Thunder and Orlando at NY Farm Sanctuary
Many people tell me that they can understand my problem with eating meat, but why do I object to milk and its products? Milking cows doesn’t hurt them, right? This is something they make, and they actually need someone to take it. And dairy farmers love their cows.
I suspect that milking machines or milking by hand is probably not all that uncomfortable to a cow. But we need to take a look at the bigger picture, because that cow’s life is not summed up by grazing in sunny pastures and twice-daily trips to the milking machine, though that is what we think, because that is the image that has been promoted to us. Here are the facts about U.S. dairy cows. While other countries and smaller farms may have different customs, most of these facts, from simple biology, will apply anywhere.
I was shocked to learn, a little over a year ago, that cows cannot give milk unless they are pretty much continually pregnant. Since I heard that, I have verified it at agriculture website after website, and I have yet to see any contradiction. These are not anti-dairy sites, but governments or universities advising dairy farmers how to manage their stock. Now that I know what to look for, I find confirmation of all these facts all over the place. My Dad flat-out refused to believe it when I told him, so he asked a dairy farmer friend who confirmed all the facts in this posting. I encourage you to verify what I say as well.
Here we go. The optimum pregnancy cycle for milk production has been determined to be about 3 months rest before the next one, and with an approximately 9 month gestation it works out that that is about one calf every year. Whether or not the farmer cares about his/her cows, this is not something they can change very much if they want to earn a living. I’ve had moms respond that they were able to nurse for years after pregnancy. I don’t have a confirmed answer for this, but I suspect that while dairy cows could nurse their babies longer than a few months, they can’t keep up the overproduction demanded on today’s dairy farms, or that the machines are not as effective as a real baby at keeping up even normal production. In any case, they are in fact reimpregnated.
The calves are taken from their mothers at one day old. The only reason they aren’t taken immediately is that without that dose of colostrum they would all die, which wastes money. I have read accounts of this removal process from vegan sources and the cows fight for their calves, but of course they always lose. I am a mother and this is the part that gets to me; I know about a lot of horrific things we routinely do to farm animals, and have seen lots of abuse, but I don’t think there’s anything that anyone could do to me that would be worse than taking my baby from me and killing it. Except doing it every year. Some may say it is anthropomorphic to suggest that cows love their babies – I say it would be arrogant for us to assume only we can feel love.
As you would expect, about half the calves born are male and half female. Farmers have no use for the males, who are not bred big for meat, so they are sent to auction. Sometimes they are sent straight to slaughter, often still with their umbilical cords attached. Usually, though, they are raised in tiny crates, chained tightly by the neck to restrict their movement, and sent to slaughter at up to 16 weeks old. Veal is a byproduct of the dairy industry. Again, this happens whether the farmer is kind or not – they cannot afford to keep and feed the males.
The female calves are raised to replace their mothers, who don’t live very long. Dairy cows, which would usually live to over 20 years of age, are no longer profitable after about 4 years, at which point they are sold at auction to slaughter for hamburger. Farmers cannot afford to keep cows that are not producing – even farmers who say they love their cows say goodbye and load them on the truck.
Organic or not, rBGH or not, “Happy Cows” advertising or not, this is the life of a dairy cow – taken from her mother at one day old, artificially impregnated, hooked up to machines, having her calves taken every year until she is driven onto a truck and faces the stunner at a slaughterhouse.
I can totally relate to feeling there is a moral difference between meat and milk or eggs. I felt that way for 15 years and did not ever intend to become vegan. A year ago, I realized that I don’t abstain from meat because it is a dead body – I abstain because it causes suffering. When I found out how much suffering is in milk and eggs, I knew what I had to do.
The next time you see dairy cows standing serenely in a field, ask yourself which of them had her calf torn from her today, and which of them are scheduled for the truck tomorrow. Because it would be just as correct to call that dairy farm a veal and hamburger farm.
If you would like to hear about dairy cows, including the facts I’ve related but also some lovely stories about rescued cows, this is a wonderful podcast on the issue.
Afternote: In case you are still under the illusion that dairy is a magical pastoral occupation, as I was Googling this morning to find any new contradictions of my facts (I couldn’t), I came across this document from the University of Florida. It gives dairy farmers a model for culling decisions; that is, how to decide when to kill their dairy cows. It’s a Powerpoint type document and highlights a computer program into which you can enter things like how much milk the cow is giving, how many calves, how big your herd is, how much feed costs, and it will output whether she should live or die.