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How Does Drinking Milk Hurt Cows?

For many people, dairy farming conjures up images of small herds of cows leisurely grazing on open pastures. Although scenes like this still exist in the United States, most milk is produced by cows raised in intensive production systems.1 Some cows are housed indoors year-round,1 and lactating cows are often kept restrained in tie stalls or stanchions.2

Although they don’t reach mature size until at least 4 years old, dairy cows first give birth at about 2 years of age and are usually bred again beginning at about 60 days after giving birth, to maintain a yearly schedule.1 Each year, approximately one quarter of the cows who survive the farms are sent to slaughter, most often due to reproductive problems or mastitis.2 Cows can live more than 20 years, however they’re usually slaughtered and used to produce ground beef at about 5 years of age, after roughly 2.5 lactations.1

Most dairy calves are removed from their mothers immediately after birth.2 The males are mainly sold for veal or castrated and raised for beef.1 “Bob veal” calves are killed as soon as a few days after birth; those used to produce “special-fed veal” are typically kept tethered in individual stalls until slaughtered at about 16 to 20 weeks of age.6 The female calves are commonly subjected to tail docking, dehorning, and the removal of “extra” teats.1,3 Until weaned at 8 weeks of age, most female calves are fed colostrum, then a milk replacer or unsaleable waste milk.2 Each year hundreds of thousands of these female calves die between 48 hours and 8 weeks of age, mostly due to scours, diarrhea, and other digestive problems.2

Dairy cows in California drylot Calves raised for veal
Left: At this California drylot operation, cows are forced to stand in a mixture of storm water, mud, and manure (photo courtesy of East Bay Animal Advocates). Right: Male calves raised for veal are confined in individual stalls (photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary).

Between 1940 and 2012, the average amount of milk produced per cow rose from 2 tons per year to 10 tons.4,5 Although genetic selection and feeding are used to increase production efficiency, cows do not adapt well to high milk yields or their high grain diets.7 Metabolic disorders are common, and millions of cows suffer from mastitis (a very painful infection of the udder), lameness, and infertility problems.1,2,5

The term “downer” refers to an animal who is too injured, weak, or sick to stand and walk. The exact number of downer cattle on U.S. farms or feedlots or sent to slaughter facilities is difficult to ascertain, but estimates approach 500,000 animals per year; most are dairy cows.7 Complications associated with calving and injuries from slipping and falling are leading causes, and the condition most often occurs within one day of giving birth.7

Downer dairy cow
Above: A downed dairy cow (photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary). Below: A dairy worker uses a forklift on a downer cow; click for video (courtesy of HSUS).
A downer dairy cow is moved with a forklift

Evidence revealing widespread mistreatment of downer dairy cows hit the news in January 2008, when the Humane Society of the United States released footage from its undercover investigation of a California slaughter plant that supplied beef for the nation’s school lunch program:

In the video, workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks and even torturing them with a hose and water in attempts to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.…

Temple Grandin, a renowned expert on animal agriculture and professor at Colorado State University, called the images captured in the investigation “one of the worst animal abuse videos I have ever viewed.”

See the HSUS report and video, and this Washington Post article; also HSUS’s 2009 investigation of a dairy calf slaughter plant in Vermont.

Recent investigations by Mercy For Animals have exposed similar abuse on dairy farms, including workers brutally beating cows and calves, and leaving downers to suffer for weeks. See MFA’s 2009 investigation of a mega-dairy in New York State, 2010 investigation of an Ohio dairy farm, and 2011 investigation of a dairy calf operation in Texas.



  1. U.S. EPA, Ag 101: Dairy Production,, 6/27/12; accessed 5/27/13.
  2. USDA APHIS VS, Dairy 2007, Part I: Reference of Dairy Cattle Health and Management Practices in the United States, October 2007.
  3. USDA APHIS VS, Dairy 2007: Heifer Calf Health and Management Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations, January 2010.
  4. USDA NASS, Quick Stats,; accessed 5/29/13.
  5. D.M. Broom, “Effects of dairy cattle breeding and production methods on animal welfare,” 2001; in Proc. 21 World Buiatrics Congress, 1–7 (Uruguay: World Association for Buiatrics).
  6. American Veterinary Medical Association, Welfare Implications of the Veal Calf Husbandry, 10/13/08.
  7. JAVMA, 2007; 231(2):227–34.