Cows and bulls are one of the most recognisable domesticated animals we can find today on the planet, but most people do not know much about them because the truth of their existence has been kept hidden. The animal agriculture industry has been exploiting cows and bulls for millennia, and they do not want the truth about how these animals are farmed to be exposed because this may upset their consumers who could then stop using dairy products and replace them with plant-based alternatives.
This industry — and the widespread ideology that promotes the idea of treating animals as commodities — has even created the term “cattle” to disguise the fact that bulls and cows are sentient individuals and make them look as if they are just “goods” that can be grown, traded, and consumed. This is the same reason that the terms “fish” and “sheep” are used both in singular and plural, erasing the moral value of the individual animals in the group.
The propaganda machines of the dairy industry have also created the false image of “happy cows” roaming freely on fields voluntarily producing the milk that humans “need”. Many people have been falling for this deception. Even many of those better informed, who became awakened to the reality of rearing animals for food and then became vegetarians, believed this lie by not becoming vegans instead and continuing to consume dairy. It’s the 21st century now — two decades into it already — and the truth about farming dairy cows has already been exposed for quite some time. Here you will find a summary of it.
The Pre-Farmed Cows and Bulls
Cows and bulls are domesticated bovids (a family of cloven-hoofed quadrupedal big ruminant mammals) created by humans via selective breeding from an ancestral wild bovid, the wild ox, who is now extinct. All bulls and cows we find today (classed under the species Bos taurus) are descended from as few as 80 animals who were domesticated from wild oxes in the Near East some 10,500 years ago. Since then, three sub-species were created, first the aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius) closer to the original wild ox and no longer in existence today, and from this one the taurine bulls and cows (Bos tuarus taurus) and the Zebu or Indian cows (Bos taurus indicus) which form all the breeds of all domestic bulls and cows alive today. Taurine bovids are now common in Eurasia and America, while Zebus in Africa and Asia.
As there are no longer wild oxes and aurochs to observe, we cannot be completely sure how pre-farming cows and bulls behaved in the wild. However, there are still a few closely related species in the wild (such as buffaloes and bisons), there are groups of feral cows and bulls that, although still domesticated animals from a genetic point of view, have lived without direct human intervention for generations, and we have places like animal sanctuaries where cows and bulls are no longer “farmed”, despite still living in a farm setting. All this can give us enough information about how the life of a pre-farmed cow was.
The pre-farmed cows and bulls of prehistory were very social animals who lived in nomadic herds mostly composed of adult females and their offspring and a few breeding males (in some herds, probably only one). Each cow and bull knew each other well (mainly recognising each other by looks, but also by smell and vocalizations) and form close and long-lasting relationships. They lived in a hierarchy where the bigger and older you are, the higher your position in the group is likely to be. Other factors influenced their dominance, such as sex, weight, presence of horns, and territoriality.
As in the wild the hierarchy in the group was relatively stable and did not change much as the herds were not very big and most individuals just grew old in the herd, there was little violence between individuals, as most of them “knew their place” after a few ritualised aggressive encounters and displays of power. The herds would be nomadic, moving together through the land looking for good pastures and sources of water, sometimes migrating long distances. This constant mobility would allow them to avoid infections as they developed an aversion to the smell of dung, saliva, and exudate from other cows’ noses.
Cows’ natural reproductive cycle may have happened throughout the year, with peak activity in the northern hemisphere between May and July and low activity between December and February. The “heat” phase began in the evening and usually lasted between 18 to 24 hours. When that happened, cows fed less, moved more, increased licking and sniffing, and bulls performed a behaviour common in many ungulates called flehmen (curling of the upper lip and a raising of the head). This helped to inform the dominant reproductive bull which cows were ready for mating.
The cows would be pregnant for about nine or ten months, and after giving birth — normally at night on an open field with long grass — the calf would begin suckling in less than three hours. The bond between the cow and the calf was strong, and it began with the mother licking the newborn calf and encouraging suckling by nuzzling the calf in the direction of the udder. The mother’s first milk (known as colostrum) gave immunoglobulins to the calf helping to fight infection while the immune system was still maturing.
