Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
On March 19, human mothers around the UK will be celebrated by their families, treated to gifts and meals out. Many will likely eat products like roasted meat and cheese that only exist because millions of nonhuman mothers are confined and exploited their entire lives.
Animal agriculture is built on exploiting the reproductive systems of nonhuman females, from the individuals who are used to breed animals for slaughter, to those whose milk–meant for their babies–is taken to be turned into food for humans.
In the case of mammals trapped in the modern meat and dairy industries, this exploitation involves invasive artificial insemination to make them pregnant. An article published in New Republic in 2020 by Gabriel N. Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz calls this out in no uncertain terms in its title: “The Meat Industry’s Bestiality Problem.” It points out that while bestiality is illegal, artificial insemination of animals who are farmed is exempt, even though it would be considered both illegal and immoral to do it to dogs and cats. “If animal farming had to confront the cruelty of the insemination practices by which its product is created, cheap meat and milk production would be impossible,” write the authors.
Selective breeding has also led to huge increases in the output of female reproduction, particularly the number of eggs laid by chickens and the volume of milk produced by cows. Not only are these mothers deprived of autonomy over their bodies, their bodies have been manipulated into becoming something far removed from their natural, biological state. As Rosenberg and Dutkiewicz write: “If modern farms are factories, breeding animals are reproductive machines, micromanaged to maximize their fecundity.”
At the end of 2021, the number of dairy cows being milked in the UK stood at 1.86 million, producing around 15 billion litres of milk a year. Around a fifth of them are kept indoors all year round. Such “zero-grazing” systems are increasingly being encouraged as a way to reduce costs and increase milk production. But whether they live indoors permanently or only part of the time, practically all these cows will go through the same experience of being separated from their calves shortly after giving birth. 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.
When we investigated an award-winning organic certified dairy farm, Bath Soft Cheese, we captured footage that reveals the reality of cow-calf separation. In a measure intended to improve the welfare of the animals, the calves at Bath Soft Cheese are allowed to stay with their mothers for the first two-to-three days of their lives, which is longer than the usual 24 hours. But, perversely, this gives them more time to bond and makes their inevitable separation all the more distressing. After her calf was taken away, one mother cow was filmed pacing about restlessly and crying throughout the night. At Bath Soft Cheese, as with other dairy farms, unwanted male calves were sent to be killed en-masse.
Dairy cows commonly suffer from painful physical conditions due to being milked so often. Up to 70% of dairy cows on a farm may be suffering from mastitis–a painful inflammation of the udder–while around a quarter are likely to be suffering from lameness due to factors including being made to stand for long periods on hard floors while waiting to be milked.
Modern dairy cows produce a lot more than they used to, with each one in the UK producing an average of 22 litres a day–double what it was half a century ago. They do this for ten months after giving birth. They are also artificially inseminated again within three months of giving birth to start the whole cycle again as soon as possible. When they start becoming less productive after years of exploitation, they are sent to slaughter to be turned in meat.
In the UK, sows (female pigs) can legally be kept inside farrowing crates–metal pens in which they do not have enough space to turn around. They may be put in them a week before they give birth, and kept there for the next four weeks until their piglets are weaned. (Piglets, unlike calves, are only allowed to stay with their mothers for so long because we don’t drink pigs’ milk.)
The pig industry claims that farrowing crates are about the welfare of the piglets as they stop them being crushed by the mother. But research shows that piglets being crushed is not guaranteed if sows are given proper room, as it actually depends on individual mothering, with the more attentive mothers never crushing a single of their piglets. Mothering behaviours in pigs include building nests, and when they have access to nest-building materials like straw they are more likely to be attentive and have positive interactions with their piglets. But intensive pig farms tend not to provide bedding in the farrowing crates or pens, leaving pigs lying on hard, cold floors–conditions not conducive to enabling sows to be nurturing.
