Death of a dairy cow at a welsh intensive dairy farm

The True Cost of Milk


  • Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for thousands of years. Dairy cows are specially bred to produce more milk.
  • Dairy cows need to give birth to one calf a year to produce milk for 10 months of the year. They are usually bred in a random way within three months of birth.
  • Dairy cows can usually produce a lot of milk for up to three years, after which they are slaughtered and the meat is usually used for beef.


There are more than 270 million dairy cows worldwide. The European Union is a major producer of milk and has about 23 million dairy cows. This compares with 10 million in North America and more than 6 million in Australia and New Zealand. Dairy production is also increasing in Southeast Asia, including countries not known for their milk consumption, such as China, which now has more than 12 million dairy cows.


Animal health depends on three components:

Physical well-being

Mental well-being

Natural life.

On sturdy dairy farms, all three are hampered by house confinement, health problems due to high milk yields and stress caused by rapid separation from their calves.

Cow’s are milked in turntable fashion where the milking process is almost automated and robotic and the cow may stand for up to eight hours either grazing in factory farm pens and on the milking platforms


Over the past 50 years, dairy farming has become very strong to increase the amount of milk produced by each cow. Holstein-Friesian, the most common breed of dairy cow in the UK, Europe and the USA, is bred to produce the highest milk yield. Milk production per cow has doubled in the last 40 years. An average of 22 litres per day is common in the UK, with some cows producing 60 litres per day during lactation. The average yield in the US is very high, over 30 litres per day.


Dairy cows usually lose a lot of milk due to their natural health, cows can live for 20 years or more. The most productive dairy cows will be slaughtered after three or four litters because their milk supply is depleted and / or lumpy or sterile.

The cost of of over yielding of milk from cows leads often to these beautiful creatures becoming
emaciated, they almost starve through giving more milk


Lameness is painful and is a health problem for dairy cows around the world. Cattle may become dehydrated due to a variety of conditions associated with bacterial infections, such as hoof sores, ulcers alone, laminitis and digital dermatitis. These conditions can be caused by low levels, low shaving feet, poor nutrition and prolonged standing on concrete floor.

Mastitis, an inflammation of the udder, is a painful consequence of the bacterial infection most common in dairy cows. In a herd of 100 cows in the UK, there can be about 70 cases of breast cancer each year on average. Cow’s udder can become infected with bacteria that cause breast cancer due to contamination of milk supplies or bedding. Long-lived cattle are therefore more likely to have mastitis than those kept on pastures.

Cattle infertility is a major productive problem for farmers with high-yielding dairy cows. It can be caused by malnutrition, stress and poor physical condition, so it is often a sign of poor health.

Over production of milk can lead to cows going lame and suffering bone and hoof problems


Most dairy cows will be kept indoors for half or a year. Cattle usually have less chance of doing natural and exercise indoors, compared to when they are in the pasture, however indoor construction may be required during inclement weather. Good housing design and management are essential to a well-being. Overcrowding, poor ventilation and high humidity increase injuries and diseases.

Rest is very important for cows, especially during lactation, and they need a comfortable place to lie. Cattle that are kept on cement floor with insufficient beds, or in houses with poorly designed tubes, are more likely to get mastitis. The hard ground is also very painful for lame cows to stand and walk, and the cows can slip and injure themselves if the ground gets wet due to sewage.


Some cattle are kept in tire barns, which include confinement. Each cow is tied with a chain, stanchion (iron rods) or rope tied around their necks, up to 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives. Pens limit all aspects of cattle behaviour; they cannot have fun, they can exercise and they can even turn and scratch themselves.


Cattle need access to grazing land with plenty of space and grazing opportunity. This is important for their physical and mental health, as well as their ability to do natural things. In the UK most dairy cows still have access to pasture during the summer, but most cows are kept indoors for a long time, or all year round. This is known as ‘zero grazing’, and is increasingly being used for large and highly productive herds around the world.


Worldwide, the size of herds varies from a few cows, to several thousand in large farming systems.


Cattle are herbivores that eat grass naturally or other plants, so they need a lot of fibre in their diet. However, dairy cows that produce a lot of milk need nutritious food, so they are given a balanced diet and a little fodder. This leads to the formation of acids in the rumen (part of the stomach) which, if taken for a long time each day, causes acidosis. Cows with acidosis are more likely to have diarrhoea and may have laminitis (a foot injury that causes paralysis).

Cattle in organic systems receive high fibre diet and are able to access pasture during feeding. In the US, many dairy cows are regularly injected with growth hormone (rBST) to increase milk yield. This is illegal in the EU.


If dairy cows are not very productive or have serious health problems, they may be moved long distances to be slaughtered. This is because so few slaughterhouses work with the depleted and spent dairy cows who have been overmilked .


Naturally, the calves suckle their mother for about a year, and maintain a strong bond with her for many years. However, in commercial dairy farming, almost all the calves are taken from the mother within a few hours of birth. This causes great stress to the cow and the calf, and has long-term effects on the calf’s physical and social development.

Many heifers will be raised to join the milking herd but as the male calves are unable to produce milk, they are considered a residue in the dairy industry. Male calves will be shot after birth, or sold to raise beef or beef.

Calves directed at the meat industry may be transported for a few days over long distances by road and / or ship, to breeding grounds that may be in different countries. This is very stressful and the calves may be moved when they are only a week old. They will be hungry, tired, and afraid, and at high risk of disease and injury over the years.

As a result of the partnership between Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the dairy industry (via the Calf Stakeholder Forum), more dairy calves are now reared for meat and the number of calves shot at birth is significantly reduced. There is a lot of work to be done – about 95,000 of those born in the UK are still shot every year. There has also been an increase in the production of high quality veal in the UK; it is better for the welfare of the calf if the buyers of the calf meat prefer British calf meat instead of imported white venison.

Young Calves are separated from their mothers often between 30 mins to an hour from their mothers after being given birth to. They are often destroyed if there are ‘surplus’ calve numbers destined for transportation to other meat farming farms or abattoirs


Many Welfare experts believe that cattle should graze all year round, having the freedom to choose when they go out or stay indoors. Their cattle accommodation (shed-houses) should be well designed and cattle should be provided with adequate natural environment for the community. There should be as many beds as grass, so that the cows can get comfortable, clean resting places. Food should be high in fibre, and types that are more likely to have health problems should not be used. There are other programs that offer higher comfort for dairy cows.


EU biological standards ensure that dairy cows get grazing during feeding and that cows are fed natural roughage feed, which is good for their digestive health. They promote better health and breeding dairy cows to reduce problems such as lameness, inflammation of the breasts and poor digestion.

The organic Association rules of the Soil Association prohibit the sale of calves under one month of age to be exported, or sold in the market for less than 12 weeks (unless they have a mother), and require farmers to work to end the slaughter of young calves at birth.


Dairy cows that are allowed to graze on pastures, in small herds housed in cool, grassy beds have a high quality of life. They tend to be healthier and can live longer productive lives. Many of these requirements are met by farms with live milk authorization.


Many traditional dairy farms still keep cattle on pasture during grazing season.

In the US, Animal Welfare Institute’s Animal Welfare Approved Standards require continuous access to dairy pastures. Humane-certified dairy standards prevent the validation of dairy systems that do not allow you to access the outside, and encourage the integration of dairy feed requirements with grazing where possible.

Below is the recent BBC exposure into the good and bad side of Milk Production, exploring the true cost to animal welfare in producing the average pint of milk, the program ask whether animal welfare is set to suffer further in the insatiable desire to keep dairy production of milk cheap. WARNING : CONTAINS FOOTAGE OF ANIMAL DISTRESS & CRUELTY

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