The bond between the mother and her calves would become stronger with each suckling, which would continue for months and even a year before weaning. The calves would spend most of their time near their mothers until they would be half a year or so old when they would begin forming social groups with friends of the same age — with whom they would play — but still go to their mothers to be fed. The cows, which would only produce milk for one calf at the time and therefore would not have big adders, would keep the bond with their offspring even after giving birth to others. After the calves reached a year of age they would begin establishing stable social relations with the rest of the herd, and then is when their mother may get pregnant again as she knew the group would now help to look after her sons and daughters.
When males reached sexual maturity they dispersed, challenging other males from other herds, fighting for their reproductive “rights” by charging against each other with their horns, and if they manage to win, becoming the dominant bull of the new herd. If they did not win, they could hang around with other young males who experienced the same fate, or who never dared to challenge the big adult males with big horns.
Wild pre-farming cows and bulls lived for as long as 25 years, so the herds were composed of many experienced individuals who would be able to defend well the group from predators such as wolves (they will protect the calves by keeping them inside the herd and charge against menacing predators), and keep the group stable. As cows did not have overgrown udders, they were more agile and capable to flee from predators, and because the groups were full of experienced individuals — who were larger and stronger than modern cows, and had longer horns — they could stand their ground when needed. They had also a better immune system, so they would suffer fewer infections and normally have a healthy life.
Pre-farmed cows and bulls were living a natural life in herds in the open, well-prepared to overcome the challenges of life by protecting each other and constantly moving to better locations with their nomadic lifestyle. They were as happy and as free as any other wild animal on the land would be. But then, humans came along.
The Traditional Farming of Dairy Cows
The first thing that humans did to cows about 10,500 years ago when they started domesticating them was abduct their calves. They realised that if they separated the calves from their mothers, they could then steal the milk the mother was producing for their calves. That was the first act of cow farming, and that was when the suffering began — and has continued since.
As the mothers had very strong maternal instincts, and the calves got imprinted with their mothers as their survival would depend on sticking to them all the time while they were moving through fields so they can suckle, separating the calves from their mothers was a very cruel act that started then and has continued to today. Each and every fertile adult cow who ever existed on the planet that was farmed to produce dairy products had her calves abducted at least temporarily — causing separation anxiety — but most commonly permanently — causing emotional pain —so humans could steal the milk intended for the calves. That has always caused a great deal of suffering because of the emotional pain experienced by both cows and calves — as any mother could testify if she had their children forcibly removed from her. You can witness such suffering on any farm today, as both calves and cows desperately call for each other and the mothers often try to follow the farmers who took their calves.
Removing the calves from their mothers also caused the calves to experience hunger afterwards as they needed that milk. Even in places like India, where cows become sacred among Hindus, farmed cows suffered in this way, even if kept in the fields at their own devices most of the time. Dr Sailesh Rao, a systems engineer from India who, after emigrating to the US and working on the internet communications infrastructure for twenty years, became a vegan campaigner for the planet, recalled what happened to cows and calves when he was growing up in a vegetarian Hindu household. In an interview for Vegan FTA, he said:
“One time, when I was seven, we had just come to my grandparent’s home and I overheard my grandmother telling my grandfather that ‘this particular calf is drinking too much. He is not leaving enough milk for the children.’ And my grandfather told my grandmother ‘Don’t let him drink to his fill; pull him away after 10 minutes.’ And, as a child, I realised that there was something wrong going on, but I put it away in the back of my mind because I was being bombarded with the idea that milk is essential, and you have to drink it.”
The next form of suffering caused by farming cows was treating them as property, and therefore keeping them captive either in enclosed fields, closed-up barns, or tied with ropes somewhere. As cows and bulls like to move and explore new places, this forced captivity which began with the first sedentary dairy farmers and has continued until today in most types of cow farming, has been the second most common form of suffering farmed cows endure.
Suffering would also come from separating cows and bulls from the rest of the herd, which they needed to feel protected. This became common when people began having “their cow” in their homes, as their “property”. Splitting herds, removing some cows from one herd and taking them to another, mixing individuals from different herds, and all these sorts of “management” cow farmers and ranchers have been doing since the very beginning, also prevented the creation of settled herds where stable hierarchical orders avoid internal fights. Farming cows socially destabilised herds making their individuals more aggressive and unsettled.
