The Myth of Happy Dairy Cows

The Myth of Happy Dairy Cows

Many people grow up with the myth of the happy cow. Thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on dairy advertising each year in the U.S. alone, we rarely stop to question why we would “need” the milk of another animal.

In fact, milk consumption is so entrenched in our culture as normal and natural that many adults do not even realize cows don’t just spontaneously produce milk. Cows, like all mammals, make milk only to feed their babies. They must give birth in order to lactate.

To keep them producing at profitable yields, cows are repeatedly reimpregnated, usually once a year via invasive artificial insemination techniques.

In many respects, cows used for dairy suffer more than cows killed for beef.

Forced Separation of Mothers and Calves

Like human mothers, cows carry their babies for nine months before giving birth. After a long and painful labor, their calves are immediately taken from them so that their milk can be used for human consumption.

Dairy cows endure this process roughly once a year, until their productivity declines and they are slaughtered, usually at four or five years of age.1 In a natural environment, cows can live 20 years or more. 2

Due to extensive genetic manipulation, today’s dairy cows produce up to 12 times more milk than they would naturally produce to feed a calf.3

Despite these unnaturally large quantities, dairy producers still take calves away from their mothers within hours or days of birth in order to maximize milk profits.

According to the USDA, 97% of newborn dairy calves are removed from their mothers within the first 12 hours.4

On humane label dairy farms, calves are often taken away within the first hour of birth, based on the idea that separation of mother and calf is less traumatic the shorter the time they have to bond. But cows are highly devoted mothers, and their bodies have spent nine months preparing to nurture their newborns.

The cow in the video below has just had her calf taken from her.

See also: A Young Mother’s Plea to Mothers Everywhere

Isolation and Confinement

More than 90% of U.S. dairy cows are confined in primarily indoor operations, with more than 60% of them tethered by the neck inside barren stalls, unable to perform the most basic natural behaviors essential to their well-being.6

Some of the better humane certification labels permit dairy cows to live on pasture, which results in improved welfare as compared to confined cows.

However, even on small farms and humane label dairy farms, calves are torn from their mothers at birth, or very soon thereafter.

Female dairy calves in hutchesFemale dairy calves spend their first 8 to 12 weeks confined in individual hutches with no maternal contact or nurturing during the time they seek it most.

Female calves typically spend their first two months of life confined in lonely hutches with no maternal nurturing, no bodily contact with other calves, and no room to play or run. They are fed a milk replacer while humans consume their mothers’ milk.

Like their factory farm counterparts, pastured dairy cows are also slaughtered at only a fraction of their natural lifespan, when their milk production declines. In the U.S. alone, approximately three million dairy cows are slaughtered each year, processed into supermarket ground beef and restaurant hamburgers.7

See also: The Spiked Nose Ring: A Symbol for All Dairy Cruelty

Dairy = Veal

The veal industry would not exist without the dairy industry.

The constant cycle of forced pregnancy and birth that dairy cows endure creates a huge number of “excess” calves. Because male calves cannot produce milk and are not the breed preferred for beef, they are typically sold to be slaughtered for veal.

Newborn dairy calves, many too weak too stand, are taken from their mothers and loaded onto transport trucks for auction. Photo: Compassion Over Killing.

Newborn dairy calves, many too weak too stand, are taken from their mothers and loaded onto transport trucks for auction. Photo: Compassion Over Killing.

Approximately 750,000 calves are killed for veal each year in the U.S.11 

The majority of veal calves are raised in confinement in isolated hutches, crates or stalls. Hundreds of thousands of veal calves languish in crates so narrow, they cannot even turn around.

But even on higher welfare farms where calves are raised on pasture or in group housing, they suffer tremendously when taken from their mothers during the time they need them most.

Calves used for veal are typically killed between 14 and 16 weeks of age. About 15% of the calves killed for veal in the U.S. are sold as “bob veal,” meaning they were slaughtered at only 1-3 weeks old. “Bob veal” is used to make hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats.12

Numerous investigations into dairy calf ranches, veal farms, and calf slaughter facilities reveal unspeakable conditions of abuse and suffering.

Organic Factory Farms

Sexual violation of dairy cows, and forced separation of calves from their mothers, are also standard practice on organic dairy farms. As this pasture-based, organic dairy and veal farmer plainly admits of his agitated cows (see clip): “They are looking for their babies.”

