Earlier this month BBC Panorama released an expose into the diary industry. The programme contained undercover footage of a dairy farm in Wales and showed very graphic footage of abuse and violence towards the cows, the calves that were of no use being piled into skips and just the overall low conditions of the farm itself. Obviously it received quite a bit of backlash, with many farmers claiming that this was not an accurate depiction of what happens within a dairy farm: Some farmers were claiming that they loved their cows and treated them with the highest degree of animal welfare, and that this farm in Wales was an outlier that did not do the dairy industry any justices. Which made me start to question what the conditions of a dairy farm should be and while the vegan in me knows that there is no way to have exploitation free dairy farming, the academic in me wanted to look into whether there could be such a a thing as humane dairy farming.
Now of course when researching this matter there are so many different resources to use and I have tried to keep things as balanced as possible. I will link all of the articles I have found throughout this little essay, but I am not going to go too in detail about the legitimacy of each source (i.e who funded the research, who wrote the article, the political platforms on which I found them, the degree of neutrality of them all etc) and that alone could be an entire essay subject all of it’s own. As with all things, make sure you check sources and to always take everything you read online with a pinch of salt: I am trying to remain as unbiased as possible in order to open the avenue for discussion, but as this is a subject I am very passionate about I am sorry if some of the bias comes through!
How is milk actually made?
According to Dairy UK there are roughly 1.9 million dairy cows currently being used in the UK. According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) they predict a total of 12.52 billion litres for 2021/22. This may seem like a lot of milk, however this is 1.2% lower than the 2020/21 year. They also state that there have been dips in milk production over the past two years due to changes in calving seasons, which leads me onto the next point.
A cow is a mammal, and as such only produces milk when they have a baby. According to Diary UK a cow can produce milk for around 10 months after giving birth to a calf. One of the biggest arguments against dairy farming is how it treats the calves: Female cows are raised to become dairy cows like their mothers and the male calves are either destroyed, used for breeding programmes or sold to veal farms. AHDB even have a whole section on how to raise the female calves quickly to ensure that the farmers make a profit on them by the time they have had their second lactation.
But once you have a pregnant cow, they will be pregnant for around 9 months. During this 9 months they will begin to produce milk and can be milked during their pregnancy. Milking then stops when the cow gets to around 60 days before she is due to give birth, which is known as the ‘dry period’ where farmers are to let the cows’ udders heal prior to their calf’s birth. One reason for this is because, as with all births, cow births can be very traumatic, and if you have a cow that is too stressed out or unsettled leading up to birth then the farmer runs the risk of complications during the birth, injuries to both the cow and the calf, and in some worst situations stillbirths or unhealthy cows and calves that cannot be used the next year. After giving birth a cow can then be re-inseminated after 28-30 days.
Baby calves are then separated from the mothers immediately and put onto a food called colostrum, which is a milk-like fluid made my mammals who have just given birth. Over a period of time the calf is then weaned off of the colostrum and put on a different type of feed until they are ready to be used for dairy production. And the cycle repeats itself for the female calves until they stop producing milk and are then sent to slaughter for beef production.
Which clearly shows how a dairy cow spends the majority of a twelve month period pregnant. I will admit when trying to find information on all of this, the actual official websites were very sparing on the details and their websites are not at all user friendly. It seems the majority of the information is contained in their publications and of course these publications are only available if you purchase them or subscribe to them through some sort of union. I did find one though from the AHDB which was a very intensive guide on how to promote calving seasons and how to ensure a healthy calving season every year and to maximise profits.
Which is what really gets to me: the cows used in dairy are seen as nothing but means of production. Their sole purpose to to make a product that their farmers can profit from, and once they stop making a profit for the farmer then they are sent to the beef industry. But where does this language come from?
The laws for dairy farming
Under UK law all domestic animals are considered chattel i.e they are property. Your cat, dog, rabbit, cow, sheep, llama. They are nothing more than property in the eyes of the law, so whatever they do you as their human owner are responsible for. There are numerous law cases surrounding personal injury claims where a dog has bitten someone and the human owner has been held negligent for the behaviours of their animal. This is governed by the Animal Act 1971 where strict liability applies if your animal causes harm to another person or property. However the Animal Welfare Act 2006 sets out that anyone who is in charge of an animal (be it as a pet, livestock, boarding situation etc) must not cause any ‘unnecessary suffering’ to that animal. If they do cause unnecessary suffering then they will be guilty of an offence and face criminal charges under this act.
Now there is no definition as to what counts as ‘unnecessary suffering’ stated within the act, so case law needs to be very heavily relied upon. I will not go into the details of this here (as again it is a LOT and would require a LOT of reading, re-reading and cross referencing and again will most likely need to be a whole separate essay on its own to really get into) but as a basic that is the standard that animal welfare standards are measured against. For those who may not know, and as a real side note, I am currently a trainee solicitor and during my law degree we spent many a module on ‘the reasonable man’ as a standard for measuring why certain actions were done. Again, it is a whole issue that is up for debate and is a whole other essay on it’s own. But I digress…
In England The Farm Animal Welfare Council provide opinions to the relevant government bodies (Mostly DEFRA) on how welfare is and/or is not being met within farming industries. One of the main issues that constantly arises in their opinions is that as the demand for milk has fallen over the years, in an attempt to improve profitability and to keep their farms running, farmers are allowing welfare standards to fall. According to Compassion in World Farming, most dairy cows have a life expectancy of around 3-5 years as dairy cows are highly prone to lameness and mastitis.