The next form of suffering caused by the traditional farming of cows was an increase in disease, as by forcing the cows and bulls to be in the same place all the time, and when indoors to be around their faeces — which, as we saw earlier, they try to avoid — this increased the morbidity and mortality as well as the discomfort of the animals. Because through the first centuries of domestication of cows and bulls there were no antibiotics to combat infections, disease was very common in traditional farms. Also, there was very little knowledge about the nutritional requirements of animals, so cows would end up having all sorts of nutritional deficiencies, especially if they were kept indoors too long and fed grains instead of grass.
When humans began controlling the breeding of cows — which created the aurochs from the wild ox, and later the other breeds of domestic cows — this caused more suffering. Firstly, by preventing cows and bulls to choose the mates they liked, and forcing them to mate with each other even if they did not want to. Therefore, early forms of farming cows already had elements of reproduction abuse that would become sexual abuse later. Secondly, by forcing the cows to be pregnant more often — which would stress their bodies more and become older sooner — because both then and today only cows who have given birth produce milk, like any mammals. This is, by the way, one of the most hidden truths of the milk industry as many people still wrongly think that cows just happen to produce milk continuously and they do not need to get pregnant every year to produce it.
By being selective about who would breed with whom in order to change the morphology and physiology of the cows, different breeds were created. Because the farmers wanted more milk per cow, this selective breeding — which is an old fashion method of genetic engineering — led to an increase in the size of the cows’ udders. These genetically modified cows also were shorter, less agile, fatter, and less able to defend themselves from predators (who were still attacking them in the farms) than the wild oxes. But perhaps most importantly, the supersized udders were the cause of constant pain and discomfort due to the extra weight they had to carry and the injuries that may come from that. Generation after generation of applying artificial selection in the direction of “more productive” and “better manageable” cows, these animal welfare problems got worse with time.
The suffering caused by the traditional farming of cows did not end there. Because only cows give milk and bulls raised for meat are from a different breed than those raised from dairy, most of the calves who were born every year to force the cow to continue to produce milk were “disposed of” if they happened to be male (which would be around 50% of the cases), as they were considered surplus. This means that they would be killed immediately after being born (so as not to waste any of the mother’s milk), or a few weeks later to be consumed as veal. So, killing male calves has always been an integral part of the traditional farming of dairy cows.
Not only males are killed in traditional dairy cow farming, though. Because of all the suffering already mentioned, and all the stress, diseases, and exhaustion caused to traditionally farmed cows when forced to produce milk constantly, this made them decrease their milk production very quickly, so after just a few years the cows were also killed (when they were still young, many years before their time) and replaced by “fresher” ones (which also means herds never had old experienced cows to give security and stability to the group). And they were killed in all sorts of painful and distressing ways, even in cultures where religion regulated how to slaughter animals.
Finally, the cows were traded between farmers and moved with people who had emigrated to places that were not suitable for the cows to live — either because they were too cold, too hot, or without enough food. This meant that they were forced indoors more often, fed the wrong things more often, and perished from disease and malnutrition more often. But it also meant that many cows died during long transport (Christopher Columbus transported some cows to America in his 1493 voyage there, but who knows how many perished on the journey).
All this suffering was caused by the traditional farming of cows of the past, and it is still caused by the traditional farming of cows of the present, in those parts of the world where it is still practised in smaller farms. These small farms with just a few cows farmed in the traditional methods (sometimes labelled as organic grass-fed dairy farms) still cause separation anxiety by separating mother cows from their calves, still keep the cows captive, still keep them in unsanitary conditions leading to disease, still decide with whom they can reproduce, still have genetically modified cows with too bigger udders that cause pain, they still kill most male calves as they cost resources to raise and don’t produce milk, and they still kill the cows against their will when they are relatively young.
These causes of suffering in traditional farming can be found both in the smallest possible versions (a few cows in a farm where the milk is used for personal consumption and not commercialised) and the most modern ones under the umbrella of organic farming, holistic grazing, or regenerative animal agriculture — not to be confused with Regenerative Veganic Farming — which are commercial operations which, to attract more customers, often make exaggerated environmental and animal welfare claims that have already been debunked.
Farming cows and bulls cause them suffering, as they are sentient beings like humans are, and this suffering is unnecessary because it happens to produce an unnatural food (cows’ milk is only a natural food to their calves) most people in the world cannot digest properly (about 68% of the world’s population has lactose malabsorption).
The Industrial Farming of Dairy Cows
If you think that all the wrongs of traditional ways of farming cows were “corrected” in modern times when new methods replaced the old ones, you would be wrong. Each and every cause of suffering described above was made much worse with industrialised farming — and not just a little bit, but very much worse.
