Cows possess many emotional qualities similar to our own. They are perceptive, sensitive, and highly attuned to one another. Cows born into captivity, whether for the production of dairy or meat, are unable to satisfy many of their natural instincts.

Intelligence and character

Cows thrive on social interaction. They form close and long-lasting relationships with their herd, and it is very distressing when these bonds are broken, particularly between mother and child. We learn a lot about the natural behaviour of cows through observing semi-wild cattle. Here it is obvious that mothers form strong and lifelong friendships with their calves, and they are often witnessed grooming and grazing alongside one another. Similarly, it is apparent that cows make friends within their herds, with those of a similar age choosing to spend most of their time together, sharing food and coordinating activities.

When giving birth, a mother cow will take herself away from the herd for privacy, and her calf will remain separate from the herd for a short while before being formally introduced. In a natural environment, calves will then suckle their mothers for 9 – 12 months before being weaned. [i]

Cows can jump for joy!

Researchers at Cambridge University found that young dairy cows became excited when they learned how to unlatch a gate to get food. Their heart rates increased, and their behaviour became more animated. Some of the cows even jumped for joy with this ‘eureka’ moment: an emotional reaction to their own learning and achievement.

See the cows’ excitement here as they are released from the sheds after their winter confinement, (see them jumping at 55 seconds in).

The reality for cows

Cows and calves

Like all female mammals, to produce milk, a cow must give birth. And like human females, a cow’s pregnancy lasts nine months. A dairy cow has her first calf at around 18 months old. Typically, this calf is taken away from her within hours of birth. This separation is traumatic for both her and her baby. Cows will often bellow for prolonged periods to be reunited with their young. Mother cows will walk back and forth rapidly in an effort to reconnect, often for several days.

To ensure a constant supply of milk, a cow will suffer this same process of pregnancy, and separation several times in her life. She is caught in this cycle for as long as she can produce enough milk to be deemed ‘profitable’. A dairy cow is typically artificially inseminated every 13 months, meaning she will give birth to a calf nearly every year. While a cow would naturally live 15-20 years, because of the health toll of constant pregnancies and milk production, the lifespan of a dairy cow is only five to seven years.

Unlike only a few generations ago, when the same breeds of cows were used for meat and for dairy, today’s dairy cows represent breeds genetically selected for high milk production.

In intensive dairy farms, to reduce costs and control feeding, cows are often kept within ‘zero-grazing’ systems. These are indoor environments where the cows are unable to graze and carry out natural behaviour. High-protein feed is given to the cows to increase their milk yield.

Male calves and veal

With so many cows having baby after baby to ensure a constant supply of milk, the dairy industry produces millions of ‘surplus’ calves. Female calves, as soon as they are old enough, will become milk-producing machines just like their mothers.

Since they do not produce milk, male calves (also known as bull calves) are of no use to the dairy farmer, and fetch very low prices at auction. The males of dairy-producing breeds do not grow as large as breeds raised for beef, so these calves are often killed at birth, sold for low-quality meat, or raised for veal.

Some countries still use veal crates to confine dairy calves. Because veal is prized for its pale, tender texture, baby calves are confined to very small pens, hutches, or crates to restrict their movement, and fed nutrient-deficient diets. Veal crates are so patently cruel they have been banned in the entire European Union and at least seven U.S. states. Veal calves, whether in crates or pens, are slaughtered at around six months.

Selective breeding

Dairy cows are bred to produce large quantities of milk – around ten times more than necessary to feed a calf. The weight of this excess milk puts a huge strain on the cow’s body and causes teat and udder infections (mastitis), and foot problems (laminitis)

Mastitis

Mastitis is a painful infection of the udder that causes painful swelling or hardening of the udder. It is frequently attributed to unhygienic, cramped, and poorly ventilated living conditions and contaminated milking equipment. Injuries to teats from milking and genetic factors (such as inbreeding) seem to increase the likelihood of developing mastitis.

It is the most common health complication for dairy cows, as many as one-quarter of dairy cows die prematurely from mastitis or are slaughtered rather than treat it. [ii] Milk from cows with mastitis have much higher white blood cell counts; to the industry, white blood cells, bacteria, and other biological contaminants are natural.

In a herd of 100 cows in the UK, there could be as many as 70 cases of mastitis every year on average. [iii]

Laminitis

Foot or leg damage like laminitis leads to lameness. This is compounded by long periods of standing on hard floors and lack of mobility from being confined. It is difficult to comprehend the pain these cows experience before death. John Webster, Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University, likens it to a human having all their fingernails crushed in a door, and then having to stand on their fingertips – for hours. [iv]

Cows for beef

Globally, more than 290 million cows are slaughtered every year. The beef industry is a large sector of agriculture within the UK – Scotland primarily, with the second largest beef herd in Europe, after France.  During the first week of their lives calves are often disbudded and castrated. Then they are fed on cereals in ‘fattening sheds’, where numbers can reach as high as 8,000, before they are sent to slaughter at the early age of 11 – 12 months.

Manipulations and mutilations

During the first week of their lives, calves are often dehorned, castrated, and branded with red-hot irons.

Dehorning

Calves reared for dairy and beef are ‘disbudded’ to prevent the growth of horns. This is carried out by burning the horn bud with a hot iron (cautery disbudding) or by applying a paste (chemical disbudding) which erodes the horn bud. No pain relief is required for ‘chemical disbudding’ and the paste often leaks, causing immense pain to calves. Both these procedures can be legally performed by an unqualified person.

 Castration                                            

Male calves sold or raised for beef are often castrated. This is a painful procedure and can result in complications and infection. There are three legal methods of castration in the UK. [v]

  • the use of a rubber ring to restrict the blood flow to the calf’s testicles
  • the use of a ‘burdizzo’ (a plier-like instrument) to crush the spermatic cord of the calf
  • surgical removal

No pain relief is administered, nor required by law, under the first two methods.

Transport and slaughter

Whether they are raised for beef or dairy, all cows end up at the slaughterhouse, and experience the same horrors.

Once at the slaughterhouse, most cows in the UK are stunned with a pistol-like captive bolt gun to the brain, then shackled, bled, disembowelled, and skinned. However, due to the high speed of the production, the law stating cows must be rendered unconscious or insensible to pain before being killed is routinely ignored as cows and unskilled workers struggle and many animals have their throats cut and their skin removed while fully conscious.

One account from a slaughterhouse worker states:

A lot of the times the skinner finds out an animal is still conscious when he slices the side of the cow’s head and she starts kicking wildly. If that happens, or a cow is already kicking when she arrives at their station, the skinners shove a knife into the back of her head to cut the spinal cord. [vi]

UK consumption

According to the dairy industry, there are around 1.8 million dairy cows on the 14,550 dairy farms across the UK, which equates to 2 million dairy calves born every year. Statistics from DEFRA put the UK’s beef herd at approximately 1.6 million. In total, this equates to 3.4 million cows being raised for dairy and beef production in the UK alone, and does not factor in the estimated 2 million calves born as a result of dairy production.