As everyone should know by now, vegans do not consume dairy products. Vegans are highly opposed to the commercial dairy industry. This is due to its cruel and allegedly negligent attitude towards the animals’ welfare.
When I was younger I never understood the issue with dairy, because all cows produce milk naturally anyway right? As I read more I realised that while this was true, nature is not the only thing at play.
Feminism and dairy
A few years ago, the phrase “milk is a feminist issue” came up on my social media. It was a new way of phrasing the milk debate I hadn’t thought about before, and it’s one that has really stuck with me.
If you read a story about a mother having her baby stolen, never to be reunited, your heart would ache. If you read about a woman being artificially inseminated, with no consent given, you would be outraged. If a woman was to have her breast milk stolen to be sold, leaving her baby fed with artificial replacements, we would not stand for it.
These may seem like dramatic examples, but this is the harsh reality of a female dairy cow’s life. They are frequently artificially inseminated and forced to carry that child to term. This strips them of all of their reproductive autonomy. Why do we allow this to be common practice when it would be a clear violation of human rights? Why do animals deserve less?
The average gestation period for a dairy cow is around 9 months according to UKcows.com. Generally, within 24 hours of giving birth, once the calf has had their first feed of colostrum, they will be taken away from their mother. Some farms will leave them together for up to 3 days before separating them.
There are many videos circulating of mother cows chasing after trucks containing their babies, crying out and bellowing as their child is driven away. They are not likely to be reunited and the cows are aware of this. The calves are fed with a synthetic milk replacement feed so that the mother’s milk can be harvested and sold.
According to Farmers Weekly, some cows do not express any maternal instinct towards their calves. They say that removing the calves is actually in their best interest to keep them healthy. Their research suggests that it does not impact the growth or social behaviours of calves.
My issue with this is that if all cows are separated at a young age from their mothers, where is the control group to compare to? How is it possible to tell that there has been no negative impact when the whole herd is raised in the same fashion?
What is colostrum?
Colostrum is the first milk lactated by a mother after she has given birth. It is often drunk within the first few hours of life. It contains many vital antibodies and nutrients to support the healthy growth of the calf’s immune system.
How does artificial insemination work?
Cows, like all livestock, are selectively bred to increase in production efficiency, to put it simply. One way that this is done in the dairy industry is through the use of artificial insemination. There are many more visceral terms used to describe this process, but I do not think it helps anyone to use such emotive language.
The process of artificial insemination is highly invasive, there’s no hiding from that. Back in 2015, Farmers Weekly published a guide on how to artificially inseminate a dairy cow. I’m not going to go through it all here, but I do want to highlight something.
This the so-called ‘rape rack’. This is partly true. The cows are “appropriately restrained” according to Farmers Weekly. Many other sources corroborate this, but I could find no more specific information on how this is actually done. All I can find is a lot of farmers saying it is nowhere near as cruel as it is made out to be. Personally I feel like any restriction is cruel, but we differ in opinion there.
The reason that the cows must be restricted in movement is actually done primarily for their safety. Don’t get me wrong, personally I find the whole process disgusting and hugely invasive, but I guess minimising any additional suffering they endure is better.
If the cow moves too much during this process of artificial insemination, the AI gun could go through some of her internal organs. This could cause a great deal of suffering for the cow and so she is restrained to reduce the chances of this happening.
This process happens to dairy cows once a year. As a general rule, the cows are inseminated again 3 months after giving birth. This allows them to produce milk for 10 of the 12 months in a year. The number of lactations a dairy calf goes through has dropped in recent years to just under 3 in their lifetime, on average.
How are cows treated?
Not as well as you would hope. There are much stricter rules and regulations on animal welfare in the UK than there are in the US, but this does not mean that all animals are living in bliss.
The GB Cattle Health and Welfare Group state that 94% of dairy herds have access to pasture at some point in the year. These herds account for 90% of the total dairy herd population. While this is good, this statistic does not mention how often they are allowed out to pasture, or what the pasture is like.
There are currently trials going on to ascertain the correct amount of living space each cow requires. The two measurements are 3 metres squared and 6 metres squared. To me, this is nothing.
Red Tractor oversees the quality of around 95% of Great British milk production. They carry out welfare tests during their farm assessments which spot checks 10 cows at random. They have recently published their first 3 years of data (from 2013 to 2016). These showed that on average 9% of cows are lame, 8% had patches of hair loss or swellings on their body, and 10% were dirty.
According the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board data for 2018, on average 26% of cows suffered from mastitis in a year. This is an inflammatory infection of the breast tissue caused by pathogens in the surrounding environment. If left untreated, this can make the cows very ill.
