Dairy Cows Fact Sheet

Dairy cow with calves

Calves are taken from their mothers within 12-24 hours of birth. The separation breaks a strong maternal bond, and both cows and calves suffer.

To produce milk for human consumption, a dairy cow must keep giving birth to calves, usually each year.

Cruel separation

Calves are taken from their mothers within 12-24 hours of birth. If nature was allowed to take its course—calves would suckle from their mother for several months, even up to a year. Mother cows, like most mammals have a strong maternal bond. One study found that this bond was formed in as little as five minutes.[1]

When calves are removed mother cows will frantically bellow for the offspring that they will never see again. Separated calves appear frightened and bewildered. Regardless of how this situation is handled this separation causes enormous stress for both the cow and calf.

New mothers are returned to the milking herd to maximise profits. The milk that nature destined for the calf is then processed for human consumption.

The fate of the calf

Most recent industry figures indicate that around 400,000 unwanted dairy calves, not wanted for herd replacement or rearing for pink veal, are slaughtered each year in Australia as 'waste-products' of the dairy industry — usually at around the tender age of  5 - 6 days old.   Dairy calves are not valued as they don't grow at the same rate as beef calves and their meat quality is considered sub-standard by the beef industry.  

As soon as calves reach their fifth day of life (after separation from their mothers they are fed a milk substitute) the Australian livestock transport standards [2] allow the calves to be transported to abattoirs and saleyards. Bewildered calves are subjected to the stresses of unfamiliar sights and sounds and multiple and often rough handling as they are transported to calf scales, sale yards and slaughterhouses.

While Standards and Guidelines are written to protect the welfare of animals during transport [2], these fall far short from protecting these young vulnerable animals from suffering.

For example, the industry deems it acceptable to withhold food (milk) from five day old calves for up to 30 hours before they are slaughtered. This means that calves can be fed in the morning, than transported and kept at the abattoir overnight without any food before being killed the next day. To go without food for such an extensive period of time has an enormous negative welfare impact due to a feeling of hunger next to the already stressful event of transport. Whilst calves normally suckle about 5 times a day, the Australian Standards and Guidelines for transporting animals allow them to go hungry for the last hours of their short lives.


The life of a dairy cow

The strain of producing enormous amounts of milk

The natural lifespan of a cow is up to 20 years, yet few commercial dairy cows live beyond the age of seven years, and many younger animals go to slaughter.

Selective breeding and, more recently, genetic manipulation, has resulted in the selection and production of cows who produce enormous amounts of milk.  The modern dairy cow can produce about 35-50 litres of milk per day—about ten times more milk than her calf would need.

Milking MachineProducing large quantities of milk puts a significant metabolic strain on the animal. The great weight of the udders often causes painful stretching or tearing of ligaments and frequently causes foot problems, such as laminitis. These foot problems can be associated with significant pain. Dairy cattle are also susceptible to infections of the teat and udder (mastitis), which can be very painful.

The milking machine itself may render the cow more susceptible to infection. The front teats may be subjected to vacuum pulsing for up to two minutes after the quarter has been emptied and while the hind teats are still yielding. This is believed to be painful for the cow, and may also weaken tissue. The nature of the vacuum milking process is known to increase the possibility of infection.

Frustrated maternal instincts

A young female cow (heifer) has her first calf at about two years of age. The calf is taken away, usually within 12-24 hours of birth, and the mother is milked to capacity. She is ready to conceive again about three weeks later, and every three weeks after that. She is put 'in calf' again at her second or third heat, and milking continues for some 10 months after she has given birth. She is 'rested' for several weeks before the next calf arrives, then the cycle continues for as long as she can continue to produce enough milk to be a "profitable unit".

It's clear that separating a calf from his or her mother causes significant distress and suffering to both animals.