Our most recent investigation into a pig ‘mega-farm’ in Warwickshire, Bickmarsh Hall farm, which supplies pork producer Cranswick Country Foods, clearly revealed the small size and barrenness of farrowing crates and how they restrict sows. Our footage also showed how poorly piglets are treated after they are weaned, with one who was clearly too lame to move much left to suffer and be trampled and chewed by other young pigs for hours on end.
Like dairy cows, sows on commercial pig farms are usually artificially inseminated around every six months, giving birth to an average of 25 piglets at a time. Those who are considered not productive enough to be profitable are killed.
Free-living chickens lay around a dozen eggs a year, while today’s commercial laying hens have been selectively bred to produce a whopping 300 eggs in the same time frame. This excessive egg-laying takes a huge toll on their bodies, as creating egg shells draws on the hens’ stores of calcium and, despite this being supplemented in their feed, can leave them with problems such as osteoporosis and bone fractures, which are present in more than 80% of hens on commercial farms, both free-range and intensive. Once hens reach the end of their productive life at about 18 months, most are killed, while a few might be rescued and rehomed.
Many of these hens also begin their lives in stressful conditions. Billions of chicks destined to become laying hens are born in hatcheries every year under what one study describes as “highly stressful, industrial circumstances.” After hatching, the racks holding the chicks are tilted, dumping them onto a conveyor belt system on which they are sorted by sex (male chicks are typically thrown alive into a grinding machine in some countries or are usually gassed to death in the UK), vaccinated and have their beaks painfully trimmed before being packed into transport boxes. These stressful experiences impact their weight, behaviour and their cognitive functioning. This can increase the risk of feather pecking later on, which can cause injury and sometimes leads to cannibalistic behaviour–this is why chicks commonly have their beaks trimmed, a procedure which itself can cause pain, numbness, and swelling in the beak, which can regrow in an irregular way. Beak trimming performed using a “‘hot blade”’ can also lead to bleeding and infection, which can kill the chicken and cause untold suffering.
Around the world, laying hens are most often kept in battery cages, which are usually made of wire, including the bottom, to allow the chickens’ waste to fall through. Several chickens are usually kept in a cage, with less space given to each than an A4 sheet of paper, making it difficult for the birds to spread their wings or move about. Battery cages were banned in the UK and the European Union in 2012, in favour of “‘enriched cages”’, which give the hens a small amount of additional space; an additional 50 centimetres of space, along with perches and litter. About 36 % of eggs sold in the UK come from caged hens, but biosecurity measures imposed across England in response to the global bird flu crisis means that no chicken is currently ‘free-range’, since they are all required to be kept indoors. Nonetheless, eggs can still be marketed as free-range as long as the time the chickens have been indoors is under 16 weeks—and even that may be extended soon. Currently, so-called ‘free-range’ eggs are being relabelled to ‘barn eggs’ as a result of the lockdown.
Laying hens in some countries are also subjected to “forced moulting”. Hens tend to stop laying eggs at the beginning of winter and naturally moult their feathers. They use their energy to stay warm and grow a new plumage, which also helps rejuvenate their reproductive tract. But it doesn’t suit the egg industry to let this happen naturally, so moulting is forced through starving the birds for up to 14 days or giving them nutritionally-deficient feed to make the hens all moult at the same time. This means they will produce larger eggs later and their egg-laying life can be prolonged, meaning higher profits for the industry. The malnutrition that results from forced moulting can cause aggression, feather-plucking, and feather-eating. The practice is banned in the UK and EU but is common in the U.S.
The violation of nonhuman females is a fundamental part of the meat, dairy, and egg industries. They obscure the realities of it in clinical terms, but most people would only need to think about the same things being done to animals not considered to be food to see how wrong it is. That’s why people are outraged by puppy mills, because they are cruel and deprive dogs of their autonomy and the ability to engage in natural mothering behaviours. There is something particularly disturbing about the way motherhood is venerated when the mothers in question are human, while nonhuman mothers are treated like machines.
For the animals.