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Farmed Animal Welfare: Cows

Dairy Cows Veal Calves Beef Cattle Fun Facts

Life of a Dairy Cow on a Factory Farm

Calves born to dairy cows are separated from their mothers immediately after birth. The female calves are raised to replace older dairy cows in the milking herd. After three or four years of intense and stressful milk production, the females are sent to slaughter.

Since they will never produce milk, male dairy calves are of little or no value to the dairy farmer and are sent to veal farms. The veal industry is a byproduct of the dairy industry; by supporting one industry, the other benefits too.

On the Farm

There are over 9 million dairy cows in the U.S. Thanks to genetic manipulation and intensive production technologies, each cow produces 70-100 pounds of milk per day — ten times more than they would produce naturally. To continue producing milk, they are forced to have a calf every year; like humans, cows have a nine-month gestation period, and so giving birth every twelve months is physically demanding.

Cows are artificially re-impregnated while they are still lactating from their previous birthing, so their bodies are still producing milk during seven months of their nine-month pregnancy. As a result, the cows’ bodies are under constant stress.

Further, a cow eating a normal grass diet could not produce milk at the abnormally high levels that are standard on modern dairies, so today’s dairy cows must be given high energy feeds. The unnaturally rich diet causes metabolic disorders like ketosis, which can be fatal, and laminitis, which causes lameness.

Physical Effects

The dairy industry continues to subject cows to abuses in the name of increased profit. Approximately half of the country’s dairy cows suffer from mastitis, a bacterial infection of their udders, from being constantly milked. Other diseases such as Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne’s disease, are also rampant in U.S. dairy cow herds. These often go unnoticed and untreated due to long incubation times. Because commercial dairy farms have such high numbers of animals, it is impossible for veterinarians to thoroughly examine each cow. Even with regular veterinary visits, ailments can often go unnoticed and untreated as vets are forced to consider “herd health” over the health of individual animals.

Another dairy industry disease caused by intensive milk production is “Milk Fever.” This ailment is caused by calcium deficiency, and it occurs when milk secretion depletes calcium faster than it can be replenished in the blood.

In the U.S., it is legal for farms to inject cows with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a synthetic hormone, to get them to produce even more milk. Besides adversely affecting the cows’ health, BGH also increases birth defects in their calves.

In the Slaughterhouse

All dairy cows eventually end up at slaughter; both the dairy and beef industries feed into the same system. The abuse wreaked upon the bodies of female dairy cows is so intense that many of these cows become “downed.” This term refers to cows that are so sick and/or injured that they are unable to walk or even stand. Downed cows are routinely dragged or pushed with bulldozers in an attempt to move them to slaughter, even though it is illegal to process non-ambulatory animals. Dairy cows are not given any food, water, or protection from the elements for up to 28 hours during their inevitable journey to the slaughterhouse.

Prior to being hung up by their back legs and bled to death, dairy cows are supposed to be rendered unconscious, as stipulated by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. However, this “stunning” which is usually done by a mechanical blow to the head, is terribly imprecise. As a result, conscious cows are often hung upside down, kicking and struggling, while a slaughterhouse worker makes another attempt to render them unconscious. The animals’ throats are sliced, whether or not they are unconscious.

Calves Raised for Veal

The veal industry was created as a by-product of the dairy industry to take advantage of an abundant supply of unwanted male calves. According to the USDA, close to a half million male calves are raised and slaughtered for veal each year.

On the Farm

Calves raised to make veal are severely confined. Veal calves live the entirety of their short lives in “veal crates,” wooden crates that severely restrict the calves’ movement. These crates are typically only 2.5 feet wide at most and have slatted wooden floors.

Calves raised to become veal are also purposely fed an all liquid milk substitute which is deficient in iron and fiber. This insufficient diet makes the calves severely anemic in order to produce the pale colored flesh that some consumers prefer.

Veal calves are typically slaughtered at 16 to 18 weeks of age. About 15 percent of veal calves are slaughtered at less than 3 weeks old and are classified as “bob” veal for low-grade products like hot dogs and frozen dinners. Many are unable to walk to slaughter as their muscles are severely underdeveloped.

