brown cow face

COWS

Cows possess many of the same emotional qualities we do. They are perceptive, sensitive animals with strong social bonds. 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. Observing semi-wild cattle can teach us a great deal about how their social structures are organised. Mother cows in particular form strong and lifelong friendships with their calves. Cows also make friends within their herds and share food, groom one another, and just generally spend time together. Studies have shown that their choices are far from random; cows become distressed when separated from their chosen best friend, but are not comforted by the presence of another cow with whom they are not close.[1]  In the dairy industry, however, cows are frequently 'regrouped' on the basis of their particular stage of production, disrupting their natural social hierarchy and relationships and causing stress and competition.[2]

Cows are much smarter than most people realise. (And more playful too--just check out this video of a cow playing fetch!) 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.[3]  Calves are also more skilled at solving puzzles when they aren't raised in isolation, which is unfortunately very common in the dairy industry.[4] 

 

Watch the excitement of these rescued dairy cows experiencing freedom for the first time!

 
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THE REALITY FOR COWS

Like all female mammals, a cow must give birth to produce milk. (And like human females, a cow’s pregnancy lasts nine months.) When giving birth in a natural setting, the cow will separate herself from the rest of the herd temporarily and give birth in privacy, keeping her calf away from the other cows for a short while before formally introducing them. In the dairy industry, there is no opportunity for such privacy and in fact, even if there were, the mother cow is never given a chance to 'introduce' her calf: despite the fact that in nature, calves suckle their mothers for 9 to 12 months before being weaned, the UK dairy industry separates them within 24 to 48 hours.[5]  Not surprisingly, this is traumatic for both of them. Cows will often bellow for days, pacing back and forth and calling for their calves.

To ensure a constant supply of milk, a dairy cow is artificially inseminated every year, and every year, her calf is taken from her. Due to selective breeding and high protein feed, dairy cows give approximately ten times more milk than they would naturally; in the past 40 years alone, production per cow has more than doubled.[6],[7]  In fact, it is more than their bodies can handle: while a cow can naturally live 15 to 20 years, the health toll of constant pregnancies and high milk production means that cows are considered 'spent' at less than six years old and they are sent to slaughter for cheap beef. 50% of British beef is made up of these spent dairy cows.[8]

 

Milk means separating babies from their mothers

In this video, a devastated mother cow chases after the van taking her calf away from her. (No graphic imagery.)

 
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MALE CALVES AND VEAL

It's been said that there's a little bit of veal in every glass of milk. While that isn't the literal truth, the fact is that the veal industry would not exist without the dairy industry. Because cows must give birth in order to provide milk, the dairy industry produces millions of ‘surplus’ calves, and the veal industry was originally developed to make some profit from them. Female calves will be kept and raised to replace spent dairy cows. Male calves, however, do not grow as large as breeds raised for beef, and are of little use to the dairy farmer as they fetch low prices at auction. In fact, at this point it is cheaper to kill them outright; it costs a farmer up to £30 to sell a calf on for beef or veal, but only £9 to kill them.[9]  An average of 95,000 male calves are slaughtered immediately after birth every year in the UK.[10] That number has slowly begun to drop, however: as more of the public have become aware of this long-standing cruelty, some farms have announced that calves will no longer be killed on the farm. This announcement carefully omits what happens to the calves instead: they are taken either to a slaughterhouse--65,000 male dairy calves less than one month old were killed at UK slaughterhouses in 2020--or to other farms, where they are raised for low-quality meat and killed at one year of age.

Watch Animal Justice Project's undercover investigation of the fate of these male dairy calves below, and then read on to learn more about veal.