Around the 18th century, a series of discoveries in science, and a dramatic increase in the population of humans, drove a shift in agriculture towards industrialisation, and in the 19th-century’s industrial revolution, we see the birth of industrial agriculture — which aimed to produce more food with less effort. During the 1920s, farmers started the factory farming (or intensive farming) of chickens to make egg production more efficient, and after the second world war in the 1940s, factory farming took off in the UK and began expanding in other countries thanks to the development of antibiotics that allowed to keep more animals together for longer. In the 1970s, pig farms in the United States started to intensify, and in the 1980s factory farming, including the farming of cows for dairy production, dominated over any other type of animal farming in most industrialised countries in the world. The Sentience Institute estimated that 99% of farmed animals in the US were living on factory farms in 2019, which included 70.4% of cows farmed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2021 there were approximately 1.5 billion cows and bulls in the world, most of them in intensive farming.
In these intensive “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs), hundreds (in the US, at least 700 to qualify) or thousands of dairy cows are kept together and forced into a “production line” that has become increasingly mechanised and automatised. This involved being fed unnatural food for cows (mostly grains which consist of corn by-products, barley, alfalfa and cottonseed meal, supplemented with vitamins, antibiotics, and hormones), being kept indoors sometimes for their entire life, being milked with machines, and being killed in high-speed slaughterhouses. And such mega-farms are producing so much pollution and greenhouse gases (especially methane, which is far worse than CO2), that have now become a real threat to the entire planet.
Abduction of calves
Because agro-technology has not found a method of forcing the cows to produce milk without getting pregnant every few months, the separation anxiety caused by separating mothers from calves still happens in dairy factory farms, but now at a much bigger scale, not just in terms of the number of cows involved and the number of times it happens per cow but also because of the reduction of time the calves are allowed to be with their mother after birth (normally less than 24 hours).
With industrial farming, the reproductive abuse that traditional farming started has become sexual abuse, as cows are now inseminated artificially by a person who took the sperm of a bull also obtained by sexual abuse. Beginning when they are around 14 months old, dairy cows now are artificially impregnated and kept on a constant cycle of birth, milking, and more inseminations, until they are killed when they are 4 to 6 years old — when their bodies begin to break down from all the abuse.
The calves from dairy factory farms suffer much more now as there are many who, instead of being shot dead straight away, are moved to huge “veal farms”, where they are kept in isolation for weeks. There, they are fed artificial milk deficient in iron which makes them anaemic and changes their mussels to become more “palatable” to people. In these farms, they are often kept in very exposed fields to the elements — which, because they are deprived of the warmth and protection of their mothers, is another act of cruelty. The veal crates where they are often kept are small plastic huts, each with a fenced-in area not much bigger than the calf’s body. This is because, if they could run and jump — as they would do if they were free calves —they would develop tougher muscles, which is not what people who eat them like. In the US, after 16 to 18 weeks of missing their mothers in these farms, they are then killed and their flesh sold to veal eaters (in the UK a bit later, from six to eight months).
More cows, bulls and calves than ever are now being kept captive, and more of these are spending their entire life indoors without ever seeing a blade of grass. Cows are nomadic razers and their instinct is to wander through and graze on green fields. Even after centuries of domestication, this desire to be outside, eat grass, and move has not been bred out of them. However, in factory farming, dairy cows are kept indoors in cramped spaces, just standing or lying on their faeces — which they do not like — and they can hardly move. And in those farms that are allowed to be outside as they consider themselves “high welfare” farms, often they are taken indoors again for months during winter, as they are not adapted to the very cold or hot weather of the places they were forced to live (a heatwave in Kansas at the beginning of June 2022 caused the premature death of thousands of cows and bulls). Inhumane treatment by factory farm workers is common as most of those working in the industry consider animals as disposable commodities with no feelings.
