A Life of Quiet Suffering: The dairy cow

A Life of Quiet Suffering: The dairy cow

Last month we had another very bad story about the live export of Australian cows. This time it concerned dairy cows, sent to Qatar to contribute to a breeding program. The cows were heavily pregnant and in good condition when they left Australia. What greeted them in Qatar was cruelty and neglect, as reported on the ABC’s 7.30 program.1 Because breeding animals are not part of the Government sanctioned ‘supply chain’ (inadequate though it is), there is no way to trace where the animals end up, nor how they are treated. Until we can bring an end to the disgraceful live export trade, breeding animals and dairy cows will continue to be at risk.

Image and reality

The image: An idyllic scene of dairy cows in a natural environment.

While the conditions in Qatar were appalling, life for the dairy cow here in Australia and in other developed countries is not what most people would imagine it to be. In general, the image that comes to mind is of contented cows, grazing peacefully in green fields or lying under the shade of trees and seemingly willing to share their abundant milk with us. Indeed, dairy peak bodies have carefully cultivated these images over many decades.

There was a time, not so long ago, when cows were, and in some traditional societies still are, treated with great care as a precious and useful member of the family and community. Indeed, English scientist Sir Kenelm Digby wrote in 1658:

There’s not the meanest cottager but hath a cow to furnish

His family with milk: ‘tis the principal sustenance of the poorest

Sort of people….which makes them very careful of the good keeping

And health of their cows.2

With the industrialisation of agriculture in the West – and now in the emerging economies of the East – the human-scale relationship with the dairy cow changed into something unrecognisable. We have now entered a new era in the history of cow/human relations, where mass production has demeaned cattle to objects, often with little or no human contact. A journalist from the Sunday Times summarised it in this way: ‘The modern high yield dairy cow is a pitiful, ramshackle embodiment of market-driven exploitation’.3 The modern dairy cow has been bred to maximise udder size and milk production. She now produces more than three times as much milk as a typical dairy cow 50 years ago.4 Indeed, we have pushed the dairy cow to produce about 10 times the amount of milk she would normally produce for her calf. In Australia, the average annual yield per cow has increased from 2,850 litres to 5,000 litres over the past two decades.5 While this (combined with larger farm herds) has resulted in a huge increase in milk production per farm, it has had terrible consequences for the individual cow. What you will not see in the official images of dairy farms and cows is an animal with little muscle, an enormous udder so large and distended her calf would have trouble suckling from it, a cow which never gets to rear her offspring, but rather must endure endless separations from her newborn.

The reality: dairy cattle as ‘cogs in the machine’.

Unwanted calves

The issue of mother calf separation has been dealt with in detail in an earlier essay. Suffice to say that cows (in common with all mammals, including ourselves) can only give milk after they have given birth. The milking period then lasts for approximately six months after which it will begin to decline. This means that a dairy cow must give birth to a calf once a year.6 What happens to all these calves? The female calves are either raised to replace the worn out milking cows, or sent off to slaughter, while all of the male calves are slaughtered, some of them ending up as veal. They are known as ‘non-replacement calves’ and there are around 700,000 born to dairy cows in Australia each year. Most will be transported, often over long distances, after a premature and traumatic separation from their mother, and will be kept overnight at abattoirs, hungry and without milk until slaughter the next day. Legally, calves are permitted to go without milk for up to 30 hours before slaughter.7 This is the real story behind abundant, cheap milk on supermarket shelves.

Selective breeding

The creation of the high milk producing cow seen in the picture above has not occurred by accident. These high yield cows have been purpose-bred to focus on only those qualities that enhance high milk production. This selective breeding was further advanced by the development of artificial insemination (AI) which took off in Australia in the 1950s, initially in Victoria. The growth in this medical technology was rapid. In 1956, only 8,000 cows had been artificially inseminated, but by 1961 that number had increased nine fold.8 These days, very few cows see, let alone mate, with a bull, and AI is now the norm for breeding replacement dairy cows. The bulls lead a joyless life, repeatedly mating with a cowhide covered model until exhausted.9

This technology is frequently being used in conjunction with embryo transfer, where embryos from a pedigree cow are removed and transplanted into a number of carrier cows, who act as surrogate mothers to ‘supercow’ calves. While this procedure is supposed to take place after the cow has received an epidural anesthetic, there is no guarantee that this occurs. If the cow has been transplanted with an embryo from a larger breed, she may experience difficulty with calving and require a cesarean delivery, causing pain and other complications.

