The Truth About The Dairy Industry

In the past three decades, dairy cows have been selectively bred to double their milk production. In 1979 they were producing 2,848 litres and now they are producing 5,525 litres. The dairy industry has led us to believe that dairy cows live ideal lives, give birth, feed their young and welcome their daily milking.

But the truth is somewhat different. Cows are kept continually pregnant so they keep producing milk. In order for a heifer to begin producing milk, it is necessary for her to fall pregnant and give birth to a new calf. As milk production begins to fall quite rapidly after nine months, and two to three months is needed to prepare for the next parturition, she will generally be forced to give birth to a calf every 13 months to ensure that she continues producing a high volume of milk into the next year.

The dairy industry discards cows when they are no longer profitable. They are killed prematurely at around 6 years of age, due to illness, injury, infertility, mastitis and lameness. They are transported to saleyards or straight to the abattoir – their weak, bony frames tell a story of suffering.


Calf Separation

The separation of cow and calf is an integral yet distressing part of modern commercial dairying.

The calves, whether male or female, are taken from their mothers soon after birth causing clear distress to both mother and calf. There is now an extensive body of research on maternal behaviour in cows that allows us an understanding of the issues surrounding birth and the harmful impact of separating calves before they are naturally weaned.

Cows are deeply maternal animals, and they will engage in a number of diverse behaviours to ensure the growth and survival of their calves. Scientific evidence now tells us that dairy cows are affected by the separation process.

Behavioural responses indicating stress include restlessness, sniffing, increased vocalisations and activities that would naturally serve to reunite the cow and calf upon separation. For days after their separation, a mother can bellow day and night in search of her calf, often returning to the place where the calf was last seen. There have even been instances of mothers escaping and travelling for miles to find their calves on other farms.

Both behavioural and physiological distress responses become more intense with late separation and when mother cows are able to see and hear their calf. In addition to time spent together, experience also has a role to play, as cows who have given birth more than once will have a stronger response to separation. Studies also show a mother cow’s heart rate will increase when they hear a recording of a calf’s call.


Bobby Calves

Around 700,000 calves are transported live for commercial slaughter each year, sold for use in pet food, leather goods, the pharmaceutical industry or to be processed into pink veal for human consumption. The remainder will be slaughtered on-farm at or soon after birth.

In Australia, bobby calves can be transported at just five days of age, and are often required to travel long distances to slaughterhouses and saleyards. Live animal transport can be a severely stressful process for animals. This is particularly the case for young calves.

  • Hunger and thirst
    Calves are inevitably hungry and thirsty during transport. The dairy industry has committed to a voluntary standard which will allow milk to be withheld from calves for up to 30 hours. Water can also be withheld from five day old calves for up to 18 hours, despite potentially being subjected to high stocking densities and extreme heat en route.
  • Exhaustion
    Cows and calves are unlikely to lie down in the first 15 hours of transport due to stress, which is unnatural for newborns. They are also likely to suffer from sleep deprivation due to the stress of travel and restrictions on movement
  • Bruising and injuries
    Bruising and injuries are frequently observed in animals following transport (particularly those travelling long distance) as a result of rough handling, increased aggression from mixing unfamiliar animals, poor vehicular design and vehicular movement. As calves lack any learned herd behaviour, they are also less likely to move willingly in groups, meaning they’re more likely to be handled roughly by stockpersons.
  • Deaths en route
    While dairy cows and their calves generally do not suffer high mortality rates associated with transport, studies indicate that transported calves are more likely to die than those that remain on-farm, and that this mortality increases exponentially with the distance travelled. It is estimated that approximately 4,500 calves would die en route annually in the current industry, not including sick or injured calves that will die on arrival.
  • Illness
    Calves often succumb to post-transport respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Depending on the time of year and location, they may also suffer from either thirst, heat stress or hypothermia.


On Farm Calf Slaughter

Calves who are not transported to farms, sale-yards or slaughterhouses are either sold for dairy or beef rearing or killed on-farm. It is estimated that over 65,740 calves are slaughtered on-farm each year, their carcasses either immediately disposed of or processed at local knackeries.

Alarmingly, the Queensland Government’s website advises under the heading “Humane killing of premature and day-old calves” that ‘Blunt trauma and bleeding out’ is an acceptable method of killing a newborn calf.

“It requires a single firm blow to the front of the poll with a heavy blunt instrument. A short-handled club hammer, approximately 1.2kg with a striking face of 4cm x 4cm, is suitable.”

Manually applied blunt trauma has been found by veterinary experts to be a cruel, imprecise and inhumane method of slaughter that cannot and should not be justified on economic grounds. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) deems it an unacceptable method of euthanasia for calves because their skulls are too hard to achieve immediate unconsciousness or death. Furthermore, the method requires considerable skill to be successful on the first attempt and the degree of restraint required makes consistency near impossible.


Dehorning and disbudding

Disbudding and dehorning are standard mutilation practices used to remove or stop the growth of horns in livestock. Despite claims to the contrary, all methods of dehorning and disbudding cause chronic and acute pain to calves and adult cows.

Disbudding is the removal of the horn bud (and horn producing cells) before it attaches to a calf’s skull, and is usually performed on calves less than two months of age. Disbudding typically involves the removal of the horn bud with a hot iron scoop or through chemical (caustic) application. Dehorning is the process of removing the horn and surrounding tissue of older dairy calves and adult cows after the horns have attached to their skull. This is performed using a variety of tools, including a dehorning knife, hand and electric saws, guillotine shears or scoop dehorners. While the dairy industry recognises that both procedures are painful, both dehorning and disbudding can be routinely performed in all Australian jurisdictions without pain relief.

Dehorning video from Animals Australia.