Induced calving

This is a 'herd management practice' used to induce the cows in the herd to calve in a short period of time—regardless of when they were mated and conceived. It requires the injection of corticosterioids by a veterinarian to prematurely trigger the birth of the calf and thereby allowing the  cow to re-enter the 'milking' herd at an earlier time.

The welfare of the mother cow is often compromised (particularly if greater than 3 weeks of expected gestation) as the procedure increases the risk of mastitis, metabolic diseases, retained membranes and infection. The welfare of the prematurely born calf is also of concern as the calf may be weak, requiring special care and attention. In some cases calves might need to be immediately killed on farm (a few farmers wish to undertake this task, and may not be skilled). A veterinarian rarely attends the birth to monitor the health of cow and calf. A 2005 national survey showed that the routine use of induction in seasonal dairy herds is declining but no industry figures are made available to be able to determine how wide-spread the use of this concerning practice currently is.

The docking of cows' tails

In some 'dairy' regions, such as Gippsland in Victoria, the 'docking' (surgical amputation or using elastic rings) of a cows tail is quite common—sometimes only a small part of the tail is left intact.  It is done because dairy farmers don't like to be swished in the face with a dirty tail whilst in the milking shed, and a mistaken belief that dirty tails contribute to higher bacterial contamination and perhaps higher levels of mastitis. New shed designs and research have made both reasons redundant—yet the practice still continues. A 2005 national survey found that 20% of dairy farmers routinely dock cows tails, but that the practice is declining.

Without a tail the cows are inevitably irritated by flies that they are unable to dislodge. The amputation causes immediate pain and the nerve damage to the stump may result in chronic pain. The practice is prohibited in some states, and the Model Code of Practice for cattle indicates it should only be done 'for udder health' (already discredited by research) or on a veterinarian's advice. It is likely that, where a farmer does it 'routinely', no veterinary advice is sought, nor pain relief used.

Dehorning of cows, disbudding of calves

Dairy breeds of cattle will usually grow horns and in the jostling involved during the herding process for twice a day milking, they may injure other cows. Therefore, heifer (female) calves being raised to enter the milking herd will usually undergo 'disbudding' at an early age (less than 6 months of age). This is usually done by applying heat cauterization to the horn buds, or by using a knife or scoop tool to remove all the horn growth tissues in the horn bud. Currently this painful procedure is done without analgesia or sedation (though pain relief regimes have been developed for this procedure). 

If dairy calves are not 'disbudded', older dairy cattle may be 'dehorned'—a painful and distressing procedure that also carries a higher risk of infection and even blowfly infestation in some regions. The Code of Practice recommends dehorning without analgesia should not occur in cattle over 6 months of age—but this routinely occurs (in the beef industry and to some extent in the dairy industry).  Researchers have shown that dehorning adult cattle has 'severe adverse effects on welfare'.   Pain relief is not routinely used because it would add to costs and time to conduct the procedure.


As with other farm-based businesses, the dairy industry has grown dramatically over the past few decades, while the number of farms reduced by over two-thirds (71%) from 22,000 in 1980 to 6,398 in 2013; the average herd size has increased from small family farms with an average of 85 cows in 1980 to 258 in 2012/13. The national dairy herd of 1.65 million cows pumped out 9,200 million litres of milk in 2012/13. This means that every cow made 5,525 litres of milk. [3]

Dairy health myths

Consuming adequate amounts of calcium is essential to maintaining strong and healthy bones. Through clever marketing, the dairy industry has convinced many of us that only by consuming lots of dairy products can we maintain healthy bones. Nutritionally speaking, this is not correct.

Dairy is not the only source of calcium. Many plant based foods and calcium fortified vegetarian products are good sources of absorbable calcium. Osteoporosis Australia recommends, amongst others, almonds, broccoli, cucumber, silverbeet, mustard cabbage, bok choy, celery, chick peas, dried figs and dried apricots, calcium set tofu, calcium fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and fruit juices.[4] In fact, Osteoporosis Australia lists firm tofu as the food with the highest calcium content per serve, 832 milligrams per cup (250 ml or 260g).

