The Issues

The Basics

Like humans, cows must have babies in order to produce milk. (Coincidentally, the mother cows' gestation period is nine months long, just like ours.) In the dairy industry, cows are kept in a state of almost constant pregnancy. Two months after their calves are born, the cows are re-impregnated via artificial insemination.  (Most of the calves will be raised for veal.)

If the artificial insemination does not work or the cow is unable to give birth, she will be "culled", or sent to slaughter. In fact, reproductive problems such as these are the number one reason that dairy cows are slaughtered.1  Though dairy cows can live as long as 25 years, most will be killed before they are five years old.

Artificial Insemination

Artificial insemination has become increasingly popular since the 1950's, as it allows farms to control the genetic tendencies of their herds. Traits such as fertility, milk production, butter fat production and protein content of milk are particularly sought after. As a result, dairy cows often go through their lives without once seeing a bull.2

During artificial insemination, a farm worker forces his or her arm, up past the elbow, into the anus of a cow, and manipulates a implantation device in her vagina through her cervix and into her uterus, where the semen is released.3

What about the bulls who provided that semen? Like the cows, they may never see a member of the opposite sex. Semen is instead obtained through a variety of methods. One of the most popular involves a "teaser" animal –typically, another bull, and generally a castrated one. The non-castrated bull mounts the teaser, but just before he ejaculates, a farm worker grabs his penis and directs the flow of semen into "a radiator-like hose lined in latex."4

Milk Production

Recombinant bovine somatotropin, otherwise known as rBST (more commonly referred to as rBGH), is a synthetic growth hormone meant to increase milk product in dairy cows. It is not allowed in Canada. (Six other hormonal growth promoters are approved for use with Canadian beef cattle, however.)5

Cows lined up at milking stations.

Cows on a dairy farm. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

Despite the lack of added artificial hormones, Canadian cows produce approximately 9,519 kg of milk every year, seven times more than they would in nature. 6,7


Slaughter and Disease

A cow with a swollen udder as the result of mastitis.

A dairy cow suffering from mastitis, a painful swelling of the udder.

The demanding nature of the dairy industry quickly takes a toll on the cows' bodies.  Milk production drops after three or four years, and these "spent" cows are sent to slaughter and turned into cheap, processed ground beef products that are less likely to show bruising or injury.8  The natural lifespan of a cow is 20 to 25 years, but most dairy cows are slaughtered at only a few years old.  For example, the average age at slaughter for dairy cows in British Columbia is five years.9 

In fact, the percentage of lame, impaired dairy cows is on the rise, as is the percentage of beef made from their meat.  Canadian dairy cattle are scored on a gradient of D1 to D4, D1 being reserved for the fattest, healthiest cows and D4 for the most frail and weak.  Cows with a score of D1 used to be by far the most valuable to the industry, but as the demand for ground beef has risen, so has the value of these thinner, weaker cows. Between 1999-2002, 13% of the spent cows going to slaughter qualified as D3.  By 2009-2012, it was 36%. During this same period, the percentage of D1 cows went from 25% to less than 1%.10,11 

Constant pregnancy and milkings are physically demanding, as is the unnaturally rich diet the cows are fed in order to maximize milk output. The result is a myriad of conditions; these include ketosis, laminitis, Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne's disease, as well as mastitis.

Mastitis, a stress-related bacterial infection characterized by a painful, grotesque swelling of the udder, reduces the quality of the milk by changing its composition and increasing its somatic cell (pus) count.12  In Canada, it is the second most common reason for culling. The National Mastitis Council estimates that the condition results in excess costs of $200 per year per cow. 1314

Mastitis Video


Laminitis is another major problem in the dairy industry and in Canada, it's the third most common reason for culling.15 A painful condition of the hooves, laminitis can be caused by several factors, the most common of which are poor nutrition and inadequate, uncomfortable housing.16  Many dairy cows spend their time standing or lying on bare concrete or minimal bedding, either in tie-stalls or free stalls, and very few have access to pasture. (The majority of dairy cows in Canada are restrained in tie-stalls, with an eating surface in front of them and a gutter for the collection of manure behind them.17) The result is laminitis, which can make it difficult and painful for cows to walk, stand, and lie down. They can eventually become completely debilitated.  In North America and Europe, between 25 and 30% of dairy cows are lame.  In British Columbia, that number rises to 50% on some farms.18

Cows restrained in tie-stalls

The majority of Canada's dairy cows are restrained in tie-stalls.

