Like us, cows have to give birth to produce milk; a liquid which is made by the body to nourish the baby. Dairy cows are kept in a cycle of pregnancy and birth so they will continue to lactate - that's the basis of dairy production. When we want to consume a cow's milk, she has to be impregnated every year and her newborn calf removed very shortly after birth. When she stops producing enough milk to be profitable or suffers from one of the common illnesses caused by intensive dairying and it becomes too expensive to treat, she's slaughtered for cheap beef.
Calves are removed from their mothers between a few hours and two days after they are born so that the maximum amount of milk can be collected for human consumption. Separation of mother and calf is highly stressful for both – the calf needs protection and physical contact and the cow’s strong maternal behaviour is denied. Female calves become part of the milking herd while male calves are useless for dairy so will become veal, low quality meat or ‘disposed of’ (shot).
Milk is what it’s all about. Through selective breeding cows used for dairy farming now produce six to 10 times (20-45 litres) what they naturally would for a calf. This takes a toll on their health – a huge udder makes walking and lying difficult and the metabolic stress on her body is so intense it often causes health problems (such as lack of calcium, resulting in ‘milk fever’).
Milk fever: Milk fever is a disease caused by low blood calcium levels. It is most common in the first few days of lactation, when demand for calcium for milk production exceeds the body's ability to mobilise calcium reserves. However, it can occur at any time when the cow is simultaneously pregnant and lactating - which is the norm in the dairy industry.
Low blood calcium levels disrupt normal muscle function throughout the body, causing general weakness, loss of appetite, difficulty standing, inability to get up and eventually heart failure. It can be treated but many cows die before the problem is discovered as the disease develops quickly.
Low calcium levels (hypocalcemia) are naturally more common in older animals and in certain breeds (such as Jersey cattle) but due to the high demands of the dairy industry, young cows develop milk fever too.
Most dairy cows in the UK are allowed to graze during the day six months of the year (April-September) and are confined to large sheds for the other six months without the option to go outside during that time. No matter what the housing arrangement is, they are usually milked twice a day
A system known as 'zero-grazing' is becoming increasingly common in the UK. Thousands of cows are kept in large halls with industrial scale milking systems - the only time they leave is the moment they're transported to a slaughterhouse.
Calves are removed from their mothers soon after birth (maximum two days) and are either kept in individual sheds or in small pens until they are eight weeks old. Then, they have to be group-housed and are usually kept in pens with other calves of similar age.
Zero-grazing means feeding cattle with pasture plants or other food in a system that does not involve any time at pasture. Essentially zero-grazing and intensive dairy farming are extensions of the winter period where all cows are kept indoors or in a yard. The cow is completely deprived of her natural environment and often kept in even larger groups, causing stress. A number of dairies in the UK are zero-grazing farms.
Almost constant pregnancy and lactation, unnatural housing and unnatural feed takes its toll on the over-worked cow. Mastitis (a painful infection in of the udder) and lameness (an excruciating foot infection) are common conditions that dairy cows suffer.
Mastitis: Mastitis is an inflammation of the udder tissue and is very common among dairy cows. It is caused by bacteria entering through the teat and releasing toxins which leads to damage of the milk-producing tissue and canals throughout the udder. The body fights the infection by releasing white blood cells and when they destroy the bacteria, the resulting liquid (white blood cells with bacteria remains forming pus) is excreted through the teat.
Usual signs of mastitis are swelling, redness, heat, hardness and pain. Milk from cows with mastitis can also be watery and contain flakes or clots.
Mastitis is most often transmitted by contact of the teats with the milking machine and through contaminated hands or materials. It can be treated with antibiotics but milk from those cows is not usable so cows with mastitis that hasn’t become life-threatening are often milked anyway as the allowance for somatic cells (pus) in milk is quite high - up to 400 million somatic cells per litre (EU regulation).
Lameness: According to Defra: ‘The level of lameness in dairy cattle in the UK is unacceptably high. It is a major cause of pain and discomfort to the animals.’
Half of the cows in Britain go lame each year and 20 per cent are lame at any one time. Lameness is almost always a painful condition but many lame cows continue to be milked regardless of their severe pain. Yet lameness is still the major reason for the culling of dairy cows, accounting for about 10 per cent of culls.
Approximately 80 per cent of cases of lameness are due to foot problems and the remainder to leg damage. Sole ulcers, white line disease, digital dermatitis and laminitis are the most common foot problems and are caused by a number of factors. The majority of leg lameness is due to physical damage from badly designed cubicles and to injury at calving.
Culling and Slaughter
Cows are physically exhausted after a fraction of their natural life expectancy - the average age at which dairy cows are slaughtered is just over five years although they can live to be over 20! Once they are no longer as profitable as they could be, they are slaugheted for cheap beef. The main reasons are usually a decrease in milk yield, infertility, illnesses requiring potentially expensive treatment and injuries.