Social/Behavioral Effects

Crate confinement prevents the performance of most of a cow’s natural behaviors including locomotion, resting, sleeping, grooming, circadian rhythms, as well as digestive, reproductive, explorative, and social behavior. No straw or bedding is placed in veal crates due to a concern that they will eat the straw and ingest extra iron or fiber, which would color their meat.

Calves are forced to lie on the wooden slats of their crate, covered in their excrement. They exhibit stereotypic movements, such as head tossing, head shaking, air chewing, scratching, and kicking, out of frustration and chronic stress.

Physical Effects

The confinement and insufficient diet of veal calves results in poor health and a lack of healthy growth and development. Calves raised for white veal suffer from serious digestive problems including abnormal gut development and stomach ulcerations. Research has shown that veal calves raised in crates are more susceptible to disease than calves housed in other systems, and consequently they require three times more medication and medical treatments.

Legislative Action

The European Union has banned the use of veal crates because they were determined to be inhumane.

Public sentiment pressured the American Veal Association to encourage an industry-wide phase-out of veal crates, and a number of states (including Massachusetts) have passed laws banning them. However, on the federal level, it is still legal in the US to use extreme confinement methods in veal production.

Cattle Raised for Beef Production

On the Range

Many beef cattle are born and live on the range, foraging and fending for themselves for months or even years. They are not adequately protected against inclement weather, and they may die of dehydration or freeze to death. Injured, ill, or otherwise ailing animals often do not receive necessary veterinary attention.

While there are humane methods of identification, such as neck chains, ear tags, and microchips, many ranchers continue to use hot iron brands. This practice is extremely traumatic and painful, and the animals bellow loudly throughout the process. Beef cattle are also subjected to ‘waddling,’ another type of identification marking. This painful procedure entails cutting chunks out of the hide that hangs under the animals’ necks. Waddling marks are supposed to be large enough so that ranchers can identify their cattle from a distance, and the procedure is performed without anesthesia.

Accustomed to roaming unimpeded and unconstrained, range cattle are frightened and confused when humans come to round them up. Terrified animals are often injured, some so severely that they become “downed” (unable to walk or even stand). These downed animals commonly suffer for days without receiving food, water or veterinary care, and many die of neglect. Other downed animals are dragged and/or pushed with tractors on their way to the next horrifying phase in their lives.

At the Stockyard or Auction

Here, cattle are goaded through a series of walkways and holding pens to be sold to the highest bidder. From the auction, older cattle may be taken directly to slaughter, or they may be taken to a feedlot. Younger animals and breeding-age cows may go back to the range.

At the Feedlot

Young cattle are commonly taken to areas with cheap grazing land, to take advantage of this inexpensive feed source. Upon reaching maturity, they are trucked to a feedlot to be fattened and readied for slaughter. At feedlots, cattle are crowded by the thousands into holding pens. The air is likely to have harmful bacteria, subjecting the cattle to risk of respiratory infection.

Feedlot cattle are routinely implanted with growth-promoting hormones, and they are fed unnaturally rich diets designed to fatten them quickly and profitably. Since cattle are biologically suited to eat a grass-based, high fiber diet, their concentrated feedlot rations contribute to metabolic disorders.


As discussed above, cattle may be transported several times during their lifetimes, and they may travel hundreds or even thousands of miles during a single trip. Long journeys are very stressful on cattle and contribute to the rampant spread of disease. Many cattle die in transport to slaughter.

At the Slaughterhouse

A standard beef slaughterhouse can slaughter up to 400 cattle per hour, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ensure humane treatment.

Prior to being hung up by their back legs and bled to death, cattle are supposed to be rendered unconscious, as stipulated by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. This “stunning” is usually done by a mechanical blow to the head. However, as with dairy cows, the procedure is terribly imprecise and inadequate stunning is inevitable. As a result, animals are often slaughtered while they are still conscious.

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