Tail Docking

Canada's dairy cows are sometimes tail docked, a practice which is opposed by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and is illegal in the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Norway.19,20 However, the Canadian dairy industry now discourages tail docking "unless medically necessary" and the practice appears to be on the decline.  In the United States it is more widespread, but some states are in the process of banning it.

A cow with a docked tail.

This dairy cow has had her tail docked. (Photo: Animal Welfare Information Center)

Tail docking is done through the application of a tight band close to the top third of the cow's tail, causing the tail to eventually atrophy. It then either falls off or is cut off with a short instrument.

There are numerous animal welfare concerns associated with the procedure; cows with docked tails have the potential to develop chronically painful tumours known as "neuromas." These findings are have been described as "comparable to those observed in humans experiencing phantom limb pain following amputation."21

The tail is immensely important to the cow, who uses it constantly to shoo flies from her legs and hindquarters. When the tail has been docked, she is unable to protect herself. Cows with docked tails have been observed swishing their tail stumps, stomping, shaking their heads and ears, twitching, and even running away in an attempt to escape flies.  In test groups, twice as many flies have been observed on the hindlimbs of cows with docked tails as on those in the non-docked control group. 22

Those in favour of the procedure claim that it improves cleanliness, udder health, milk quality, and the convenience of farm workers, but the benefits appear to be anecdotal. Even the industry journal Dairy Herd Management admits that this appears to be based on "personal on-farm observation rather than controlled research."23 A 2002 study in a British Columbia dairy farm indicates that cleanliness and other such factors do not appear to be affected by the presence of tail-docking. It found "no difference between cows with intact tails and those that had been docked in terms of any of our cleanliness measures, somatic cell counts (a measure of udder health), or cases of mastitis as diagnosed by the herd veterinarian."24

For more pictures of dairy cows, please click here

What happens to the calves?: The Veal Connection

Dairy cows must be pregnant in order to give milk, and their female offspring either become dairy cows themselves or are slaughtered almost immediately for bob veal. The male calves, however, are a byproduct. Some are killed for bob veal, and a smaller number are raised for beef.  The rest become milk-fed veal. The veal industry was actually developed as a result of these "extra" calves.25 (Learn more about dairy.)

A veal calf chained to a crate.

This veal calf will be killed after being chained to this crate for 4 to 6 months. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

Veal is the meat of calves who were taken from their mothers at only a few hours old, raised in intense confinement, and killed at four to six months of age. They are fed a liquid diet intentionally deficient in both iron and fibre; the resulting "borderline" anemia makes their meat extremely white and tender.  As many as 10% of veal calves develop full-blown anemia.26  There is almost no risk to the calves' health in terms of providing too much iron, but higher iron levels translate to darker meat--and dark meat is worth far less in the marketplace.27  As with human babies, calves are vulnerable to illness and infection, and the unnatural conditions under which they are raised make them even more susceptible. To better restrict muscle development and to reduce disease transmission, many veal calves are chained by their necks inside a two-foot wide crate for the entirety of their short lives. They are unable to turn around, stretch, or even lie down comfortably.28 

Calves kept in these crates exhibit classic symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as head tossing and shaking, kicking, scratching, and stereotypical chewing and licking behavior. This last symptom is in part the result of having been separated from their mothers; as babies, the calves are driven to suckle and chew anything they can. The company of other calves becomes even more necessary without the presence of a mother cow, but crates separate them and make socialization impossible.29,30

Rows of veal calves chained to crates.

