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When we think of dairy farms, we may think of happy black and white cows spending their days in rolling green fields. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality for most cows being raised to produce milk. Instead, cows are kept in large dirt feedlots or increasingly housed entirely indoors in large sheds along with hundreds of others being impregnated repeatedly so that they will produce milk year after year, only to have their calves taken from them every time. As the number of dairy farms in the United States continues to dwindle and the number of cows on each farm increases, the lives of dairy cows grow ever more grim.
Dairy farming consists of raising animals for their ability to produce milk. A variety of different animals are raised in this way. Buffalo produce 15 percent of global milk supply, goats produce 2 percent, sheep produce 1 percent, and camels produce 0.5 percent. The farmed animals responsible for producing the largest percentage of milk are cattle, who are responsible for 81 percent of all milk production around the world. In addition to being drunk, milk is also used to make many food items such as cheese and yogurt, and is an ingredient in cuisines around the world.
In the United States, 2.2 billion pounds of milk were produced in 2021. The vast majority of this milk came from cattle raised in industrial factory farming systems. Each of these factory farms, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), houses a minimum of 700 cattle, but often they house many more. The cows housed in these large-scale production facilities are confined and never given the opportunity to graze on pasture. On top of the animal welfare concerns that this style of production entails, factory farms also have a profound negative impact on the environment.
Most dairy farms in the United States are factory farms, or CAFOs. These operations are characterized by a large number of animals housed in a relatively small area that have feed brought to them instead of having the ability to go out and forage. The number of animals farmed is not the only determinant of whether a farm officially counts as a CAFO—a farm automatically becomes a CAFO if it discharges waste into a waterway.
Though the dairy industry seeks to convince consumers that the life of a dairy cow is one free of pain, the reality is that the cattle raised for their milk on factory farms endure a large amount of suffering during their short lives. This suffering stems primarily from the intrinsic nature of dairy farming and the intensification of the industry.
In order to produce milk, dairy cows must get pregnant. This leads to a life in which they are repeatedly, forcibly impregnated through artificial insemination to keep them producing milk and thus maintain productivity. This constant productivity, along with the frequently poor hygiene of their housing, leads to a high incidence of mastitis: inflammation of the mammary tissue. Dairy cattle also suffer from a high rate of lameness—estimated to be between 40 and 50 percent. In addition, the cows are subjected to mutilations such as tail docking, dehorning, and disbudding that can cause chronic pain.
Another area that can lead to a large amount of suffering for dairy cattle is the handling they endure at the hands of staff. Cows are handled at various times, including during medical procedures such as artificial insemination when a staff member’s hand is placed into the cow’s anus and a rod is inserted into the vagina to deposit semen; during transportation; and often for milking. Though the very nature of this handling is often violent, reports have demonstrated that staffers can be outright abusive to the cattle in their care.
Although calves’ natural weaning period averages about eight months, calves are removed from their mothers within the first 24-72 hours of their birth, once the mother’s colostrum has cleared. Cows often low (moo) for their lost calves for days or weeks after their calves are taken from them. At that point, the milk that would have been the calf’s is instead taken for human consumption in the milking parlor. Some female calves are retained and reared to be used to maintain the dairy herd. Others, along with the males (who are not useful to the dairy industry since they do not produce milk) are sold for veal or low-quality beef; in this way, the dairy industry maintains the veal industry. These calves are often relocated to individual hutches, where they are isolated not only from their mothers but from one another. The crates prevent exercise and normal muscle growth in order to produce more tender veal. Research has found that removing calves from their mothers at this young age causes long term effects on the calves’ stress levels and social behavior.
Dairy farming is practiced all over the world. The main features that alter as one crosses borders and between geographic regions are the scale of production and the species of animal raised. In many lower-income countries, the animals that are relied on for milk tend to be raised by smaller farmers such as individual households that use the milk as a source of both income and nutrition.
In higher-income countries, such as the United States, dairy farming tends to be practiced on a larger scale, with hundreds of animals housed on factory farms. In countries that employ large-scale, industrial methods of production the animals most commonly raised are cattle that have been specifically bred to produce a large quantity of milk, whereas in many other parts of the world other animals are better suited to the environment.
In the United States, Wisconsin and New York are losing dairies, while Idaho, Arizona, and California are seeing an influx of larger dairies. Although dairies are water intensive operations that require irrigated feed, America is increasingly raising cattle in arid regions where water supplies are declining.
The number of dairy farms in the United States has been decreasing in recent years and presently sits under 30,000. In 2019, the state of Wisconsin alone lost 826 dairy farms, or 10 percent of its dairy herds. The reduction in the number of dairy farms in the country is tied to the increase in dairy farms that follow an intensive, industrial style of production. Because these farms house more cows, they are able to produce milk at a lower cost and a larger scale.
Intensive farming is a term given to techniques that employ a large amount of labor, capital, and resources given the area of land being farmed. This results in a large yield. Extensive farming uses fewer resources and less labor but uses a larger land area and often results in a lower yield. Dairy farming can be practiced using either method. Most cows that are raised for their milk spend their lives on factory farms, which are an intensive farming method.
Aside from individual households that maintain an animal for milk, there are four main types of dairy farms.1
A milking pipeline is a pipe, typically metal, that connects the part of the milking system in contact with a cow’s udder to a cooling tank in which the milk is stored. Smaller dairies tend to use a pipeline that is moved from cow to cow, while larger ones may use a pipeline that the cows approach themselves.
Milking parlors are the places on dairy farms where the cows are milked. They can vary significantly depending on the setup of the dairy. In most dairies, especially larger ones, cows are herded into a specific location where they are milked; some of these even rotate to process the cows more efficiently.
Automatic milker take-offs have a flow sensor that prevents the farmer from overmilking their cow, as it is able to tell when the flow is decreasing.
Fully automated robotic milking systems use collars on each cow to tell whether she is ready to be milked. If the cow is ready to be milked she will be able to enter the milking parlor, which will automatically clean her teats and place the contact devices. Once the milking is complete she is released back into the general population.
The environmental impacts of dairy farming are profound. Milk production is responsible for 2.9 percent of all anthropogenic (or human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy farms are also responsible for a considerable amount of water use and pollution, with a dairy housing only 200 cows producing the same amount of nitrogen sewage as a town with a population of up to 10,000 people. Skipping just one glass of milk a day lowers the amount of water one uses by 1,238 gallons a year.
While the number of dairy farms in the United States is declining as large-scale, factory farm dairy operations become ever more dominant, the amount of milk being produced continues to increase. This is because larger systems of production with a greater number of dairy cattle in their herd can reduce operating costs and produce milk on a larger scale.
The dairy industry is an economic powerhouse in the United States, with revenue of about $45.5 billion in 2022. Despite the value of the industry as a whole, most dairy farmers find themselves being driven out of business as they are unable to compete with the largest operations. This trend has forced families that have been in the dairy business for decades or even generations farming herds with a few hundred cattle to to leave the industry in favor of operations with as many as 50,000 cows or more.
Industrialized dairy farming in factory farms requires the suffering of millions of cows and the destruction of the environment for the sake of milk production. Even when carried out on a smaller scale, the reality is that cows still suffer repeated pregnancies only to have their young taken away. Reducing, and eventually eliminating, our consumption of dairy products is the best way to help ensure that these cows no longer have to suffer for the food we eat.
Humane Society of the United States, “The Welfare of Cows in the Dairy Industry” (HSUS, 2009), https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/hsus-report-animal-welfare-cow-dairy-industry.pdf.