What You Need to Know About Humane Dairy

Rare footage of how male calves born on humane dairy farms are killed.

As the general public becomes increasingly aware of the horrific conditions on factory farm dairies, more and more consumers are turning to so-called “humane” dairy labels. While some of these labels do ensure marginally more protections to cows exploited for their mothers’ milk (for example, not having their tails chopped off without pain-killer), it’s important to understand that even humane label dairy production depends, at its core, on the exploitation of female reproduction, and the destruction of motherhood.

So-called humane dairy farming also involves the slaughter of male calves born on the farm. Since males cannot produce milk, and have not been selectively bred for competitive meat characteristics, they are considered more or less worthless without the veal market. Indeed, the veal industry would not exist without the dairy industry. I have spoken with dozens of dairy farmers, including several certified by the most rigorous humane animal welfare labels in the U.S.: they all take the calves away from their mothers, and they all raise or sell the male calves for veal. The veal industry is the dairy industry.

The sadistic practices of the veal industry are by now notorious: confining calves to crates or stalls so small they cannot even turn around; chaining them by the necks to further restrict their movement, as veal is prized for its tenderness (and thus the less exercise and muscle development, the better); feeding them iron-deficient formula in order to promote the anemic pale color traditionally cherished in veal. But on so-called humane or higher welfare veal farms, calves are often allowed to graze and, on the rare farm, even allowed to nurse from a “surrogate” mother; a cow specially kept to nurse all the forcibly orphaned calves.

humane dairy

A newborn dairy calf.

Most, though, are fed by bottle and/or a modified “mommy bucket.” One celebrated “humane” veal farmer writes: “There is another reason I choose to use bottles for the first 2-4 weeks— the calves will become extremely tame and follow your wiggling fingers, making them much easier to lead as they grow larger. Calves will willingly jump on to a stock trailer at the sight of a bottle or mommy bucket… Because of this practice, I have been loading my calves by myself for years now when it’s time to harvest them.”

Harvest? She goes on: “I want to make this clear from the start– I DO NOT kill, slaughter, butcher or murder my calves…they are HARVESTED. Just like other farmers, I’m raising a crop destined to provide sustenance for human consumers.”

So after two to four months of a blissful, motherless existence, the calves— er, the crop— are “humanely harvested” for “rose veal” or “pastured, suckling veal.” That waterfall sound at 1:09 in the video above? It’s the sound of life pouring out of a humanely stabbed calf.


I recently spoke with an organic dairy farmer whose farm last year was recognized by the Humane Society of the United States with their “humane dairy” endorsement, and whose dairy products boast the prestigious Animal Welfare Approved label, which carries with it the most rigorous animal welfare certification standards in the country.

Yet despite all the accolades, calves born on this exemplary dairy farm are separated from their mothers at birth just as they are on nearly all dairy farms, small or large; taking calves away from their mothers (in order for humans to take their milk) is a universal dairying practice. I asked the farmer if the mothers get upset when their babies are taken. “Yes they do. Cows have a full range of emotions just like humans do. They look around, they’re agitated, get upset, cry, but most are usually okay after about a week.”

A calf just separated from his mother tries desperately to get back to her.

I asked what happens to calves born male on the farm. Are they sold for veal like most male dairy calves? Yes, he told me, his organic dairy farm has two primary markets for their male calves. One is the “humanely raised,” “suckled veal” market: “They graze and are not in crates, and they are killed at around 4 months of age,” the farmer said.

The other avenue for his male dairy calves is the halal meat market there. I cringed, imagining calves having their throats slit while still fully conscious, as happens in many halal slaughterhouses. But he assured me no, the calves are shot point blank in the head. “They do it right here on our farm.”

The calves are shot point blank in the head.

They do it right there on the farm.

And they get a humane award for that.


Forcibly impregnating other animals, taking away their babies, killing their babies, all in order to steal the mothers’ milk of another species exclusively intended for those babies, and for which humans have no need; this can only be called humane in a state of willed delusion.

Please learn more at our comprehensive Dairy Page. Get tips on delicious plants-based milks, cheeses and more at Your Guide to Going Dairy Free.

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