These supposed advances in genetic selection come at a cost to the genetic diversity of dairy cow breeds. The geneticist Steve Jones has stated that the reliance on a small number of bulls from a few breeds to sire the world’s cows has meant that the genes of untold others has been lost. Jones refers to a Dutch bull called Sunny Boy who died in 1997 having sired his two-millionth calf. While some might consider this an impressive record, it leaves dairy breeds in a precarious position if attacked by disease, if market preferences change or the physical environment alters substantially, with changes in mean temperature due to climate change.10 It also represents the complete ‘de-naturing’ of a once wild animal.

Each modern dairy cow pays a huge price for the way her body has been altered over time. High milk production quickly depletes minerals and nutrients, and it is not uncommon for cows to be undernourished and under metabolic stress. It has even been suggested that cows are under ‘time constraints’ in relation to fitting in their daily activities; in other words, there are simply not enough hours in the day for a cow to be able to eat what she needs to nourish herself while producing more than 35 litres of milk a day.11 Indeed, the energy expended by the high producing dairy cow has been compared to that of a man who jogs for six hours a day, every day.12 Under these circumstances, the dairy cow is susceptible to both viral and bacterial conditions, notably mastitis and lameness.


Lameness is usually caused by a problem with the foot and presents a major welfare issue, whether assessed in terms of physical state (fitness) or mental state (suffering).13 In Australia, lameness has been calculated to affect around 25% of a dairy herd, though it is often under-recognised by farmers. There is extensive research which shows that lameness-causing lesions of the foot are extremely painful.14 Because of this the cow will lie down as much as possible, go off her food, lose weight and fertility, not socialise and will lose social status in the herd. Because of the danger of predators, many predated animals such as cows and sheep do not show overt signs of pain, which would indicate weakness and vulnerability. Humans often interpret this as meaning no pain.15

Professor John Webster (an expert on dairy cows) has a strong sense of how much pain cows have to endure in silence and with a complete lack of comprehension on our part. He believes the pain of lameness is beyond description. He uses this analogy: “Imagine that you caught all your fingers of both hands in a doorjamb, hard. And then you had to walk on your fingertips….So when you see a cow hesitating to put one foot in front of the other, you can be sure she is feeling excruciating pain”. Cows that are unable to lie down will stand with arched backs and lowered heads, in an attempt to take the weight off their hind limbs.  He further points out that there is new evidence to show that chronically lame cows display hyperalgesia or increased sensitivity to pain. Like us, they do not adapt to chronic pain, rather it gets worse over time.16

The causes of lameness are complex but certainly include the excessive weight dairy cows are forced to bear. In particular, the size and weight of her huge udder causes her back feet to splay out in an unnatural stance. Other causes include diet, hard cement floor housing, overcrowding and pushing cows to move too quickly and too far.17


Mastisis is an infection of the mammary glands which causes inflammation and pain. It affects between 5% and 20% of a herd. It often goes undiagnosed in the early stages. While the causes are multi-factoral, high milk yields, poor hygiene and (the purpose bred) low hanging udders are accepted as contributing causes. Resistant infections and other udder problems have become so pervasive in the modern dairy that in the US they are responsible for sending about 27% of cows to premature slaughter. In Australia, more than $130 million is lost to Australian dairy farmers each year through poor udder health.18 Poor udder health can lead to mastitis is the major cause of this loss though you are unlikely to see or hear any of this in the idealised picture presented by the dairy industry.

In addition to these painful, debilitating and often fatal conditions which are now the norm for the super high milk yielding dairy cow who is milked up to three times a day and who lives on average for four years (rather than 20-25 years), other welfare issues include physical abuse (hopefully not widespread but certainly documented),19 tail docking (mainly in Victoria), de-horning and de-budding, induced calving and frustrated maternal instincts through endless separation from offspring. As well as these health and welfare issues, increasing numbers of dairy cows endure unnatural and stressful conditions of life.20

Conditions of life

While most dairy cows in Australia still enjoy time out in pasture, this is not the case for the vast majority of milk-producing cows worldwide. Today, most live confined in sheds, some in open cubicles, while others are housed in Stanchion barns where they are tethered by rope or chain and where they have little freedom of movement. These unfortunate cows are almost completely deprived of exercise, prevented from grooming themselves and even lack the freedom to lie down and stand up. Given that studies of bovine behavior indicate that cows prefer to spend 10–14 hours a day lying down, forcing a cow to stand indefinitely must be seen as a type of torture. This type of housing is most common in European mountainous regions and in Sweden.21 Confined in this way, they are also most likely to be fed and milked by automatic systems. Those who live on dry lots (most commonly in the US) with no grass have possibly an even worse fate. They have no protection from the weather, and because the lots are cleaned only once or twice a year, the cows are left standing in their own urine and faeces for much of their short lifetime.22

