The media and dairy industry portray happy cows, content with their lives and oblivious to their exploitation, and subject us to constant propaganda that we need milk to keep us and our children healthy. But cows, like ourselves and all other animals, are individual beings with their own interests and desires which deserve to be respected. Instead, as with egg-laying hens, they are treated simply as units of production whose value and lifespan depends on their ability to guarantee a profit for the farmer. Although she can live for up to 25 years, the modern cow used for milk goes to slaughter at around five years old.
To obtain 'dairy' products, a cow will have been selectively bred to provide as much milk as possible, and more than her body can cope with. The amount of milk she has been made to produce is around six times the amount that her calf would normally drink. As a result, she is at high risk of suffering mastitis, a painful infection of the udder, and lameness from being forced to spend hours standing on hard concrete floors being milked several times a day, her udder too heavy for her back legs.
To produce milk, she must be forcibly impregnated every year (like all mammals, a cow’s body only produces milk after she has given birth to her offspring). Her calf is removed within a few days so that the milk meant for him or her can be drunk by us. Just like us, she has a very strong maternal instinct to nurture and protect her calf and suffers immensely when her calf is taken away from her. Cows suffer grief and she may bellow and search for her calf for days. Accounts have been recorded of mother cows going to amazing lengths to get back to their young, one of which walked seven miles to be reunited with her calf after he was sold at auction.
Once separated from her young and deprived of her freedom (they are kept behind fences or in sheds in organic farms as well as in factory farms) she is milked against her will several times a day. To maximise production, she will be made pregnant again within 3 months of giving birth and whilst still lactating. In each lactation, she will typically be milked for ten months, with only two months when she is not milked before her next calf is born. This constant pressure on her body takes its toll on her health and fertility and she will be worn-out or 'spent' at around five years old. No longer producing enough milk to be 'profitable', she will be sent to slaughter and replaced by a younger female.
Female calves may go on to be used for milk but it is not always the farmer who breeds them that ends up carrying on their exploitation. They may be bred by one farmer and sold on, as a result of their status as mere human property. When separated from their mothers and their herd this causes great distress since cows are social herd animals who establish complex relationships with other members. Male calves are of no benefit to the dairy industry. In the UK every year up to 500,000 unwanted male calves are either shot at birth or sold at auction, where most are sent on long journeys to Europe to be killed and turned into veal at just a few months old. Consuming 'dairy' products directly supports the veal industry and the deaths of these calves.
No cow is allowed to live out her natural lifespan of up to 25 years old. She is taken to the slaughterhouse, just like her calves, as soon as her milk output drops below the desired industry level (on both organic farms as well as intensive farms)since she is born only for her capacity to provide milk and profit. This happens at around five years old. She will likely be transported a long distance to the slaughterhouse, as in the UK few slaughterhouses deal with her "low-grade" flesh. By the time she reaches the slaughterhouse, she may be too worn-out or crippled by lameness to even stand. She is referred to as a 'downer cow'. The interests of any exploited animal always give way in favour of the interests of the exploiter. For this reason we can never seriously say that non-human animals are respected until they stop being purposely created for human benefit.
Cows aren’t the only animals exploited for milk. Sheep and goats are also used in this way. In every case the same injustice is repeated: individuals born, deprived of freedom and finally killed in order to obtain a product for our consumption.
Despite the powerful dairy industry’s publicity campaigns it is simply not necessary to consume non-human animal milk or any other dairy products to enjoy good health.
It is true that we need calcium to keep our bones strong and prevent the onset of osteoporosis, but 'dairy' products are neither the only nor the best source of calcium. We can obtain all our calcium requirements from other foods such as green leafy vegetables: kale, spring greens, broccoli; enriched soya milk, calcium-set tofu, calcium-enriched orange juice, dried figs, sesame seeds, tahini, molasses etc.
If you want to continue consuming a product similar to milk, but free from suffering and death, you can opt for a variety of plant based milks which can be found in any supermarket these days. Several brands of soya milk, including sweetened soya milk, can now be found everywhere, most of which go just as well or better than cow’s milk with tea and coffee, cereals and as a cooking ingredient for sauces, cakes etc. All you have to do is follow the traditional recipe, replacing cow’s milk with soya milk. At many supermarkets and most health food stores you can also choose to try almond milk, oat milk or delicious rice milk.
Butter can be substituted with many brands of vegetable margarine, and there are several vegan cheeses on sale at health food stores. As with soya milk, if you don’t like one brand you should try another since they vary in flavour and you are bound to find some that you like. You can also buy very good quality vegan cream and ice-cream from most supermarkets and all health food stores. In any case, without using direct substitutes there are already endless delicious vegan recipes which will never require any type of milk or dairy replacement, as well as the countless ways to replace dairy in our diet.
Sources: FAWC, 1997. Report on the Welfare of Dairy Cattle. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Surbiton: Surrey CIWF Trust, 1993. The Welfare of Dairy Cows. Compassion In World Farming Trust. Petersfield: Hampshire http://www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/nutrition/calcium.aspx