Cows possess many of the same emotional qualities as we do and, like people, some cows are playful, cheeky and outgoing, while others are more sensitive, thoughtful and shy. All are capable of happiness, though, and cows literally jump for joy when given reason to. But on Britain’s dairy and beef farms, cows suffer both physically and emotionally.
Life in the herd
Cows thrive on social interaction and form close and long-lasting relationships with members of their herd. Semi-wild cattle will groom and graze together, share food and coordinate activities. For females, the closest and strongest bond they form is with their calf. When about to give birth, the mother will take herself away from the herd for privacy – something that many farmed animals crave but few get to experience. Later, when she is ready, she will return and formally introduce her newborn to the herd. Her calf will stay with her and suckle for 9-12 months before being weaned.
In captivity, none of this happens.
Life on a dairy farm
Like all female mammals, cows must be made pregnant to produce milk, which they make specifically to feed their young. Instead of suckling for a year, the calf is taken away within 24 hours of birth, to stop them drinking all that valuable milk.
This separation is traumatic for both mother and calf. They will call for one another, sometimes for days, with mothers pacing back and forth, searching for a way to be reunited with their young. If the calf is female she will one day join the herd and be put through the same cycle of invasive artificial insemination, pregnancy, birth and separation. If male, his future is less sure. Male calves cannot grow to produce milk, and often they are not a breed that gains enough muscle to be fattened for slaughter. So, many are shot at birth and fed to hunting hounds. Others may be reared for low-grade beef, or raised for veal either in the UK or abroad.
As for the mother, she will be pushed to her biological limits, will lose calf after calf and will be milked until she is worn out, or ‘spent’ as the industry calls it, and her productivity declines. Then, she will be sent to slaughter. She could have lived 15-20 years but she will be killed at just five or six and her body made into low-grade meat products. Official records show that even heavily-pregnant cows from the dairy industry are slaughtered in the UK, with their calves left to die on the slaughterhouse floor.
People often think that cows on dairy farms have a lovely life because they have seen some in fields. In reality, they are only turned out to graze for around six months of the year, and the rest of the time they stand around in a barn. An increasing number of cows are never permitted to go outside at all. They are intensively farmed. Why waste valuable time getting cows in from fields when you could just keep them in and bring food to them? This is called ‘zero-grazing’ and is exactly what it sounds like. The cows never graze.
Cows used in the dairy industry are bred to produce large quantities of milk – around ten times more than necessary to feed a calf. The weight of this excess milk distends their udders, causing teat infections and also contributes to lameness. These two conditions, along with infertility, are the main reasons why thousands of dairy cows are sent to slaughter each year at an even younger age than they otherwise would be.
Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the udder that causes painful swelling or hardening. It is frequently attributed to unhygienic, cramped, and poorly ventilated living conditions. In the UK, in a herd of 100 cows, there could be as many as 70 cases of mastitis every year.
Milk from infected cows has a much higher somatic cell count. When a cow is infected, more than 90 per cent of the somatic cells in her milk are ‘neutrophils’, the inflammatory immune cells that form pus. With mastitis so prevalent in dairy cows, there is no way to avoid it, and the legal limit for human consumption is 400 million cells per litre. 
Lameness is commonplace in dairy herds. It is caused by infections such as laminitis, and compounded by poor nutrition and long periods standing on hard floors. It is difficult to comprehend the pain of laminitis but John Webster, Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol, likened it to us having our fingernails crushed in a door, and then having to stand on those fingertips for hours.
Cows bred for meat
Life is no picnic for cows reared for their flesh either. During the first week of their lives calves are often disbudded, castrated and freeze-branded, all painful procedures but if done while during their first week, anaesthetic may not be required.
Whether they are reared outdoors and ‘grass fed’ during summer months or kept inside an intensive shed all year round, their lives are over when they reach the required weight. They may be little more than one year old.
Calves reared for both dairy and beef are ‘disbudded’ to prevent the growth of horns. This is carried out by burning the horn bud with a hot iron or by applying a chemical to erode it. The caustic chemical can burn the skin if application is not done carefully or if the calves are exposed to rain shortly afterwards but even so, analgesic does not have to be given.
This is a painful procedure, which can result in complications and infection. There are three legal methods of castration in the UK: a rubber ring can be applied to restrict blood flow to the testicles; the spermatic cord can be crushed; or the testicles can be surgically removed. No pain relief is required for the first two methods.
Whether they are raised for beef or dairy, all cows end up at the slaughterhouse. Most cows in the UK are stunned with a pistol-like captive bolt gun to the brain, then are shackled, hoisted, and have their throats cut before being disembowelled and skinned.
Investigations have shown that stunning often fails and cows endure repeated shots to the head or go to the knife while still conscious. The fear they experience is all too clear to see.
 Rob Edwards and Andrew Wasley, ‘A national disgrace’: a catalogue of animal suffering at Scottish abattoirs revealed’, The Bureau of Investigative Journalists, 19 Apr 2017
 ‘About Dairy Cows,’ Compassion in World Farming [online] [accessed 31 May 2017]
 Michael Greger MD, ‘How much pus is there in milk?’ NutritionFacts.org [accessed 31 May 2017]
 ‘Somatic Cell Count – Milk Quality Indicator’, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board [online] [accessed 31 May 2017]
 John Webster Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005
 ‘Disbudding Calves’, National Animal Disease Information Service [online] [accessed 31 May 2017]
 ‘Code of recommendations for the welfare of livestock: cattle’, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2003 [Online] [accessed 31 May 2017]
PAGE UPDATED MAY 2020