Males and dairy
As you should know from biology lessons, females are the ones that produce milk. Like humans, cows gestate and produce milk to feed their calves. This means that most female calves born from dairy cows grow up to participate in the same cycle as their mothers before them.
Male cows cannot do this, making them effectively useless to the dairy industry. This leaves the farmer with 3 main options: sell the cow for the beef industry, sell it for veal, or kill it. The preferred industry term for this process is euthanasia, but I do not believe this to be correct.
Oxford Dictionaries describes euthanasia as “the practice of killing without pain a person or animal who is suffering from a disease that cannot be cured.” The disease, it seems, is being a male. This is not euthanasia, it’s a cold and calculated slaughter.
According to the most recent statistics from the GB Cattle Health and Welfare Group report in November 2020, 60,000 male bull calves are slaughtered each year on UK dairy farms. This makes up a whopping 15% of all bull calves born on UK dairy farms.
Around 395,000 dairy-sired bull calves are born in the UK annually. Of the remaining 335,000, 280,000 are sold into the beef industry. They enter the supply chain and just get their slaughter postponed by a few years.
The idea is to boost the use of sexed semen for artificial insemination. There are estimates that this could reduce the rate of male dairy calves born to less than 10% of all births.
According to this same release, there is a Great British Dairy Calf Strategy in existence. The aim of this strategy is to completely eradicate the slaughter of calves by 2023. In 2020, a sub-strategy was launched with the aim of “turn[ing] the vision into a commitment.”
You could argue that in 2021, there is no need to kill male calves at all. Just a thought.
What is the difference in lifespan?
According to CHAWG data, the average age dairy cows were killed was 6 years. In this period, on average they had gone through 3.6 lactation cycles – i.e. given birth at least 3 times. Around this time, their bodies will begin to wear out and their milk supply will dry up as a result.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released a report in 2003. This stated that “Improvements in longevity of dairy cows allow the farmer to be more selective in culling. However, there appears to be an optimal age limit, of approximately 8 years old, beyond which dairy cows begin to succumb to increased health problems which makes them uneconomically viable to keep.”
The natural lifespan of a cow is about 20 years. This means that cows are killed at only really a quarter of their lives. Imagine getting to 22 and someone saying that was your lot. You’re not economically viable anymore, bye bye.
The environmental aspect of dairy production is another black mark against the industry. I am by no means an environmental scientist and I do not fully comprehend the information surrounding this element.
However, I know that around 80% of all soy production globally is used to feed livestock. Part of this must go to the dairy industry. I also know that cows produce methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
According to CHAWG, as of 2020 the UK has over 9.6 million cattle and calves. This is a huge amount of methane excretion and a huge amount of feed that is required.
The carbon footprint of a 200ml glass of cow’s milk is 0.6kg. The most common dairy alternatives are oat and soy. The carbon footprint of a glass of oat milk is 0.18kg and of soy milk is 0.195kg. Both of these are significantly lower than dairy milk.
When it comes to water consumption, cow’s milk comes out on the bottom again. It takes an enormous 1,050 litres of water to produce a litre of cow’s milk. For a litre of oat you only need 297 litres, and for soy milk 48 litres.
Whichever way you spin it, cow’s milk is not the environmentally sustainable option.
I am not going to speak much on the health aspect of dairy as I am not a qualified nutritionist. If you want this information, please go and seek the advice of someone certified.
What I will say is that many people spread the myth around that milk is full of hormones. These hormones are believed to have been injected into the mother cow while pregnant and lactating to increase their growth.
In some cases in the United States, there is evidence that farmers do inject their cattle with supplemental growth hormones. However, these are not registered or approved for use in the European Union. I wonder whether this will change as Brexit comes into force.
For now, the only medication cattle are given is antibiotics in the event they become ill.
So what should I do now?
Well, now that you have the information it’s on you to choose what to do with it. I recommend doing your own research into it. The AHDB and DEFRA are good places to start looking for official statistics on the meat and dairy industries.
There is a wealth of information out there on veganism and the dairy industry, just remember to take it all with a pinch of salt. I am in no way condoning or supporting the dairy industry, but many reports written by vegans are highly emotive and may skew the facts a little.
If you can’t really be bothered for that, but still want to switch to a non-dairy milk, my recommendation is oat. It’s good for the environment, and only costs 85p at Asda! Oat milk has never split in my hot drinks, unlike all of the other milk replacements I have tried. Alpro have recently released a milk replacement called ‘My Cuppa’ which is fantastic too, particularly if you want that authentic tea flavour!