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Dairy and animal rights

Here we provide a brief introduction to the animal rights issues in dairy production, by looking at the typical life cycle of dairy cows in the UK.

It is difficult to gain an accurate picture of what life is like for dairy cows – likely we’d hear a different story from small farmers, large-scale industrial farmers and animal rights activists. Read more in our guide to milk.

In this article we outline some aspects of a typical dairy cow’s life, many of which also apply to sheep and goats, to explain why we mark companies down under the Animal Rights category for sale of dairy.

Issues people might wish to be aware of before deciding whether or not to choose milk from animals or plant milk include separation of calves from mothers, dehorning, forced impregnation, intensive milk production, factory farming, and the killing of calves and dairy cows. We explain each below.

Drawing showing the typical life cycle of a dairy cow separation of calves from mothers, dehorning, forced impregnation, intensive milk production, factory farming, and the killing of calves and dairy cows.
Image shows drawing of a typical life of a dairy cow, from separation of calves from mothers, horns removed, forced impregnation, intensive milk production, often factory farmed, and ultimately killed. (C) Moonloft for ECRA.

Issue 1: Calves separated from mothers

Minutes or hours after birth, dairy calves are separated from their mothers. This is so that the milk the calf would otherwise consume from their mother can be sold. 

This has been standard industry practice for a long time - a 2001 study showed that if a calf was allowed to stay with their mother for the first two weeks of its life, the mother would yield at least 12kg less milk than cows whose calves were separated from them immediately. Further, the calf to mother bond strengthens with time spent together, thereby increasing the distress shown through vocalisations and other behaviour after separation.

Male calves are not useful to the dairy farmer and so are killed, often for meat (including veal or cheap meats that end up in for example pet food).

Female calves usually go on to become dairy cows like their mother.

Issue 2: Horns removed

Many people are surprised to discover that (virtually) all cows have horns, including dairy cows. These horns are typically removed in the first 4 to 6 weeks in the calf’s life.

Dehorning is a painful procedure which is done because cows without horns are less likely to cause injury to people or other cows, and require less space in pens and feeders. 

Dehorning can be done in several ways, such as using chemicals (which can cause irritation and tissue damage if they touch the skin); ‘scoop dehorners’ which cut the horn buds and cause significant pain; and disbudding with a hot iron. Anaesthetic must be used (in the UK) but the pain often lasts longer than the anaesthetic does.

Issue 3: Forcibly impregnated

For an animal of any species to provide a continuous supply of milk, they must be continually impregnated. Countless journal articles examine the most effective methods and devices to use to successfully impregnate different types of cow. 

Typically the cow is restrained, at which point the farmer puts their arm and a gun full of semen into the cow and injects the semen into her cervix.

A few months after giving birth she will be impregnated again, and will continue to be milked throughout most of her pregnancy, and after giving birth the cycle repeats again.

Issue 4: Intensively milked

Modern dairy cows are selectively bred to have a high milk yield.

Cows that are being used for their milk are selectively bred so that they produce six to ten times as much milk as a cow typically would for their calf. 

They regularly suffer from mastitis (an inflammation of breast tissue which causes swelling, hotness and pain, and can also be experienced by human mothers) and metabolic disorders.

With milk treated as a commodity, producers must balance the line between trying to get a cow to produce as much of the commodity as possible while not forcing them to produce so much milk that their bodies cannot cope with it and they become diseased or otherwise unhealthy.

This is a difficult balance to maintain.

Face of black and white cow inside pen

Issue 5: Often factory farmed

Many cows have only limited, or no, access to grazing in the outdoors. Our feature on dairy milk certification schemes discusses which milk products are more likely to come from cows that have access to grazing.

A 2014 study found that just 31% of dairy farmers in the UK practised summer grazing and winter housing, with the remaining farmers moving cows indoors for even more of the year, and 16% keeping some or all cows inside for the whole year.

In 2018 an estimated 23% of UK and Ireland farms kept some or all of their cows inside for the whole year.

Intensive factory farming of dairy cows happens in the UK. A 2015 article in The Independent for example featured a mega-dairy which homed at least 1,300 cows, who were not permitted to graze in the fields that surrounded the farm and instead were kept inside. 

Another example is major milk producer Grosvenor Farms Ltd which has a 2,600 herd. We viewed its website in November 2021 and it appeared that the cows are seemingly only permitted to roam inside their barns, which the company describes as “larger than typical industry standards”. In 2019 director Mark Roach stated “we have recorded an average 14 hours lying time which equates to the behaviour of a grazing cow” which also suggests the cows are not able to graze.

Following Brexit the dairy industry is facing shortages of labour, as many dairy farm workers were foreign workers. This leaves dairy farmers under more stress and pressure when supermarkets and large dairy companies are already demanding milk at astonishingly low prices. This increases the pressure on farmers to keep cows indoors because it is cheaper than permitting cows to roam. 

Issue 6: Dairy cows are ultimately killed

After a cow first calves at around aged two, in developed dairy industries they will usually go on to produce milk for between 2.5 to 4 years. This brings their total lifespan from birth to death to between 4.5 to 6 years. If higher welfare standards are maintained, the cow might be able to produce milk for slightly longer periods and thus live longer.

The natural life expectancy of dairy cows is 20 years.

If a cow is unable to conceive quickly enough, becomes unhealthy and injured, or doesn’t yield much milk they might be culled.

What you can do?

There are several ways you can take action if you don’t want to support these practices. These range from going vegan, to reducing consumption of dairy products, or sourcing from more ethical dairy farmers. 

Switch to plant-based dairy

Our guide to vegan and non dairy milk looks into the best plant-based milks. We also have a guide to vegan cheese.

Our chocolate guide also highlights which brands make vegan chocolate, and which brands are fully vegan. We also have a separate article on the best dairy free vegan chocolate companies.

You can find out more about the climate benefits of switching to plant-based alternatives from dairy milk in our feature comparing the climate impacts of dairy and plant milks.

We also have a feature on the climate impacts of meat, vegetarian and vegan diets.

If you do reduce or replace some or all of your dairy, you may also want to check out the ownership of some of the vegan brands - some are owned by large dairy producers such as Danone (or meat producers). Our handy article gives you this information in one place.

Source from more ethical dairy farmers

Some small farmers are trying to produce milk that does not rely on cows being cooped up in factory farms and instead allow them to roam. They might also challenge the mother-calf separation practice. Read more in our feature on ethical dairy farming.

In our guide to milk we highlight the most ethical dairy farmers selling produce in the UK. While most of the issues outlined above still apply, some of them such as Acorn Dairy ensure that cows are able to graze outside for three quarters of the year.

Some organic producers, such as Yeo Valley for example, let calves stay with mothers for the first few days of their life, which is longer than average.