Farm Animal Welfare: Cows

Did you know?

Life of a Dairy Cow on a Factory Farm

Calves born to dairy cows are separated from their mothers immediately after birth. The half who are born female are raised to replace older dairy cows in the milking herd.  After three or four years of intense milk production, the females are slaughtered and made into ground beef.

The other half of the calves are male.  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.

On the Farm

It is common for the 9 million dairy cows in the U.S. to produce 100 pounds of milk per day – ten times more than they would produce naturally.  They are able to produce this much milk because, with genetic manipulation and intensive production technologies, they are forced to have a calf every year.  Like human beings, cows have a nine-month gestation period, and so giving birth every twelve months is physically demanding.

Cows are also 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 abnormal levels expected on modern dairies, and so today’s dairy cows must be given high energy feeds. The unnaturally rich diet causes metabolic disorders including 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. Other diseases such as Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne’s disease, are also rampant in U.S. dairy cows. These often go unnoticed and untreated due to long incubation times.

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.

Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), a synthetic hormone, is now being injected into cows 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.  The abuse wreaked upon the bodies of female dairy cows is so intense that the dairy industry also is a huge source of downed cows.  Cows referred to as downed cows are so sick and/or injured that they are unable to walk or even stand, hence the title “downed”.  Downed cows are routinely dragged or pushed with bulldozers in an attempt to move them to slaughter. Dairy cows are not given any food, water, or protection from the elements 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 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.  Eventually, the animals’ throats will be 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. Close to one million male calves are raised and slaughtered for veal each year.

On the Farm

Calves raised to make veal are severely confined. Veal calves commonly live for 18 to 20 weeks in wooden crates with chains around their neck. The chain is tethered to a crate which measures 6 feet long and 2 feet wide. The size of the crate restricts the movement of the calf to either lie down or stand; the calf can not turn around or stretch his/her limbs.

Calves raised to become veal are also purposely fed an all liquid milk substitute which is deficient in iron and fiber in order to produce anemia which results in the pale colored flesh typical of veal.

Veal calves are slaughtered at 16-20 weeks of age unable to walk to slaughter as their muscles are severely underdeveloped. Some veal calves are killed at just a few days old to be sold as low-grade ‘bob’ veal for products like frozen TV dinners.

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 gain iron or fiber content which would color their meat.

Calves are forced to lie on the wooden slats of their crate which are covered in their excrement. The result of the calves’ inability to perform any of their natural behaviors is exhibited by stereotypic movements such as head tossing, head shaking, air chewing, scratching, and kicking. These movements indicate chronic stress.

Physical Effects

The confinement and insufficient diet of veal calves results in poor health and the prevention 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 calves raised in crates for veal are more susceptible to disease than calves housed in other systems and as such, require three times more medication and medical treatments.

Legislative Action

The European Union has banned the use of veal crates for humane reasons.

Though the U.S. veal industry continues to use them extensively, in a recent survey, 74% of the US population supported federal legislation to ban veal crates.

In 2006, Arizona became the first state where voters passed a humane ballot initiative to ban the use of veal crates. The Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act will phase out the use of veal crates by 2013.

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.

Ranchers still identify cattle the same way they have since pioneer days, with hot iron brands. This practice is extremely traumatic and painful, and the animals bellow loudly through 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.

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 their next horrifying adventure.

At the Stockyard or Auction

Here, cattle are further frightened and confused as they are goaded through a series of walkways and holding pens, to be shown to and 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 dusty, manure-laden holding pens. The air is thick with harmful bacteria subjecting the cattle to a constant 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 as such, contribute to the rampant spread of disease and sometimes even death. Eventually, all cattle will end up at the slaughterhouse.

At the Slaughterhouse

A standard beef slaughterhouse kills 250 cattle every hour. The high speed of the assembly line and the number of cattle killed each hour make it increasingly difficult to treat animals with any semblance of humaneness.

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 Slaughter Act. This ‘stunning’ is usually done by a mechanical blow to the head. However, the procedure is terribly imprecise, and inadequate stunning is inevitable. As a result, conscious animals are often hung upside down, kicking and struggling, while a slaughterhouse worker makes another attempt to render them unconscious. Eventually, the animals’ throats will be sliced, whether or not they are unconscious.

What Can You Do?


Click here for information on where to find animal products from farms that have higher standards of care for animals.


Grocery stores now have a large assortment of delicious beef and fake-dairy products to replace those traditionally obtained from animals who are intensively confined. These vegetarian alternatives include fake meatballs, fake burgers, milk, cheese, butter and cream spreads, and even ice cream! You can find many of these alternatives in your local grocery store.


If we reduce the consumption of beef and dairy products by just one meal a week, approximately one billion cattle would be spared the suffering that occurs with intensive confinement operations. Check out creative animal-free recipes available on the internet and try starting a no meat Monday policy in your household today!