Now despite extensive online searches I cannot find anywhere government related that states the exact space that a cow needs to live in in order for their welfare needs to be met. I found another publication from AHDB and one from the RSPCA that state that the environment must be ‘adequate’ for the cow’s welfare. Which states nothing really, because again it is very open to interpretation and can change from farm to farm. There is no consistency in how welfare is managed and (at least from my research) enforcement of those welfare standards seem to be very subjective. You have a number of bodies (DEFRA, RSPCA and farming unions) who appear to be working together to increase welfare standards but a lot of this seems to be on the mutual understanding that farmers will simply ‘just do them’. I have not been able to find any real reports on who inspects the animal welfare, how often these are carried out or what happens if you are not meeting these standards.
This yet again beings me back to the main issue with dairy farming (aside from the animals themselves) is that the law does not adequately define what is and is not allowed. The same could be argued for all animal welfare standards across the world as the laws have so much room for interpretation and therefore it is up to the courts to decide whether welfare needs have been met. But again the court can only make decision on a matter if there is a question on whether welfare needs have been met by a specific farm/farmer/individual. Many of the articles I have found state that mastitis (a condition in dairy cows where their udders become inflamed either due to infection or trauma that can be fatal) and lameness (where cows can no longer walk and have lesions on their hooves and legs that cause intense pain) are serious concerns within the dairy industry and many steps are being taken to try and eradicate these problems to improve the profitability of dairy farming.
Mastitis and lameness though are also both conditions that are directly impacted by the environment in which a cow lives. Lameness is brought on where a cow is made to stand for too long, not able to move around properly or is made to stand on uneven/unsuitable flooring for long periods of time. Mastitis is thought to be caused by over milking, where the instruments used to milk a cow are not cleaned properly or are not applied correctly or comfortably and as a result cause infections and trauma to the udders. Both issues clearly highlight though that the welfare positions in place are clearly not enough to solve these very common and clearly very prolific problems within the dairy industry.
Now there is also the debate to be had over whether factory farming versus family farms. If I had a cow, that lost her calf at birth, would it still be exploitative for me to milk her? What right do I have to milk her? According to Alberta Milk, cows need to be milked to avoid their udders becoming engorged and uncomfortable for the cow. But again this is on an industrial level milking farm, where you want to make a profit from the milk that your cows are producing. I have been able to find very little information on the benefits of milking a cow: There are numerous articles on how milking a cow is beneficial for us (for health, money, productivity on the farm) but I have not been to find any that actually deal with it from the cows point of view. I would imagine that yes, at first the cows udders may get very engorged and uncomfortable, the same way that a woman’s breasts do when they have just given birth. But after a while milk production would slow down, less milk will need to be expelled, until eventually no milk is made at all. Again this is just my assumption, but surely that is standard biology?
Now when you look at how the dairy industry functions, how can it not be exploitative? Cows are kept constantly pregnant, their babies are taken from them, their milk is farmed, treated and then sold on mass for a high profit, and as soon as the cow is no longer producing milk she is then sold to slaughter. How is there any other way to look at this? All of the publications I read from farming unions and pro-dairy organisations referred to the cows and the calves as a production machine – cows exist so that we can milk them and once they stop making milk they are destroyed because they no longer serve a purpose to us. The articles (if you do want to read them) talk about the cows as though they are machines and that it is the role of a farmer to learn how to completely control their cows, from when they go into heat to when they calf to when they can be destroyed.
And I know that there will be some people who will argue that if we stopped drinking dairy overnight what would happen to the cows. But the reality is that dairy cows only exist because we have selectively bread them to produce more milk than is needed. Plus, it is a stupid argument because the reality is that the world will not give dairy up overnight. It will be a gradual process, whereby less cows are bred to be dairy cows and so the number of cows left at the end of it will be a fractional amount of the current 1.9 million currently out there.
I always find that the reality speaks for itself. Dairy is not concerned with animal welfare and is only interested in making a profit for itself. Cows are no more than machines and it again highlights the capitalist ideology that as soon as something no longer provides you with a profit, you throw it away.
And there is a part of me that recognises that dairy farming is a huge and lucrative business (although that is on the decline currently) and they do produce a lot of jobs for the surrounding neighbourhoods. However, is that not the nature of industry? Is that not why competition exists? With the rise in plant-based milks why are dairy farmers not cutting their losses and investing money in to plant based alternatives? If they know that their cows are producing less milk and their profits are down,instead of investing 20% of their income to raising and rearing new dairy cows, why not use that money to invest in growing oats?
While dairy farming may have been a lucrative part of society, I feel that the world is changing at such a rapid rate that the farmers need to adapt or die. As does every single other industry out there at the moment. Even from a business perspective, surely this is the only thing that can be done?