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 America’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 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, if female, is taken away within hours of birth, to stop her 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. When she grows, she may 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, hundreds of thousands of males are reared and slaughtered for veal each year. Because veal is prized for its pale, tender texture, the calves are confined to very small pens or crates to restrict their movement, and they are fed nutrient-deficient diets. Veal crates are so patently cruel they have been banned in the entire European Union and at least seven U.S. states including California – the biggest dairy-producing state. ‘Bob veal’ is the meat from calves who are less than one month old.
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 and her body turned into ground beef and other low-grade products. She could have lived 15-20 years, but she will be killed at around five or six.
People often think that dairy cows have a lovely life because they have seen some in fields. In reality, the overwhelming majority of U.S. dairy operations confine lactating and dry cows in indoor systems. Cows kept in tie-stalls or stanchions are tethered by their necks. After all, why waste valuable time getting cows in from pastures when you could just keep them indoors tied in one place?
Dairy cows 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 but the trauma caused by milking machines to the sensitive teat tissues is also a predisposing factor.
Milk from infected cows has a much higher somatic cell count. When a cow is infected, more than 90 percent 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. According to Dr Michael Greger, the average cup of milk in the United States would contain up to one drop of pus.
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 (UK), 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. Calves are often dehorned, castrated, and branded with red-hot irons, all of which may be performed without anaesthetic or pain relief.
Whether they are ‘grass fed’ or kept on feedlots (where animals may still be described as ‘grass fed’), their lives are over when they reach the required weight. They may be just 18 months 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 typical methods of castration in the U.S.: 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 any method.
Whether they are raised for beef or dairy, all cows end up at the slaughterhouse. Most cows in the U.S. 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.
Even pregnant cows are slaughtered in the US, with their calves left to die in the womb or on the slaughterhouse floor.
1 ‘Higher welfare for veal calves’, Compassion in World Farming https://www.ciwf.com/farm-animals/cows/veal-calves/higher-welfare/
2 ‘Questions’, American Veal Association http://www.americanveal.com/questions/
3 ‘The Welfare of Cows in the Dairy Industry’, Humane Society of the United States https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/hsus-report-animal-welfare-cow-dairy-industry.pdf
6 Michael Greger MD, ‘How much pus is there in milk?’ NutritionFacts.org
8 John Webster, ‘Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden’, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005
9 ‘The Welfare of Calves in the Beef Industry’, Humane Society of the United States https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/hsus-report-calves-welfare-beef-industry.pdf
10 Julia Calderone, ‘You may think twice before buying expensive grass-fed beef’, Business Insider, 21 March 2016 http://uk.businessinsider.com/grass-fed-claims-beef-bogus-usda-packaging-2016-2?r=US&IR=T
11 ‘Modern beef production’, Explorebeef.org
12 ‘Disbudding Calves’, National Animal Disease Information Service http://www.nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/disbudding-calves/
13 ‘The Welfare of Calves in the Beef Industry’, Humane Society of the United States https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/hsus-report-calves-welfare-beef-industry.pdf
14 Joe Loria, ‘Shock and horror: New undercover video shows pregnant cows being violently slaughtered for beef’ https://mercyforanimals.org/shock-and-horror-new-undercover-video-shows