Most dairy products for human consumption comes from cows’ milk. The majority of consumers are unaware of the harsh realities of the dairy industry and the ethical implications for dairy cows and their calves.
Cattle (bovine) are large herbivorous animals that have been domesticated for many centuries. Various breeds have been selectively bred by humans in two main categories, either for meat or dairy. The main dairy breeds are adapted to cool climatic climatic conditions as they were developed in the Channel Islands and The Netherlands. Bovine are herd animals that graze naturally on grass pastures. The herd would normally function as an extended family unit with a complex hierarchical structure. Bovine relate to each other in many ways and form close bonds, the strongest of which is between the cow and her calf.
Modern dairy herds comprise cows only. For continuous milk production efficiency, cows need to calve every year. In the absence of bulls, cows are routinely artificially inseminated at what is euphemistically referred to as ‘the rape rack’. Cows remain pregant for nine months. They give birth to calves that are routinely removed either at birth or after 2-3 days. Rarely calves are allowed to remain with their mothers for up to two weeks. The reason for leaving the calves with their mothers at all is for them to suckle colostrum, which the cow produces for the first few days, and is essential for the calf as it contains vital antibodies that form the basis of its immunity and are absorbed directly through the stomach. Heifers are retained for replenishing the herd. Bull or bobby calves are considered a burden in the dairy industry and dairy breeds are not suitable for raising as beef. Nevertheless they are sold cheaply at auctions and many of them end up in poor circumstances, improperly fed and prone to disease. The orphaned heifers are sometimes kept in groups, but usually confined to individual crates to prevent contact with others. Heifers are fed artificial milk substitute and introduced to solid food from an early age. As horns are not desirable in dairy herds, heifers are dehorned, a very painful procedure where the calf is restrained and the horn bud cut out, after which the wound is cauterized with a hot iron. This procedure is usually performed without sedation, anaesthetic, or pain relief. When the heifers are older they are impregnated and join the rest of the herd.
High producing milk cows have abnormally large udders. They produce about 30-50 litres of milk per day. They are milked two to three times daily by machine. Although cows live naturally for 15-20 years, dairy cows’ milk production starts to decline after 4-5 years when they are deemed spent and sent to the abattoir for slaughter.
In retail advertising cows are often depicted grazing in pastures. But in reality most dairy cows are kept in barns in a variety of systems: either tethered or allowed to move around freely in the barn. Some barns have open sides, theoretically allowing cows to ‘range freely’ outside. Grazing on pasture is usually limited to 2-3 months of the year due to climatic and pasture conditions, so cows are fed hay in the barns. In South Africa most regions are simply too hot during the day for cows to venture outside so they remain indoors where there are sometimes air cooling systems. Under these conditions of restricted excecise, lameness is rife and mastitis not uncommon. Kwazulu-Natal is the only region in SA where dairy cows can be maintained predominantly on grass pastures. All dairy cows need supplementary concentrates to stimulate milk yields. This feed usually contains GMOs. On some farms cows are also injected with growth hormones to increase milk yield.