 
 

Though most calves are either killed not long after birth or sold for low-quality meat, there is another option: the veal industry. Veal is prized for being pale and tender, conditions which are brought on by nutrient-deficient diets and restrictions on movement. Northern Ireland and Ireland in particular export hundreds of thousands of male calves as young as two weeks old--or younger--on long live export journeys to countries in Europe and the Middle East. Experts have argued that it would be 'kinder to shoot them.'[11]  An investigation in 2019 revealed that nearly 6000 unweaned calves were exported from Northern Ireland that year, some going at least 30 hours without food on their 63 hour journey to Spain. Some were as young as 15 days old.[12]

Veal crates, which are infamously cruel, still exist in some countries but have been banned in the UK, the European Union and at least seven U.S. states. This is not to give the impression that the industry has become a humane one, however. In the EU, for example, veal calves are raised in small group pens to restrict their movement, and their diets are particularly low in iron and fibre so as to insure white, anaemic flesh. They are raised on bare wooden slats, with bedding material required only for the first two weeks. All veal calves, whether in crates or pens, are slaughtered at around six to eight months.

 

ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION

Both dairy and 'beef' cows are typically impregnated not by a bull but a farm employee. Artificial insemination allows for a measure of control with regards to genes and timing, as well as being less expensive.

So how is it done? 

First, the cow must be restrained in a metal rack so that she will not attempt to struggle or move away. The worker then inserts their arm up past the elbow into her anus, where they can position her cervix through the walls of the rectum. Once this is done, they use their elbow to exert enough pressure onto the cow's vagina that it opens before inserting the artificial insemination gun, pushing it through her cervical canal and into her uterus.

Not surprisingly, this is a delicate procedure that requires practice and which carries risk of permanent damage or tearing of the vagina and rectum. Thus some farm workers untrained in the artificial insemination are brought into slaughterhouses to practise it on 'spent' dairy cows. This is legally permitted as long as the cows are due to be killed on the same day.[13]

 

COMMON ILLNESSES

Mastitis

Mastitis is a painful infection of the breast glands that causes painful swelling or hardening, and it is particularly common in dairy cows. In a herd of one hundred dairy cows in the UK, there are 40 to 60 cases of mastitis every year on average.[14]  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.

As many as one-quarter of dairy cows die prematurely from mastitis or are slaughtered rather than being treated for it, and in fact masititis is the most common cause of 'premature culling' (i.e. sending cows to slaughter early).[15]  Milk from cows with mastitis also has much higher somatic cell (pus) counts. Current EU laws allow 400,000,000 somatic cells per litre of milk. 

Laminitis

Lameness is another major welfare concern for dairy cows, with as many as a third or a quarter of UK's dairy cows suffering this painful condition.[16],[17]  The government's own organisation, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has stated that the number of UK dairy cows with lamintis is 'unacceptably high' and 'a major cause of pain and discomfort'.[18]  It can be caused by a multitude of factors, including poor flooring, malnutrition, infection and ineffective hoof-trimming--all of which are either compounded or caused by long periods of standing on hard floors and lack of mobility from being confined. Currently the majority of UK dairy cows are kept indoors six months of the year, and at least 20% are kept in zero-grazing systems, and never go outside at all.[19] They are unable to graze or carry out many of their natural behaviours.


It is difficult to comprehend the pain of laminitis, but 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.

 

MANIPULATIONS & MUTILATIONS

Dehorning and disbudding

Calves reared for dairy and beef are either ‘disbudded’ to prevent the growth of horns or 'dehorned' once the horn has begun to form. The first procedure is carried out by burning the horn bud with a hot iron ('cautery disbudding') or by applying a caustic paste ('chemical disbudding') which erodes the horn bud. No pain relief is legally required for ‘chemical disbudding’[20], which appears to be initially less painful to calves than cautery but then causes significant distress as the caustic paste begins to eat away at the horn bud. Additionally, the paste sometimes leaks, causing deep wounds.[21] 

Studies have shown that dehorning and disbudding are very painful, with calves subject to these mutilations demonstrating all the typical behavioural and physiological indicators of pain, such as increased heart and respiratory rates and cortisol production combined with shaking, kicking and increased self-grooming, as well as decreased rates of feeding.[22]

 Castration       

                                    

Male calves sold or raised for beef are usually castrated, which makes them less likely to be aggressive and is said to improve the quality of their flesh. This is, not surprisingly, a painful procedure which can result in complications and infection. There are three legal methods of castration in the UK. No pain relief is required for the first two methods.[23]

  • Rubber ring: A tight ring is wrapped around the calf's testicles, restricting the blood flow so that they eventually shrivel up, die and fall off. 

