Whenever you see a field with cows and their calves and maybe even a bull on it, you can basically be sure they are beef cattle. They tend to be fairly stout as their breeding has been working towards optimised meat «performance» over the decades.
It’s different with a field of dairy cows. They’re always the childless ones. Not that they don’t have any children, they have one every year to keep their milk production at a maximum. But their children are taken away from them at birth because the milk is chiefly intended for human consumption. From a human point of view, it goes without saying.
In Germany, we cycle past huge dairy farms. We stop at one of them and take pictures. Next to the cowshed and adjacent to the farmhouse there are two rows of twelve veal crates each. We only see the calves as we peek over the tall doors. The calves are lying on clean straw. However, just about turning around is all they can do in these tight stalls.
We start talking to the farmer’s wife. She tells us that the calves spend the first three weeks of their lives in these boxes. «It is best to separate them from their mothers directly at birth. This way, the pain of separation can be kept at a minimum. » As little as one night spent together can distinctly increase the pain, she emphasises. It is for health reasons, too, that the calves are removed from the disease-promoting cowshed, as she calls it because of all its bacteria, as quickly as possible. Yet another reason for keeping the calves in isolation is to stop them from sucking on each other. They cannot satisfy their natural sucking need on their mother’s udder and therefore try and suckle on just about anything.
After three weeks of isolation the calves are moved to calf hutches in groups of ten on this farm – that is, the female calves, which are reared to be dairy cows. The male calves are sold to a bull-fattener at two weeks and slaughtered at six months of age.
Once the cows reach their sexual maturity, they are artificially inseminated. Should they not become pregnant after two or three attempts, «we put a bull on them» which tends to «do the job most times,» according to the farmer’s wife. If not, the cow is useless and sent to the butcher’s.
Back in the days when the farm only had about 100 cows, it was still just about possible to drive the animals to the field. Today the farm has some 1’000 cattle, about half of which are «producing» dairy cows. They remain indoors – all their lives. «But they have brushes in there, which they rub themselves against, there’s food and water at all times and they can lie down, get up and walk around as they please,» the countrywoman stresses. «We look after our animals well and try to keep them healthy and fit, for only well cared-for animals produce good milk.»
In response to the question whether, as a mother of four, she ever struggles with separating the calves from their mothers, she says: «It is not a human being, it is an animal, a farm animal. And it is this farm animals purpose to give milk – milk for us and many other human beings. I don’t really have a problem with this. Well, we wouldn’t be able to do our job if we were too soft in this regard.»
In Switzerland, things don’t look better for dairy cows either. Here, too, calves are taken from their mothers at birth. Here, too, they spend the first weeks of their lives in isolation. And here, too, the male calves are slaughtered at only a few months of age – whether they live on an organic farm or not. In Switzerland cows have to have access to a free-range area on 90 days of the year. This also means that they can legally be tethered for 275 days a year, which means that all they can do is get up, lie down and get up again.
On average these high performance cows are worn out at the age of six and are slaughtered: metabolic disorders, mastitis, fertility disorders and lameness make them uneconomical.
>> This blog entry isn’t a feel-good factor, we are well aware. But it shows the reality which is hushed up by the milk industry and its marketing departments. We believe it is important to look these animals in the eye and tell their story. Share your thoughts with us!
>> Watch this Animal Aid video regarding dairy farming in the UK and possible alternatives.