The immune system of modern cows has been weakened by artificial breeding, and as they are now kept in higher numbers together, the risk of getting infectious diseases has rocketed. This has made dairy farmers add lots of antibiotics in their feed, which has created the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which keep making the cows ill (as well as risking the health of human populations). For instance, Bovine tuberculosis which affects cows and bulls has been an epidemic in British dairy farms for many years now, and it has even infected wild animals such as badgers — who have been shot in mass for it. The artificial methods of feeding factory-farmed cows have also created many new diseases they would not have in the wild, such as the infamous mad cow disease that was caused by feeding cows food containing dead cows — and which led to thousands of cows being killed even younger than they would have been killed in abattoirs. Also, because cows in factory farms are fed grains rather than grass, they develop nutritional diseases that include acidosis (which can lead to death). Finally, the unhygienic conditions cows have to endure in many factory farms also create disease, as is the case of several respiratory problems and burns on the animals’ feet caused by unhealthy levels of ammonia from urine.
Painful deformed bodies
The pain cows endure for getting udders that are far too big for their bodies due to the genetic manipulation animal farming does has become worse, as the sizes have continued to grow. Milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past 40 years. A non-farmed cow would naturally produce around 264 gallons of milk for her calf over ten months, but the average milk production in dairy factory farms is about 2,641 gallons per cow (some produce as much as 5,283 gallons per year). Many factory farm cows can no longer walk properly now due to their painfully swollen udders. Also, mastitis, a very painful infection of the udders, has become an epidemic among modern farmed cows. In the UK, there could be as many as 70% of cases of mastitis per herd every year. Factory-farmed cows also often suffer from lameness and experience pain when walking. Many dairy cows in factory farms had their horns painfully removed to prevent them from using them against each other in the cramped conditions they are kept. Ear tagging, and sometimes, tail docking, are also painful procedures performed on some factory-farmed cows and bulls.
Male calves in dairy factory farms continue to be killed soon after birth as they would continue to be unable to produce milk when they grow up. However, now there are killed in much higher numbers, because technology has also been unable to reduce the proportion of male calves born, so still 50% of the pregnancies needed to keep the cows producing milk will end up with male calves being born — killed soon after birth or a few weeks later. The UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) estimates that of the almost 400,000 male calves born on dairy farms each year, 60,000 are killed on-farm within a few days of birth. It is estimated that the number of calves slaughtered in the US in 2019 was 579,000, and that number has been increasing since 2015.
Execution of the innocent
Dairy cows continue to be killed when still young after their milk production decreases (labelled then as “spent”) but in factory farming that means much younger, after just four or five years (they could live up to 20 years if they are removed from farms), because their lives are much harder and stressful, so their milk production decreases quicker (and the farmers’ greed for milk has increased over time when prizes have gone down due to the high number of cows exploited in factory farms). By the use of hormones (Bovine somatotropin is used to increase milk production in dairy cows), removing the calves sooner, and inseminating the cows when they are still producing milk — which is a very unnatural situation — the body of the cow is under pressure to use many resources at the same time, so they become “spent” sooner. They are now executed in mass in slaughterhouses, often having their throats cut, or with a bold shot in the head. There, they will all line up to their demise, possibly feeling terrified because of hearing, seeing, or smelling other cows being killed before them. Those final horrors of the lives of dairy cows are the same for those bred in the worse factory farms and those bred in the organic “high welfare” grass-fed razing farms — they both end up being transported against their will and killed in the same slaughterhouses when they are still young. In the US, 33.7 million cows and bulls were slaughtered in 2019. In the EU, 10.5 million cows were slaughtered in 2022. According to Faunalytics, a total of 293.2 million cows and bulls were slaughtered in 2020 in the world.
Cows continue to suffer long journeys inside lorries, trains, or ships, being transported from country to country to perpetuate their cycle of suffering around the world. For example, on 21st November 2021, up to 14,000 cows left New Zealand to travel uncomfortably for days to China in a purpose-built huge ship. All cows in industrialised farms will be forced to do their final journey to the slaughterhouse inside cramped trucks — sometimes for days. On these horrible journeys, they may be hungry or thirsty but often they will not be fed or given a drink — or even the opportunity to rest as there is no room and the vehicle may be in constant motion. They may be cold or hot from being exposed to harsh weather, and may die before they arrive at the slaughterhouse.
Cows and bulls are sensitive animals who should never have been domesticated and farmed by people in the first place. There is nothing good coming from farming cows as it creates widespread and serious suffering to millions of sentient beings. And you will find this suffering in all types of farms, no matter the size (small non-commercial traditional farms, middle-size regenerative organic “high welfare” ranches, or huge indoor factory farms). And all for products humans do not really need and producing them harms the entire planet.
That is the truth about farming dairy cows.