While it is true that most Australian dairy cows do not live in these conditions, we are in the process of exporting our dairy cows at an unprecedented rate to China and elsewhere.  What was a niche market for a small number of breeding heifers sent to China in the first eight months of this financial year has exploded into a multi-million dollar business, involving the sale of 36,450 cows worth nearly $44 million. Dairy Australia says live exports will have topped 55,000 pedigree breeding animals by June, 2012. For several reasons, China has sought to expand and tighten control over its dairy industry and this has coincided with expanding demand for milk, cheese and yoghurt from Chinese consumers.23

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the annual average consumption of milk per person in China is 11 litres,  one-third the annual average quantity consumed by Korea and Japan and drastically short of the 103 litres Australians consume every year. Chinese consumption of milk and other dairy products is expected to greatly increase in the next ten years as people continue to move to cities, diets change and the massive increase in consumer spending is maintained.24 Thus the interest in Australian pedigree and breeding cows makes sense from their point of view.

And what of the cows; what will be their conditions of life in China? These cows will be housed in huge indoor factories with automatic milking and their milk flow recorded and sent to a central computer. Manure will be removed on a conveyer belt. They will never see sunshine or lie under the shade of a tree.25 And this is the best we can hope for. The recent footage from Qatar shows us just how bad things can get once animals leave our shores and we have no control over their treatment. The large and unprecedented export of dairy cows to China and elsewhere is taking place under the radar, with little or no public debate about what are acceptable conditions of life for these cows, both here and elsewhere.

Many people who live and work with cows comment on their tolerance, practical intelligence, their peacefulness and serenity.26 We have much to learn from them. Sadly it seems we are so busy exploiting them, we don’t even notice. We barely glance at the mountain of milk crates lined up outside our favorite café, ready for the day’s heating and frothing for our cappuccinos and flat whites. Each time you hear that noise, think of the cow that gave the milk and the price she paid for the perfect coffee.

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  • 1. Stayner, Guy, ‘Cruelty accusations focus attention on breeding exports’ 7.30Report, 18 September 2012 http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2012/s3593066.htm.
  • 2. Quoted in Velten,Hannah, Cow. Reaktion Books Ltd: London, 2007, p.68.
  • 3. Martin, Peter, ‘Milk: Nectar or Poison,’ Sunday Times Magazine, 21 July 2002.
  • 4. Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim, The Ethics of What We Eat. The Text Publishing Company: Melbourne, 2006, p.52.
  • 5. www.dairyaustralia.com.au (accessed 4/4/11).
  • 6. Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim, Op cit. p.53.
  • 7. www.animalsaustralia.org/factsheets/dairy (accessed 6/10/12).
  • 8. www.genaust.com.au/about-us/history (accessed 6/10/12).
  • 9. Velten,Op cit, p.159.
  • 10. Ibid, p.159.
  • 11. Effects of Farming Systems on Dairy Cow Welfare and Disease Scientific Report of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA Report) Annex to the EFSA Journal (2009) 1143, 1-284, p.48.
  • 12. Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, The Face On Your Plate. The Truth about Food. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 2009, p.85.
  • 13. EFSA Report,Op cit. p.143.
  • 14. Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. The Emotional World of Farm Animals. Ballantine Books: New York, 2003, p.152.
  • 15. EFSA Report Op cit.,pp.143-145 See also, www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Animals-feedandenvironment.
  • 16. Quoted in Masson, Op cit. 2003, pp 151-152.
  • 17. Masson, Op cit. 2009, p84.
  • 18. www.dairyaustralia.com.au (accessed 7/10/12).
  • 19. Keon, Joseph,. Whitewash The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health. New Society Publishers:Canada, 2010, p.195.
  • 20. Masson, Op cit. 2009, pp.83-84.
  • 21. EFSA Report, p.29.
  • 22. Masson,Op cit. 2009, p.83.
  • 23. Fraser, Andrew, ‘Dairy farmers cash in as China milks our market’ The Australian, 28 April 2012.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Young, Rosamund, The Secret Life of Cows. Farming Books and Videos Ltd: Preston, UK, 2003.

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