All beings tremble before violence. All fear death, all love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do? ~ The Buddha
The vast consumption of dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt make the industry a powerful corporate entity in most parts of the world. Dairy is a multibillion dollar industry providing employment for farmers as well as others in processing and distribution plants. Its continued success is contingent on billions of consumers who buy their products, so marketing is a crucial multi million dollar endeavour . An increasingly informed and ethically minded public is a major challenge to all such businesses.
Some of the less well known facts about the dairy industry as outlined below,raise some significant ethical questions. The main source of these facts is a report on the Australian dairy industry by the organization Voiceless (last updated in April 2015). Read the full Voiceless report here
Some of the key facts in the report are summarized below.
- A female mammal (cow, goat, sheep etc) will not produce milk until she has given birth. After the birth she produces milk to raise her baby (calf, kid, lamb).
- On dairy farms in Australia, the cows give birth to a new calf every 13 months (on average). This ensures the cow maintains maximum milk production during her productive life.
- It is not profitable or practical for the farms to allow the calves to stay with their mother so they are taken away shortly after the birth. Standard practice in Australia is that the calves are taken within 12 hours of the birth.
- The male calves (approximately 50% of births), and many of the females known as bobby calves, are either killed on the farm or are sent to slaughter, mostly within 5 days of their birth.
- At the time of the report, the number of these calves killed each year in Australia was approximately 800,000. This will increase as demand for dairy products increase.
- The bobby calves are not generally raised for meat. As they come from cows bred for milk production it is uneconomical to grow them for meat. Even if they were, this would only mean they would be kept alive for on average 12 – 18 more months (like cattle raised for beef).
- There is strong evidence that separating the mother and calf is very stressful for them. Mother cows are known to bellow day and night in search of their calf. Also see for example evidence on animals emotions of joy, fear, love, despair, and grief. See report findings here
- On average a dairy cow is no longer viable after 7 or 8 years so is sent to slaughter. Her lifespan would normally be around 20 years.
- The following is a summary of a dairy cows life according to the Voiceless investigation; The milking cow’s life on the modern dairy consists of being pushed to her physical milk producing limits for 7 or 8 years, then she is sent to slaughter. This life includes the annual trauma of birth followed by separation from her calf. This life makes her susceptible to painful diseases like lameness and mastitis. While their natural lifespan is much longer, after seven or eight years, milking cows milk production inevitably drops as she becomes worn out, or due to repeated bouts of mastitis. At this time she is put in a truck and sent to slaughter. Read the full voiceless report on dairy here.
Alternatives to Mainstream Dairy
Niche small organic dairy farms do exist but are rare and account for a tiny portion of milk production. Even in these farms there will always be financial pressure with a risk the animals will be neglected.
There are other mammals used for their milk such as goats and sheep. These animals have the exact same biological fundamentals and the businesses will be under the same financial pressures so there is no reason to think that different practices would be followed.
There are many plant based alternatives to dairy which provide all the nutritional requirements. To read about health, nutritional and food related issues including dairy alternatives, refer to the “Vegan” tab on this website.
Additional Links & Resources
 Voiceless. 2015. Dairy Cows. [ONLINE]Available at: https://www.voiceless.org.au/the-issues/dairy-cows