Dairy Cows

If you were an alien visitor, by now you would surely be wondering if all creatures on earth took second place to money. And of course the answer would have to be yes. But the biggest shock is yet to come. Unlike many humans, the alien would know that an animal can only give milk when it has given birth to its offspring and it doesn't pour from an animal tap whenever needed. For a continual supply of milk it would be obvious that a cow would have to be made pregnant every year but the method involved would shock anyone.

After a nine month pregnancy, a cow's tiny, teetering calf is separated from her after only one or two days.


That's how long it takes for the calf to suckle the disease-preventing colostrum from its mother but not long enough to snatch the milk which must all be kept for humans, up to a staggering 7,000 litres a year, ten times more than her little calf could ever drink. If the calf is male not only will he be snatched from his mother, but he faces a distressing and short life. Often too scrawny for beef, thousands of newborn male dairy calves are shot in the head every year- an unwanted by-product of the dairy industry. Since live-exports resumed, many thousands are also exported to veal farms on the Continent. Crammed into a lorry with hundreds of other calves, bewildered, and often deprived of water, food or rest, he will be placed in a small pen for the first eight weeks of his life. After this he will be group housed indoors, often without bedding or stimulation of any kind. He will never see the outdoors and will be killed while still just a baby. The emerging British veal industry has been hyped as a compassionate alternative, but the reality is that calves will still be snatched from their mothers and still live their short lives indoors.

But what of his mother and sisters? The genetic manipulation and dietary controls which have led to their extraordinary output of milk carry with them a cost, all borne by the cow. She has a one-in-three chance of her udders secreting pus and painfully swelling with mastitis, and the antibiotics forced up her udders don't have much success in controlling the disease.

Because of the strain of carrying her oversized udders, she is likely to be amongst the one third of cows who are lame from foot and leg disorders. And her body consumes so much energy for milk production that her muscles simply waste away. From a distance, these skin-covered coat racks, munching grass, seem to be in an idyll. But the ugly truth is that a quarter of dairy cows are so exhausted by the process they never see their third year, despite having a life expectancy of 21 years or more. Most cows are killed at four to seven years, often pregnant when they die.

Professor John Webster, Department of Animal Husbandry, Bristol University says:

"The dairy cow is a supreme example of an overworked mother. She is the hardest working of all our farm animals and it can be scientifically calculated. It is equivalent to a jogger who goes out for six to eight hours a day which is a lunatic pursuit”. He states that almost 100 per cent of cows suffer from laminitis - a disease which causes 'great pain to the cow' (MAFF). Tissue lining of the foot becomes inflamed and may lead to ulcers. Professor Webster continues: "To understand the pain of laminitis it helps to imagine crushing your finger nails in the door then standing on your fingertips."

In intensive farming, many cows are kept in "zero-grazing" systems. This means that they are kept indoors, where they can't follow their natural, very strong instinct to graze. Grass is brought to them, and they are also given a high-protein diet to increase their milk yield.

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