Welfare issues for dairy cows
Given a natural healthy life, cows can live for twenty years or more. High yielding dairy cows will last for only around a quarter of that time. They are usually culled after three lactations because they are chronically lame or infertile.
Lameness, mastitis and infertility
Milk is heavy and a dairy cow may be carrying several extra kilos of milk in her udders. This can force her hind legs into an unnatural position, making walking difficult, and can result in lameness. It can also make standing and lying down difficult and uncomfortable.
Mastitis is a painful udder infection that is prevalent among dairy cows. In a herd of 100 cows in the UK, there could be as many as 70 cases of mastitis every year on average. Housing cows for long periods can also increase the prevalence of mastitis.
Infertility among high yielding dairy cows is increasing. It has been linked to stress, poor body condition and the demands of high milk production on the cow’s general health.
Cows kept indoors have less opportunity to act naturally and exercise. Poor ventilation and high humidity increase the risk and spread of infection. These factors are likely to have an adverse effect on their health.
Hard concrete flooring can cause foot damage and is more painful for lame cows to stand and walk on. Zero-grazing systems have been linked to increased lameness.
Some herds, including a number in the UK, are kept on concrete floors with inadequate bedding. These are uncomfortable for the cows to walk, stand or lie down on.
The diet of high yielding cows often has relatively little fibrous content and is inappropriate for their type of digestive system. This leads to acidity in the part of the stomach, known as the ‘rumen’. This can lead to acidosis and painful lameness from laminitis.
In the US, many dairy cows are still given growth hormones to increase milk yield. This is illegal in the EU.
Surplus dairy calves
In commercial dairy farming, nearly all calves are taken away from their mother shortly after birth. This causes severe distress to both the cow and the calf. This has long-term effects on the calf’s physical and social development.
High-yielding cows produce calves which are generally less suited to beef production and some of these are shot at birth and may, if the Dutch and Belgian ban on calf imports from Great Britain is lifted, be sold on for rearing in Europe. Some calves from Northern Ireland are exported to the Continent of Europe. Calves are vulnerable at this age and are not well-adapted to cope with the stress of long distance transport.
Due to co-operation between Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the industry through the Calf Stakeholder Forum, more male dairy calves are now reared humanely for beef and the number of calves being shot at birth has greatly decreased. There is more work to do - 100,000 or so are still shot every year.
Slaughtering dairy cows
When dairy cows come to the end of their productive life, they may be transported long distances to be slaughtered. This is because few slaughterhouses deal with spent dairy cows.
There are more humane alternatives that take into account the welfare of the cow.