These veal calves are chained to their crates, unable to even turn around. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

Other veal calves are raised in hutches, small, igloo-like structures.  Some open into a tiny, enclosed pen; others have a short chain to which the calf is tethered.  In both cases, the calf is allowed slight outdoor access but is unable to socialize with the calves on either side of him.31  (Farms raising female calves to be future dairy cows also use these hutches.)

Some veal calves are raised in "group housing".  In group housing, between seven and twenty calves are raised in a pen together.  They may have more space than they would in individual crates, and have more mobility as well as the ability to socialize.  The need to suck and chew is not diminished in group-housed calves; many exhibit behaviours such as biting tails, suckling each others' genitals, mouths, ears, and legs, and drinking urine.32  Other issues are bullying and increased chances for disease and injury.  Additionally, because there is more of a chance for muscles to develop, calves raised in groups can have darker meat, making them less valuable to the industry.33 Though group housing is arguably more humane than isolation, the calves are still taken from their mothers immediately after birth and sent to slaughter at only a few months old.  And as with crates, the calves have no access to the outdoors. 

For all forms of veal housing, industry code requires that calves need only be provided with light "sufficient...to observe one another" for eight out of every 24 hours. This means that they might spend most of their lives in complete darkness or in poor lighting.34

Restricting muscle development makes the calves' meat tender, and anemia makes it pale. Despite being ruminants, the animals are denied hay or grains; in most cases, they also are not required to have bedding of any kind. 35 Many rest on wooden slats, which cause wounds and scrapes on the knees of up to 20% of calves, or bare concrete. For the farm, this means reduced labour costs when it comes to cleaning.36

The iron- and fibre-deficient diet fed to veal calves results in extreme weakness, as well as diarrhea. Between 2.5% and 8.8% of them die or are culled due to illness before they reach slaughter.37 Veal calves also commonly develop ear, respiratory, and digestive infections; the latter two are leading causes of death. 38 Approximately 87% of them suffer ulcers.  

Veal calves sometimes present a challenge at slaughterhouses, which are built for larger animals.  Though some slaughterhouses have narrower chutes and smaller killing boxes to accommodate calves, the relentless speed of the killing line and the electrical systems moving the calves along means that many are still conscious when their throats are cut.   As one slaughterhouse worker explained:

In the morning the big holdup is the calves...To get done with them faster, we'd put eight or nine of them in the knocking box at a time. As soon as they start going in, you start shooting, the calves are jumping, they're all piling up on top of each other. You don't know which ones got shot and which ones didn't get shot at all, and you forget to do the bottom ones. They're hung anyway, and down the line they go, wriggling and yelling. The baby ones — two, three weeks old — I felt bad killing them so I just let them walk past.39

For more pictures of veal calves, click here.

Giving Up Dairy

Interested in cutting milk from your diet but concerned about calcium? The good news is that dairy by no means has a monopoly on calcium!

Good plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens like broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and swiss chard, all kinds of beans, chickpeas, tofu, fortified orange juice, and much more. Learn more about non-dairy sources of calcium here.

There are numerous other conditions and diseases associated with dairy consumption, including cancers, cardiovascular disease, allergies, obesity, constipation, diarrhea, diabetes, and of course, lactose intolerance.40

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • gas
  • bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • cramping

Between 65% and 75% of the human population is lactose intolerant because our bodies generally lose the ability to break down lactose, or milk sugar, after infancy.  While people with European ancestry generally have fairly low rates of lactose intolerance (between 5% and 60% suffer from some degree of it), between 75% and 90% of people of African descent are lactose intolerant.  80% and 100% of the native population of North America is also lactose intolerant, and rates are similarly high for people from East and Central Asia.41,42