  • Burdizzo: This plier-like instrument is used on the calf's scrotum to crush the spermatic cord and surrounding vessels.

  • Surgical removal: The most certain to result in definite and complete castration, but must be performed by a vet and is more likely to result in infection and injury.

 

TRANSPORT AND SLAUGHTER

Whether they are raised for beef or dairy, all cows end up at the slaughterhouse and experience the same horrors. And according to the British Cattle Veterinary Assocation, approximately 150,000 dairy cows annually are still pregnant when they go to slaughter--a quarter of them in the final trimester.

But first they must get to the slaughterhouse. By law, once they are 6 months old, cows can legally be transported for up to twenty-eight hours as long as they have a one hour break halfway through. And calves as young as 2 weeks old can be transported for eighteen hours at a stretch--again, with a one hour break.[24]

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 production (many abattoirs pay their workers not by hour, but per animal) the law stating cows must be rendered unconscious or insensible to pain before being killed is routinely ignored. Frightened cows and unskilled, exhausted workers struggle and thus many animals have their throats cut and their skin removed while fully conscious.

As abattoir veterinarian Gabriele Meurer explains, mistakes with the captive bolt gun are inevitable:


'Not many animals stand still. They are all upset, some very frightened and some move violently. The animals are never given time to calm down. Sometimes the slaughterman misses, wounding the animal terribly instead of stunning it. It may happen that the second shot cannot be done immediately and the animal is suffering for quite some time.'

Another account from an anonymous 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.' [Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals]

 

The terror that animals experience at the slaughterhouse is very clear in this video. (No graphic imagery.)

 

References

  1. McLennan, Krista Marie, Social Bonds in Dairy Cattle: The Effect of Dynamic Group Systems on Welfare and Productivity, University of Northampton, 2013

  2. Ibid.

  3. Bates, Mary, The Emotional Lives of Dairy Cows, Wired, 30-6-2014

  4. Netburn, Deborah, Even cows need friends: Study finds calves raised in pairs are smarter, Los Angeles Times, 28-2-2014

  5.  Levitt, Tom, Dairy’s ‘dirty secret’: it's still cheaper to kill male calves than to rear them,The Guardian, 26-3-2018

  6. The life of: dairy cows, Compassion in World Farming, 1-9-2012

  7.  UK Milk Yield, ADHB, 21-8-2019

  8. Great British Beef Week, National Farmers' Union 

  9. Levitt, Tom, Dairy’s ‘dirty secret’: it's still cheaper to kill male calves than to rear them,The Guardian, 26-3-2018

  10. Ibid.

  11. Kevany, Sophie and Mattha Busby, 'It would be kinder to shoot them': Ireland's calves set for live export, The Guardian, 20-1-2020

  12. Corr, Shauna, Thousands of unweaned NI calves face 'cruel' exports of up to 30 hours without food, say charities, Belfast Live, 13-2-2021

  13.  Abattoir based DIY AI training is best, Farmers Weekly,12-9-1997

  14. Welfare issues for dairy cows, Compassion in World Farming

  15.  Ibid.

  16. Von Keyserlingk, M.A.G., Invited review: The welfare of dairy cattle—Key concepts and the role of science, Journal of Dairy Science, 1-9-2009

  17. The key welfare issues of dairy cattle farming, RSPCA

  18. Dairy Cattle - Lameness (PB4020), DEFRA

  19.  Blythman, Joanna, If you believe that cows belong in fields, ‘free range’ milk will give you hope, The Guardian, 28-2-2017 

  20.  The Welfare of Animals (Permitted Procedures by Lay Persons) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, Gov.uk

  21. Mainau, E., D.Temple, X.Manteca, Impact of dehorning and disbudding on the well-being of calves, FAWEC

  22.  Ibid.

  23.  The Welfare of Animals (Permitted Procedures by Lay Persons) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, Gov.uk

  24.  Welfare of Animals During Transport: advice for transporters of Cattle, DEFRA