Whilst the science is still out on how much calcium we exactly need for healthy bones and to avoid osteoporosis, and what the optimal sources of calcium are [5], it's clear that calcium intake is only a part of the picture. For example, there are long-term studies which suggest that high calcium intake doesn't lower a person's risk for osteoporosis. [5] In large studies by Harvard University of male health professionals and female nurses, individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week. [6, 7]

There are other important lifestyle factors that can limit the amount of bone loss in adulthood and therefore help preventing osteoporosis, these include: getting regular exercise (especially weight-bearing and muscle strengthening exercise), getting adequate vitamin D, consuming enough vitamin K (found in green, leafy vegetables), not getting too much preformed vitamin A and limiting the intake of caffeine and cola. [5]

So when you next hear a dairy advertisement tell you that you need calcium for healthy bones, and that dairy contains calcium — think about what they aren't telling you: that there are alternatives that may not only be healthier for you, but also kinder to cows and calves. Click here for more information on dairy-free recipes and nutrition.

Dairy's impact on the environment

The production of milk has a major impact on the environment. Cows produce a lot of Methane and Nitrous Oxide in their digestion system. These are greenhouse gasses that are about 21 and 296 times as strong as that of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) respectively. Because of these emissions the dairy industry alone contributes 3% to global greenhouse gas emissions (and that is when excluding post-farm (dairy processing) and land use emissions). [8]

Expressed in Carbon Dioxide (CO2) quantities, the greenhouse gas emissions for every kg of milk range from 0.9-1.8 kg CO2, varying between countries and farming systems. [8] This is equivalent to driving between 10 and 20 km in a Toyota Prius.

Cows also produce a lot of manure which pollute water and soil and can disturb the natural nutrient balance needed for normal plant growth. A single dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure per day, which is equivalent to the waste produced by 20–40 people. [9] With a dairy herd of 1.6 million cows, this means that the Australian dairy industry produces far more manure than the entire Australian human population.

Another impact of the dairy industry on the Australian environment is by its massive use of water and land area. In 2004-2005 the dairy industry was responsible for 19% of all the water used in Australian agriculture. [10] This is more than 12% of all the water used in Australia. Cows need a lot of land to graze on (if they get the opportunity) and the production of their feed also takes up a lot of land area. The production of cattle feed is a major reason for deforestation and is putting pressure on nature both in Australia and overseas.

Conclusion—the ethics of the dairy industry

As with every other animal industry, it is in the interests of the dairy industry for their customers not to know the reality of the industry. They are keenly aware that many milk drinkers—especially women—would be appalled by an industry that deliberately gets a female pregnant, allows her to give birth and greet her newborn, only then to remove her young—and in most cases send her calf to be slaughtered before they have even experienced a week of life.


[1] Frances C. Flower and Daniel M. Weary, "Effects of Early Separation on the Dairy Cow and Calf: 2. Separation at 1 Day and 2 Weeks After Birth," Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 70 (2001): 275-284
[2] Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines — Land transport of livestock, Edition One, December 2008
[3] Dairy Australia, Australian Dairy At A Glance (2012/13)
[4] Calcium: Consumer guide Osteoporosis Australia
[5] Calcium and milk: what's best for your bones and health? Harvard School of Public Health
[6] Owusu W, Willett WC, Feskanich D, Ascherio A, Spiegelman D, Colditz GA. "Calcium intake and the incidence of forearm and hip fractures among men", J Nutr. 1997; 127:1782-87.
[7] Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. "Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study", Am J Public Health. 1997; 87:992-97.
[8] A sustainable dairy sector; Global, regional and life cycle facts and figures on greenhouse-gas emissions. Delft, CE, September 2008. Commissioned by: European Dairy Association
[9] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Notes from Underground, Fall 2001
[10] Australian Government – National Water Commission, Agricultural water use

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