The Australian dairy industry is often touted as a wholesome industry in which happy, healthy cows wandering freely in lush green meadows willingly provide us with their milk. But this mythologising of the industry by industry bodies hides an ugly truth.
The dairy is inherently cruel: it relies on impregnating dairy cows and denying calves their mother’s milk by removing the baby from the mother soon after birth. The milk meant for the calf is then harvested and turned into milk, cheese and ice cream for human consumption, while the unwanted baby animal is slaughtered.
Most Australians have been raised to think that drinking milk and consuming dairy products is normal and essential if we are to get our required daily dose of calcium. But how ‘normal’ is it to drink the breast milk of another species - especially when nature has endowed that milk with all the essential nutrients and hormones for the nourishment of their babies, not for the production of ice cream, cheese and butter.
The Miserable Life of a Female Dairy Cow
Like all female mammals, cows need to be producing offspring to produce milk. So for a cow to be considered ‘productive’, she needs be pregnant as often as possible. The dairy industry ensures this happens by artificially inseminating cows and then separating their babies from them usually right after birth. This separation is, of course, highly stressful for both mother and calf. And it happens repeatedly until the female cow is no longer productive and is finally sent for slaughter.
Ordinarily, a cow might live up to 20 years, but the lifespan of a dairy cow rarely lasts that long. It has been estimated that few dairy cows live longer than seven years(3), with many only living to four or five years due to being burdened by excessive breeding and milking(4). Selective breeding and genetic modification produce cows with gigantic udders that put a metabolic strain on the animal and stretching or tearing of the ligaments. The constant cycle of breeding, along with the fact that the amount of milk each cow produces annually has more than doubled since 1980, has significant health impacts on a female cow. Dairy cattle can also be susceptible to infections of the feet, teat and udders(5).
Calves – The Unwanted Leftovers
In Australia it is estimated that 450,000 to 800,000 unwanted calves are born and killed each year(6) - the vast majority of these calves are male as they are of little use to the dairy industry. These ‘bobby calves’ are considered industry ‘wastage’: they are removed from the mother within hours of birth(7), and are often transported long distances for slaughter(8) sometimes for up to 30 hours at a time causing them to starve(9). The legal framework that is meant to protect these animals allows calves less than 24 hours old to be killed by a blow to the head(7).
Milk production also impacts the environment in various ways. Here in Australia, one of the biggest problems is water usage. It has been estimated that on average, Australian dairy farms use about 800 litres of irrigation water for every 1 litre of milk produced(10) with 90% of the water used on dairy farms used to irrigate the pasture(10). In addition, dairy farming contributes to the loss of ecologically important areas like wetlands and forests due to deforestation. Many of these lands provide habitat for native species, and as the rate of clearing continues to increase, we stand to lose thousands of endangered species to farms. Then there’s the fact that dairy cows emit methane that is 21 times more lethal than the exhaust coming from your car (11). 60 – 70% of dairy farm emissions originate from cows digesting their own food. The use of fertiliser and pesticides also has an impact, especially when allowed to run into waterways and soil.
As the Demand Grows, so does its Impact
Australian dairy is in the midst of a crisis. Deregulation and the increased demand for cheaper milk is leading farmers to seek ways to maximise production per cow. The main methods being employed are grain feeding and intensifying production(12). In Australia there are less than half the number of farms there were 20 years ago, yet production is around the same(12). If such Intensification of production continues, this can only mean more pressure on cows to reproduce, more calves sent to slaughter, and an even poorer quality of life for animals on dairy farms.
It has also been noted by researchers like evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace and Dr Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, that as animal agriculture around the world intensifies so will the number of pathogens emerging from these specialised agro-environments (as they have in the past with diseases like Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, and a variety of novel influenza variants(13)). There’s also a disturbing link between the rate at which industrial farming is pushing into the habitat of wild animals, and the odds of humans contracting pathogens that were once limited to wild species, but that can be transmitted via an intermediary(14).
What Needs to be Done?
With the community behind us, the Animal Justice Party is urgently calling for an Independent Office of Animal Protection to remove the conflict of interest currently facing the Department of Primary Industries who is responsible for animal welfare and animal industries.
Like our supporters, we believe that the NSW DPI cannot be expected to promote cruel animal industries such as dairy, and protect animals at the same time. Animal protection must be handled by an independent body who can enforce standards that improve the quality of life of all farm animals including dairy cows.
How Can You Help?
The Animal Justice Party relies on support from people like you to continue the work we are doing. Your support and membership fee go towards helping us put animals on the political agenda and letting the NSW Government know we are unified in helping to end animal suffering. You can CLICK HERE to find out more about memberships.
Written by Linda Paull
1 56 million dairy herd in Australia: ‘The Australian dairy industry at a glance 2017-18’, Dairy Australia (Web Page) <https://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/DairyAustralia/Industry/Farm-facts/Dairy-at-a-glance?keyword=dairy%20at%20a%20glance>. Producing 450,000 to 800,000 (see footnotes 6,7) unwanted calves per year (does not include calves replacing milking heard). Indicates that standard practice is calving all year round as per: John House, A guide to dairy herd management (Meat & Livestock Australia Limited, 2011).
2 Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines – Land Transport of Livestock, Proposed Amendment To The Land Transport Of Livestock Standards, Bobby Calves Time Off Feed Standard (Decision Regulation Impact Statement No SB4.5, 6/7/2011) 220.127.116.11.
3 ‘Yield’, Dairy Australia (Web Site) <https://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/industry/production-and-sales/milk/yield>.
4 PA Oltenacuand DM Broom, ‘The impact of genetic selection for increased milk yield on the welfare of dairy cows’ (2010) 19 Animal Welfare 39.
6 ‘What happens to bobby calves?’, RSPCA (Web Site, 5 October 2018) <https://kb.rspca.org.au/what-happens-to-bobby-calves_87.html>.
7 ‘What happens to bobby calves?’, RSPCA (Web Site, 5 October 2018) <https://kb.rspca.org.au/what-happens-to-bobby-calves_87.html>.
9 Hence the standard allowing for calves to be kept off feed for 30 hours; Cave JG, Callinan APL and Woonton WK, ‘Mortalities in Bobby Calves Associated With Long Distance Transport’ (2004) 83(1-2) Australian Veterinary Journal, starting page.
11 Dairy Australia, Dairy Footprint, On-farm greenhouse gas emissions, http://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Environment-and-resources/Climate/MicroSite1/Home/Climate-and- greenhouse-basics/Greenhouse-gas-footprint/Dairy-footprint.aspx
12 Trends in Australian Agriculture, Productivity Commission Research Paper, https://www.pc.gov.au/research/completed/agriculture/agriculture.pdf
13 R Wallace,‘Big Farms Produce Big Flu’ (2016), Monthly Review Press
14 S Wertz-Kanounnikoff and K Rodina,‘ Saving forests can protect public health - Examining the role of forest ecosystems in preventing zoonoses’ (2020) https://news.globallandscapesforum.org/viewpoint/saving-forests-can-protect-public-health/