The ethical issues with dairy farming

I don’t often get into animal welfare topics on the Green Stars Project, but the strange thing about dairy is that we tend to forget about the ethical issues, or were never really conscious of them in the first place. So, using cow’s milk as an example, here’s a list of the main three ethical issues with dairy farming (in my opinion). I’ll present this as neutrally as possible but, even still, some of the information is disturbing.

1. Calves are separated from mothers soon after birth. The essence of commercial dairy farming is that the cow’s milk is diverted from the calf and harvested for human consumption. The calf is removed very soon after birth (sometimes immediately, with the goal of tricking the mother into thinking that her baby was stillborn) and opioids are sometimes administered to calm distressed mothers. Anyone who has watched cows with their calves knows that they have close bonds. There are actually options for keeping them together, which I’ll cover later.

2. If the calves are male, they will be killed fairly soon. Because most dairy breeds are not valued for beef, most male calves have short lives – in the UK, around 95,000 of the male calves are actually shot straight after birth, although this number is decreasing, thanks to the efforts of Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA. In 2019, according to Ethical Farming Ireland, 200,000 male calves were exported from Ireland to veal farms in Europe. Because the crowded journey and conditions on veal farms are obviously distressing for infant calves, there’s a debate that shooting them may be more humane.

3. A dairy cow’s life is short. Female dairy calves are more likely to survive infancy than males, because some can replace older cows in the herd, or be sold to other dairy farmers. Soon after their first birthday, cows are impregnated (by artificial insemination) and this is repeated annually until the cow reaches the age of 5, on average. The natural lifespan of a dairy cow is around 20 years (the Guinness record is 48 years) but most are killed for meat at around age 5, when milk production drops. This is better than cows raised for beef, which are usually killed at around 2 years old, but it’s still just a quarter of their expected lifespan.

Intensive indoor feedlots increase in Ireland

Even in Ireland, where almost all dairy cows live outdoors for much of the year, there are intensification trends to be wary of. This particularly applies to indoor feedlot operations for cattle raised for beef, the number of which has increased 6-fold over the last decade in Ireland. In 2018, around 18% of Irish cattle killed for beef came from feedlots, where animals were kept in sheds all year round. The majority of dairy cows are allowed to graze outdoors but zero grazing (100% indoor) dairy operations have begun to take hold in Ireland too. Intensive indoor farms are a poor choice, both from environmental and animal welfare perspectives. Choosing organic or pasture-raised dairy is a good way to make sure you are avoiding these suppliers.

Towards more humane dairy farming

I’ll cover some options for tackling the main animal welfare issues associated with dairy farming listed above.

Calves and mothers raised together (calf-at-foot dairies)

Various methods of dairy farming that allow the mother (dam) and calf to be together are receiving more attention as reported in the 2016 paper, Is rearing calves with the dam a feasible option for dairy farms?, and the article quoted below. 

The study showed that most interviewed farmers, who had dam-calf contact systems, were mainly driven by the pleasure of seeing it work, and seeing the interaction between calves and cows. They articulated how they were touched and impressed e.g. by the mother cow’s consistent ‘watching over’ her calf – Dam rearing of dairy calves, 2021

It’s estimated that there are around 400 farms across Europe and Australia that allow cows and calves to remain together – usually known as calf-at-foot dairies. The Guardian reported on the challenges on such a farm in Scotland and you can read about the “CAFD” farming methods used by the Calf at Foot Dairy in England.

Cows and calves walk down a country lane. Image from Calf at Foot Dairy, UK. The ethical issues with dairy farming.
Image from Calf at Foot Dairy, UK

Avoiding male calves

The fate of male calves born to dairy cows is seldom rosy – immediate death or a short life on a veal farm. In a 2021 survey of Irish dairy farmers on the ethical issue of male dairy calves, sexed semen was ranked as one of the top solutions – this involves using semen for the artificial insemination of cows that can reduce the incidence of male births to less than 10%.

A steady increase in the use of sexed semen since the early 1990s has recently seen sales jumping from 18% in 2017 to more than 50% of total semen sales in 2020. Industry figures expect it to completely replace conventional semen within five years. – The Guardian

Good news for sexed semen salespeople! Perhaps I’m missing something but considering that the average dairy cow gives birth to four calves, the use of sexed semen will eventually result in a glut of female calves and this could create similar problems. Another option is to use breeds for dairy farming that have more value as beef, so that males (or females) can at least be reared for beef.

Lengthening a dairy cow’s life

The Ahisma Dairy in the UK allows cows to retire at the end of their working lives and simply live out their lives. Also, calves are allowed to stay with their mothers until weaned. Here are Ahisma Dairy’s four principles:

  1. We never kill a cow
  2. Our calves suckle from their mothers until weaned
  3. We primarily milk by hand
  4. We give our oxen meaningful work
Ahisma Dairy UK - an image of a cow on the left and a message on the right: "love milk, hate slaughter." The ethical issues with dairy farming.
Image from Ahisma brochure, David Kingston.

The best approach to ethical dairy

I haven’t even touched on the environmental impact of dairy farming but I’ll get into it in the next post on vegan alternatives to butter in Ireland (and the UK). You probably already know that dairy products have large environmental footprints (land, water, carbon, pollution) compared to vegan alternatives.

My approach is as follows:

  • Minimize dairy consumption. Remember that your impact is in proportion to the amount you consume. Don’t think that it has to be 100% vegan or nothing – you can be 80% or 95% vegan and your impact would be a lot better than a typical omnivore.
  • Choose organic when you do buy dairy. The rules of organic agriculture are often imagined as purely environmental (avoidance of certain pesticides, antibiotics, etc.) but they do also cover animal welfare concerns such as how calves are handled.
  • Find a good plant-based replacement for dairy. Unfortunately, many of the vegan butter spreads in Ireland (/UK) are based on palm oil that’s low on the ethical scale. In the next post I’ll explore the impact of the palm oil and attempt to rank some brands. Alternatively, olive oil is actually pretty good in some situations or, if you’re looking for something solid, try coconut oil (choose refined if you don’t like the coconut flavor).

If there’s one thing that’s needed in Ireland right now it’s a good quality ethical plant-based butter. There’s plenty of plant-based milks to choose from, a decent amount of plant-based cheese, but little innovation on the butter front.

Update: I think I found a good ethical vegan butter in Ireland, so I’ll report on it in the next post!

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