Dairy is often seen as a cruelty-free food but that couldn't be further from the truth.
Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor

When people become vegetarian, they may believe that their diet is more ethical because they no longer eat animals. They think that dairy and eggs are not cruel because cows and chickens would naturally produce these things anyway and there is no real harm in taking them for human consumption.

Certain features of a farm will further reassure consumers that they can make ethical choices about dairy. They tend to believe that a farm being organic, local, and/or family-owned is a guarantee of high animal welfare. 

But the truth is that dairy farming always relies on many cruel practices, including animal slaughter. 

How is dairy produced?

Far too many people are unaware that in order to make milk, a cow must have been pregnant. The misconception that cows somehow simply produce milk for no reason is so widespread that even the dairy industry tries to address it. Like other mammals, cows produce milk specifically to feed their young. 

It wouldn’t make economic sense for farmers to wait around for a cow to become pregnant by a bull in their own good time. Instead, they artificially inseminate the cows. Both the collection of the semen from breeding bulls and the insertion of it into the dairy cows are invasive, stressful, and can be painful experiences for the animals. Dairy advocates often say that natural mating between a bull and a cow is aggressive and stressful, but that doesn’t justify these practices being carried out by humans.

Cow-calf separation

Once a cow gives birth, she will have only a day or two to spend with her calf before they are taken away from her. Calves will naturally feed from their mothers for up to a year and remain bonded to her for even longer, but dairy farming deprives them of these opportunities. 

In some countries, the dairy industry feeds the veal industry with its unwanted male calves. Those spared from this fate will be shot in the head at one day old. Though the practice of killing calves on farm is prohibited in the UK on most farms due to rules recently imposed by retailers and farm certification scheme Red Tractor, calves are still being slaughtered after being sent off to calf dealers.

Some countries also have big live export businesses which will ship calves thousands of miles away on horrific journeys to be slaughtered abroad. Ireland exports hundreds of thousands of calves across Europe each year to be reared for veal. Several thousands of unweaned calves will be packed onto ships where they are deprived of food and water on journeys lasting as long as 61 hours.

Dairy cows are slaughtered too

In order to extract the milk that should have been fed to calves, cows are usually hooked up to milking machines two or three times a day. Cows often suffer from lameness from standing on hard concrete floors for long periods, and inflammation of the udders known as mastitis is common. 

Cows keep producing milk for about 10 months after giving birth, after which point they are impregnated to start the whole cycle again. After about three or four cycles, their milk production will slow down and they will be sent to slaughter.

Dairy farming and consumption in the UK

There are around 1.86 million in the UK’s milking herd, producing around 15 billion litres of milk a year. Selective breeding has led to fewer cows producing more milk each, while fewer and larger farms dominate the market.  Around a fifth of the UK’s dairy herd are kept indoors all year round. Such “zero-grazing” systems are increasingly being encouraged as a way to reduce costs and increase milk production. 

Milk may be falling in popularity in the UK. Half of Britons don’t drink it, while one in three now drinks plant-based alternatives. The dairy industry has been panicked by the rise in veganism, with Februdairy launched in 2018 in response to Veganuary as an effort to promote dairy products. In addition, the industry has been struggling due to rising costs and retailers paying low prices for dairy, leading to an “exodus” of dairy farmers.

Investigations reveal the truth about dairy

We’ve carried out many investigations into the UK calf trade which expose the realities behind how milk and cheese are made and what happens to the animals imprisoned on the farms.

2020, Berryfields Farm and Badgers Cross

Efforts to reduce the number of ‘surplus’ calves from the dairy industry include integrating dairy with beef by sending off dairy’s male calves to be raised as beef steers. This is supposed to be the more humane option for these calves, but our five-month investigation in Badgers Cross rearing farm and Berryfelds fattening farm show a different reality.

The Berryfields ‘mega farm’ sends 4,500 cows a year to slaughter to supply major supermarkets, while Badgers Cross is a zero-grazing system that raises beef and veal calves for Waitrose. 

We found weeks’ old calves being shouted at and roughly pushed around by workers. Cows were beaten with pipes and fists, kicked, had tails twisted, and one had a bucket thrown in his face causing him to slam onto the concrete floor. Sick, lame and injured cows were abandoned to suffer in a filthy ‘hospital pen’, while others struggling to walk were forced to move by workers shouting at, hitting, and kicking them.

2020 , Oaklands Livestock Centre and G. & G.B. Hewitt slaughterhouse

This five-month investigation revealed how male dairy calves are sold through markets and to dealers, abused along the way before being killed. When tiny calves arrived at Oaklands Livestock Centre,  they were violently kicked and pushed down trailer ramps while others were thrown down, landing on their backs, or dragged by their delicate tails and ears. We documented workers frequently being physically and verbally abusive to the calves. 

Multiple groups of very young calves were left hungry for as long as 21 hours, in breach of rules stating that they must be fed at least twice in 24 hours. Unweaned calves also had no access to water.

After the calves left the hell of Oaklands, they went to the family-owned Hewitts for slaughter – some at just over a week old. At Hewitts, workers were no kinder. The mandatory captive bolt gun, meant to stun the young animals before having their throats cut, failed four times to stun one calf. Workers blasted music and shouted loudly whilst they were next to young calves in the stun room, creating an even more stressful environment for them. Some calves were left all night to await death in the cold, wet lairage.

We have also documented ‘spent’ dairy cows who were clearly lame struggling to move through Hewitts before being slaughtered.

2021, Buitleaar Group

Buitelaar Group is a large Irish calf trader with four major collection centres. Many calves sold to traders are born on dairy farms. The calves are sold on rearing in the beef industry.  Traders are another key part of the integrated dairy-beef industry.

The Buitelaar Group produces beef and rose veal for major supermarket Morrisons, by fattening male dairy-bred calves. Again, we found workers shoving young calves down trailer ramps before processing them one-by-one. A number of calves who were left without food for many hours appeared to be crying out in distress. One calf was left without being fed for over 21 hours.

2021, Bath Soft Cheese Organic Dairy

This seven-month investigation revealed that organic farms are no safer for animals than anywhere else. At the multi-award-winning organic dairy farm in Bath, we filmed three-day old calves being dragged from mothers by ropes around their necks and one calf crying for two days after being separated from their mother. Mother cows bellowed for their babies for hours after and seemed to be searching for them. 

On ‘open farm days’, the farm invites visitors to see calves in spacious pens. But out of view of the public, we filmed them being held in far smaller isolation pens. One calf was kept in such a pen for 28 days, which is twice as long as what the farm claims it allows.

Workers were abusive towards cows, slapping, punching, and kicking them in the face, legs, and udders. They also hit them with pipes. Many of the cows exhibited signs of lameness. Calves were also roughly disbudded – a stressful process that can leave calves with chronic pain as their horn bud is dug out of their head using a hot iron. .

Some of the calves were sent to slaughter via a renowned calf dealer.

Watch our new video

The dairy industry is far from the benign image that many people may have of it. The lives of dairy cows is but one part of a larger industry that all ends in the slaughterhouse. Watch our new animated video for a closer look at the Calf Trade, the dirty secret of the UK dairy industry, and choose plant-based alternatives on this national ‘UK Dairy Day’.

As always,

For the animals.

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