Many people are surprised to learn that cows, like humans, must be pregnant to produce milk. In order to ensure the cows can continually feed our milk habit, they are artificially inseminated once a year and kept in a constant cycle of pregnancy and lactation.
Their calves, regarded as a waste product, are removed from their mothers within a day of being born as standard practice. Many are killed at around four days old. Separation is extremely traumatic and distressing for both mother and calf.
Purposely bred to yield unnaturally high volumes of milk (about 40% more than they did 40 years ago) modern New Zealand dairy cows also experience serious stress on their bodies. They are typically hooked up to a machine twice a day, 224 days a year, to produce over 3800 litres of milk per year. They will also endure painful procedures including ear tagging, tattooing or branding. ‘Debudding' or dehorning is done to prevent animals injuring each other and some have their tails cut off.
Diseased and Overworked
High levels of milk production can lead to many health problems. Dairy cows are prone to lameness and agonising inflammation from standing with heavy udders on concrete pads for milking. Heavy udders can also make standing and lying down difficult and uncomfortable.
Around 15% of the average herd suffers from mastitis, a painful udder infection. This rate of infection is regarded as normal for dairy farming, and could be much higher on individual farms.
After about five years of pregnancy and lactation, cows' milk production drops off and they are slaughtered, having lived only a quarter of their normal lifespan. Many cows will not even make it to five years - they will be slaughtered earlier if their milk production falls, or if they fail to become pregnant.
Respect for Cows - the Loving Mother
Naturally, these gentle animals would live in small herds with a hierarchy, friendships and complex social interactions. A cow can recognise more than 100 members of her herd, and relationships are very important to them. Cows are excellent mothers with strong maternal instincts and mourn their separation from their calves and herd.
Cows are intelligent animals who enjoy challenges and feel excitement when they finish a task or use their intellect to overcome an obstacle. UK scientists observing cows' behaviour have shown that "[their] brainwaves showed their excitement; their heartbeat went up and some even jumped in the air. We called it their Eureka moment." - Professor Donald Broom, Cambridge University.
There are also cases of serious abuse in the dairy industry and lack of enforcement of the scant welfare laws that are in place. Prosecution for animal abuse on farms is rare. The Ministry for Primary Industries considers prosecution to be the last resort, and ‘getting a farm back on track' is the priority. Here are examples of when prosecutions that have gone ahead:
- A South Waikato farmer, who starved cows to death was given community service, a fine and disqualified from owning cows for just two years.
- A farm manager was convicted of massive cruelty to animals. Cows were beaten, had their tails broken, and were shot in the kneecaps. He was given the largest sentence ever delivered for animal cruelty: four and a half years, which is exceptional.
- A Taranaki farm manager was fined more than $3500 for cutting off the teats of 12 cows with a pair of scissors and no pain relief.
- A West Coast dairy farmer was fined $15,000 and banned from having contact with milking cows for 6 months, for breaking the tails of two cows and failing to get veterinary treatment for another 210 cows with broken tails.
- A slaughterhouse worker at Down Cow Ltd was convicted of kicking, punching and throwing calves, and another worker was convicted of dragging calves across a concrete floor, following the exposė by Farmwatch and SAFE.