves can make it especially difficult. Those who survive reach the slaughterhouse scared, dehydrated, and exhausted.
Calves are then stunned using either a captive bolt gun or a pair of electric tongs. Electrical stunning is reversible and is only effective for a short period of time, making it possible for the calves to regain consciousness during slaughter. After stunning, they are hoisted up by their legs and have the blood vessels in their neck or above their heart cut open in order to kill them.
As we have seen, cows in factory farms are denied the opportunity to follow their natural diets. Those raised for dairy and beef are fed unhealthy amounts of grain, and veal calves are given artificial milk replacer.
Factory farms negatively affect the environment in numerous ways. Industrial animal agriculture is responsible for emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases and polluting freshwater resources. Compared to other methods of food production, it is also an inefficient use of farmland.
The intensive growing of crops for animal feed (including land use change to grow these crops), the digestion of food by ruminant animals, and animal manure are key sources of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Factory farming emits vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). If animal agriculture was a country, it would, according to one calculation, be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitting nation in the world.
The excessive amount of animal manure created by factory farms is a major source of water pollution. The untreated manure can be released into the environment when waste lagoons leak or overflow, when it is pumped into faulty irrigation systems, or when it is overapplied to fields as fertilizer. This allows it to leach into groundwater or run into waterways, polluting them with nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants.
Animal agriculture uses 83 percent of global farmland yet only produces 18 percent of the world’s calories.
Whether for milk, beef, or veal, factory farming subjects millions of cows to a life of misery in overcrowded, unnatural, and often unsanitary conditions. If you think that these sentient, sensitive individuals deserve a better life, you can help them by opting for plant-based alternatives to conventional meat and dairy products, and by supporting policies and legislation that works to end these destructive food systems.