Aurora Organic Dairy operates at least five giant factory farms, each with thousands of animals, in both Colorado and Texas. Female calves languish in lonely hutches. Many calves do not survive. Photo: Cornucopia Institute

Aurora Organic Dairy operates at least five giant factory farms in Colorado and Texas. Many calves do not survive. Photo: Cornucopia Institute

Additionally, several of the largest organic dairy labels in the U.S., including Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy, operate massive factory farm-style dairy facilities that are repeatedly cited for animal welfare violations.

On these industrial organic operations, thousands of dairy cows spend much or most of their time enclosed in filthy, barren feedlots, while female calves languish in lonely hutches.

See also: The Cornucopia Institute’s investigations into Aurora Organic and Horizon Organic dairies, and Horizon Organic Accused of Being a Factory Farm.

Take a Virtual Tour

This slideshow provides a tour of a small dairy and veal farm. While the welfare standards are significantly higher, the animals’ loneliness can be felt even in photos.

No Need for Dairy — Mothers’ Milk is Species-Specific

Humans have no biological need to consume the mothers’ milk of other animals.

Mammals’ milk is species specific, meaning the only milk we need to consume comes from our own mothers, and only while we are infants.

calf nursingHuman milk contains exactly the right ratio of fatty acids, lactose, protein and amino acids for human infant development, whereas cows’ milk contains concentrations of hormones and proteins designed to turn an 80-pound calf into an 800-pound cow by one year of age.

Cows’ milk is not created for human consumption, and is a major cause of childhood allergies, asthma13, ear infections, eczema and other skin rashes14, cholesterol buildup in arteries15, and is consistently linked to several cancers, childhood diabetes, and obesity.16

What You Can Do

Vegan Smoked Harvest Cheddar from The Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook

Vegan Harvest Cheddar from The Non-Dairy Evolution Cookbook

Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to ditch dairy cruelty.

There are a wide variety of delicious plant-based dairy alternatives, from ice cream and cheese to milk, yogurt, butter, and sour cream.

Not only are these products better for the animals, but they’re better for your health and for the environment as well.

Learn more with this Guide to Going Dairy-Free and our Better Choices page.


1. Albert DeVries, “Cow longevity economics – the cost benefit of keeping the cow in the herd,” Accessed 7/21/2014 from:—the-cost-benefit-of-keeping-the-cow-in-the-herd/

2. Nowak RM. 1997. Walker’s Mammals of the World 5.1. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

3. Lyons DT, Freeman AE and Kuck AL. 1991. Genetics of health traits in Holstein cattle. Journal of Dairy Science 74 (3): 1092-100

4. (3) “Colostrum Feeding and Management on U.S. Dairy Operations, 1991-2007,” USDA, Feb. 2009. Accessed 7/21/2014 from:

5. “The Welfare of Animals in the Veal Industry,” Humane Society of the United States. Accessed 10/31/2014 from:

6. “The Welfare of Cows in the Dairy Industry,” Humane Society of the United States. Accessed 7/21/2014 from:

7. “Livestock Slaughter 2013 Summary,” USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014. Accessed 7/21/2014 from:

8. “Ag 101: Dairy Lifecycle Production Phases,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed 7/21/2014 from:

9. “Calf Slaughter by Country in 1,000 Head,” Index Mundi: Animal Numbers. Accessed 7/21/2014 from:

10. “Frequently Asked Questions,” The American Veal Association. Accessed 10/31/2014 from:

11. “The American Veal Industry: Producing a Special Product,” The American Veal Association. Accessed 11/2/2014 from:

12. “The Welfare of Animals in the Veal Industry,” Humane Society of the United States. Accessed 10/31/2014 from:

13. Dr. Tricia Pingel, NMD, “The Link Between Dairy Allergies, Chronic Ear Infections, and Asthma.” Accessed 10/31/2014 from:

14. Koletzsko, S., Niggeman B. 2012. “Diagnostic Approach and Management of
Cow’s-Milk Protein Allergy in Infants and Children: ESPGHAN GI Committee Practical Guidelines.” Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition 55 (2): 221-229 Accessed 11/2/2014 from:

15. “Health Concerns About Dairy Products,” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Accessed 11/2/2014 from:

16. “Health Concerns About Dairy Products,” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Accessed 11/2/2014 from:

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