Tail docking

While not currently permitted in Queensland, it is performed by many dairy farmers throughout Australia. Tail docking involves the amputation of a cow’s tail, usually without pain relief. While this painful practice is no longer endorsed by the Australian dairy industry, and under proposed reforms, may soon be prohibited, it is currently legal in many Australian jurisdictions and was performed by 18% of dairy farmers in 2012.

Tails can be docked using a number of methods, including the application of a rubber ring to a calf’s tail, the use of a hot docking iron to sear off the tail or amputation with a knife.

Tail docking can cause acute and chronic pain and the use of a local anesthetic offers little to no pain relief for cows. Accordingly, veterinary associations and animal protection groups both in Australia and globally want to ban tail docking.


Calving induction

Calving induction is the use of hormone treatment to unnaturally induce labour in pregnant cows. While this practice affects only a small percentage of dairy cows, the welfare implications are significant.

The procedure can be detrimental to mother and calf alike, increasing the risk of cows suffering infectious disease and death. Induced calves are also at risk of being stillborn or born prematurely and subsequently killed immediately after birth. Dairy Australia reported in 2012 that 20% of farms used induction, but only 2.1% of dairy cows in Australia are induced. With 1.63 million productive dairy cows in Australia in 2012, 2.1% indicates that roughly 34,230 cows were induced that year. Recent estimates from dairy veterinarians in 2013 indicate this figure to be almost double at 4% of the national herd, with around 66,000 cows estimated as being induced.

There are clear welfare concerns associated with the use of calving induction.

  • Premature and unnecessary calf death – calves who have been induced are more likely to be stillborn or born prematurely (and then killed immediately), compared with non-induced calves.
  • Retained foetal membrane – the procedure increases the risk that the foetal membrane (or placenta) is not expelled after birth. Cows suffering from retained foetal membranes are at an increased risk of developing diseases (such as metritis, ketosis and mastitis) and possible abortion in later pregnancies.
  • Maternal death – induction weakens a cow’s immune system, which means she could die from infection, such as those contracted from a retained foetal membrane.
  • Calving difficulty – smaller calves may not be positioned correctly at calving, which can create complications during birth and increase risk of infection.



Lameness is a serious issue within the Australian dairy industry. This disorder can result in the cow experiencing significant pain and discomfort, as well as increased risk of early slaughter.

Lameness is a structural or functional condition which usually affects a cow’s limbs inhibiting her ability to walk, stand up, lie down or move around. Lameness can be a result of either excessive wear, foot lesions, or infectious disease such as foot rot.

Despite the dairy industry seeking to address lameness through R&D initiatives, Australian dairy cows continue to suffer from this condition, particularly in larger herds, requiring urgent improvements both at a farm and industry level.

It is difficult to know how common lameness is among dairy cows in Australia because statistics are not routinely collected by industry or government. In 2008, lameness was estimated to affect 28% of Australian dairy cows, whilst a survey of Victorian farmers conducted in 2002 suggested the incidence of lameness in a 12 month period was about 7.3%.362 The disparity may be attributed to differences in defining what constitutes lameness. It is important to note that these figures are highly likely to underestimate the problem because there is presently no mandatory reporting or monitoring requirements for lameness in Australia.

It has also been suggested that part of the difficulty in early lameness detection may come from the fact that herd sizes are increasing, giving farmers less time to appropriately monitor each animal. If this is the case, as the average herd size continues to increase in Australia, so too would the incidence and prevalence of lameness.



Mastitis is a common disease which affects the udders of commercial dairy cows. Research shows that even a mild case of mastitis can make daily activities painful and distressing. Mastitis is an inflammation of the mammary gland caused by the invasion of bacteria into the udder via the teat canal. The disease can be transmitted contagiously between cows or caused by environmental factors, such as poor hygiene, which increases the risk of exposure to the bacteria that cause mastitis. Once entering the body, the bacteria can multiply, causing an infection which may result in a painful, inflamed udder.

The RSPCA estimates that around 10-15% of Australian dairy cows are affected by clinical mastitis. Industry efforts to address this problem, although significant, have focused mainly on the economic implications of the disease rather than its effect on cow welfare. Increasing milk demands, forced repeated pregnancies and genetic selection to favour production traits over welfare (such as oversized, pendulous udders) have resulted in mastitis becoming a widespread problem in the dairy industry. As mastitis infections can be very costly to individual farmers there is a temptation to send ‘repeat offenders’ to the slaughterhouse.


Live export of dairy heifers and cows

Australia is one of the few countries to live export dairy heifers and cows overseas as breeder stock. To feed the world’s growing appetite for dairy products, these animals are shipped long distances in stressful conditions to countries with little or no animal welfare protections.

In 2013, Australia live exported around 850,923 cattle overseas, the majority of whom were shipped and slaughtered for their meat. Around 10% were dairy heifers and cows exported from Australia as breeding stock. These animals will not be initially slaughtered for their meat but instead are used for their milk and to grow dairy herds overseas.

Live export poses serious welfare concerns both in regards to the extreme conditions endured during the journey and the welfare standards animals meet once they reach their destination. Despite this, breeder animals have fewer formal legal protections than meat animals who are exported live. The offspring of Australian dairy cattle exported overseas have even less protection and face an uncertain life.


Growing industry

Growing consumer demand for cheap dairy products, especially within Australia, has exacerbated pressures on both dairy farmers and dairy cows. Over the years, the impact of increasing consumer demand for cheap milk has forced dairy farmers to maximise their productive output while reducing their overall operative costs. The implications of high production dairying on the modern dairy cow are immense and it is a critical factor in most of the welfare concerns listed here. The true cost of cheap milk, therefore, is ultimately paid by the dairy cow.


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