Many resources on farm animal welfare are US-based, and I recently realised I didn’t have a clear idea of how the UK differed. I decided to do some research and share my findings. I’m not suggesting that all practices described are carried out on all farms, or that all dairy cows suffer from the ailments mentioned. I just discuss what’s legally allowed and what issues are common in the industry. Any errors are mine and I welcome corrections. I’ve embedded videos to illustrate certain practices. Some footage may be disturbing.
Health of Mother Cows
As dairy cows have been bred to produce such large volumes of milk, their udders often become hugely swollen. This can make it difficult for cows to walk, causing them to splay their legs as they do so. This can contribute to lameness, a common problem in dairy cows . The increase in cows’ milk yield has led to a decline in their fertility, a shortened lifespan and an increase in health problems. As many as 70% of cows in a given dairy herd may suffer from mastitis, a painful bacterial udder infection .
Due to demands placed on their bodies by increased milk production, high-yielding cows can’t take in sufficient calories by grazing, as they naturally would. Instead they’re fed a grain-based diet, which can lead to health problems such as acidosis. High intake of food increases their metabolism, putting them at risk of heat stress . Many dairy cows become emaciated as they simply can’t take in enough food to cope with the demands of milk production. According the the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), “Cows are in negative energy balance during early lactation, when functional body tissues may be metabolised to excess, causing poor welfare” .
As a result of mad cow disease, it’s now illegal to feed animal protein to cows.
Treatment of Mother Cows
The UK government website recommends ‘flaming’ udders to prevent soil and faeces from sticking to them . This involves passing an open flame under the udder to burn off the hair, which can result in injury if done carelessly. The video below illustrates this process.
Cows may be impregnated naturally by a bull, but artificial insemination is increasingly common . This uncomfortable process involves inserting an arm into the cow’s rectum and a ‘semen wand’ into her vagina . Those who repeatedly fail to become pregnant will be slaughtered. The video below shows artificial insemination of a cow.
The hormone BST, used to increase milk yields, is illegal in the UK. However, farmers sometimes synchronise cows’ oestrus cycles so they calve at the same time. This is done by administering hormones via an implant in the ear or vagina, or by injection .
Treatment of Calves
Calves are almost always separated from their mothers within a few days of birth, which is traumatic for both. 60% of calves are kept alone in single pens for the first eight weeks of their lives. They can only interact with others through the side of the pen. Straw bedding is legally required . This video shows a calf being separated from his or her mother.
Some female calves are born with an extra (‘supernumerary’) teat. This can interfere with milking machines, so farmers typically remove it – either with scissors or a blade. Anaesthetic is only legally required if the calf is over three months old, and pain relief isn’t required at all .
Male calves under eight days old can be castrated with a ring which cuts off the blood supply, with no pain relief given. Castration may be done at any age, either surgically or with a ‘burdizzo’ which crushes the spermatic cord .
Calves are ‘disbudded’ so they can’t grow horns. If they’re under eight days old, this may be done by chemical cauterisation, where caustic soda is applied to the horn bud to destroy the cells. This method is strongly advised against, however. A hot iron may also be used. In this case, local anaesthetic is legally required but pain relief isn’t. This must be done before the calf is two months old . Older cows may have their horns cut or sawed off (dehorning), though this shouldn’t be done routinely. Local anaesthetic must be used .
The video below shows the disbudding of a cow with a hot iron.
Tail docking, the process of removing a calf’s tail, is illegal in the EU .
Unwanted dairy calves may be raised for veal. Many are exported long distances, sometimes to the Continent . This adds the stress of crossing the sea to the experience. Calves aren’t developed enough to cope with these journeys – for one thing, they aren’t yet capable of regulating their body temperature. The video below explores this in more detail.
Around 55,000 calves a year are shot at birth as the industry has no use for them. This number has greatly decreased compared to previous years, due to campaigns to raise them for beef instead .
Access to Pasture
EU organic legislation states that cows must have unrestricted pasture access, though this doesn’t apply in winter. In conventional farming, cows aren’t required to have any access to pasture and may be permanently kept indoors. 10% of UK dairy cows are zero-grazed, meaning they have little to no pasture access. This can lead to problems like Vitamin D deficiency .
1,800 UK dairy cows are kept in tie stalls, either permanently or in winter. They’re tethered to one spot, unable to move more than a few steps. Daily walking is advised, but often not carried out . This increases the risk of health problems and doesn’t allow cows to exercise natural behaviours like foraging . It also makes it difficult for them to groom themselves and can lead to teat trampling. Electrified wires may be used to force cows to urinate and defecate outside the stall .
An increasing number of ‘mega-dairies’, with hundreds or even thousands of cows, are appearing in the UK. In the majority of these, cows have no access to the outdoors, again leading to health problems such as lameness and udder infections .
Slaughter of Cows
In the UK, dairy cows are sent to slaughter at six years old on average. The natural lifespan of a cow is about 20 years, but after three to four lactations their health and fertility typically declines, making them useless to the industry .
Cows may be slaughtered for other reasons. According to the UK government website, “If a cow refuses to use a cubicle and becomes heavily soiled, it must be cubicle trained, culled or kept wherever you can clean it” .
There are few slaughterhouses which ‘process’ dairy cows, so they’re commonly transported long distances to be killed . Every year, 150,000 pregnant cows are sent to slaughter. In some cases the babies are fully formed and kicking in the womb as their mothers are slaughtered .
As ever, I didn’t come close to covering everything in this post. I recommend digging into the sources below and doing your own research. There are hundreds of YouTube videos illustrating the procedures mentioned, but there were many I couldn’t bring myself to watch, like those showing castration. I hope this post was helpful and has improved your understanding of the UK dairy industry.