“I no longer recommend dairy products...[T]here was a time when cow’s milk was considered very desirable. But research, along with clinical experience, has forced doctors and nutritionists to rethink this recommendation.” —Dr. Benjamin Spock

  1. 1. Canadian Dairy Information Centre, Culling and Replacement Rates in Dairy Herds in Canada, 2013, Apr. 19
  2. 2. MSNBC, Dairy farmers drive bull market in cattle semen, 20 July 2006
  3. 3. O'Connor, M.L., Pennsylvania State University, Artificial Insemination Technique
  4. 4. MSNBC, Dairy farmers drive bull market in cattle semen, 20 July 2006,
  5. 5. Health Canada, Questions and Answers: Hormonal Growth Promoters, 4 February 2005
  6. 6. Canadian Dairy Commission Annual Report 2003-2004
  7. 7. Veg.ca, Milk: A Natural Choice?
  8. 8. Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Cull Cow Body and Carcass Composition, 2005 Nov.
  9. 9. BC SPCA, Dairy Production in British Columbia, October 2009
  10. 10. Drumheller Online, Eating Dairy Cows, 30 Nov. 2012
  11. 11. Bergen, Dr. Reynold, The skinny on market cows, Beef Cattle Research Council, 2013 April
  12. 12. Virginia Cooperative Extension, Understanding the Basics of Mastitis, 2009 May 1
  13. 13. "Symposium Dedicated to Understanding Bovine Mastitis Held in Quebec." Canada NewsWire release, 20 Oct 2004
  14. 14. Canada Dairy Information Centre, Culling and Replacement Rates in Dairy Herds in Canada, 2013 Apr. 19
  15. 15. Canadian Dairy Information Centre, Culling and Replacement Rates in Dairy Herds in Canada, 2013 Apr. 19
  16. 16. National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cows, 2009 March
  17. 17. Canadian Dairy Information Centre, Dairy Barns by Type in Canada 2013
  18. 18. BC SPCA, Farm Animal Facts: Dairy Cattle
  19. 19. Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, Tail Docking Dairy Cattle, Fall 2002
  20. 20. Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle, Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, 2010 July 30
  21. 21. American Veterinary Medicine Association, Welfare implications of tail docking of dairy cattle, 2013 May 29
  22. 22. American Veterinary Medicine Association, Welfare implications of tail docking of dairy cattle, 2013 May 29
  23. 23. Quaife T., Dairy Herd Management Tail docking makes little sense. 2002 October 16
  24. 24. Dr. Clell V. Bagley D.V.M., Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle
  25. 25. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
  26. 26. Ibid.
  27. 27. Vermeire, Drew A., Ph.D., Iron Management to Improve Color and Performance in Veal Calves, 2006 Nov. 8
  28. 28. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
  29. 29. Ibid.
  30. 30. Wiepkema, P.R., Developmental aspects of motivated behaviour in domestic animals, Journal of Animal Science, 1987 Nov.
  31. 31. Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, Facts About Our Food: Veal
  32. 32. Wiepkema, P.R., Developmental aspects of motivated behaviour in domestic animals, Journal of Animal Science, 1987 Nov.
  33. 33. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008, Oct. 13
  34. 34. Canadian Agri-food Research Council, Recommended code of practice for the care and handling of farm animals: Veal Calves, 1998
  35. 35. Smith, John M., Ohio State University Fact Sheet: Raising Dairy Veal
  36. 36. National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, 2009 March
  37. 37. American Veterinary Association, Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Veal Calf Husbandry, 2008 Oct. 13
  38. 38. PubMed, The effect of low dose oral human interferon alpha therapy on diarrhea in veal calves., 1993
  39. 39. Eisnitz, Gail, Slaughterhouse (New York, 1997), p. 43
  40. 40. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Health Concerns about Dairy Products
  41. 41. Lactose Intolerance by Ethnicity and Region, ProCon.org
  42. 42. Harvard School of Public Health, Calcium and Milk, 2007