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Exploitation of cows, calves and steers

Cows and their sons, calves and steers, are exploited for several purposes. Cows are kept to produce milk, for which they are kept in a continuous reproductive cycle: they give birth to calves from which they are separated shortly after, and are then milked until they are again made pregnant. Calves are often killed when they are just babies to be eaten as tender meat, or raised for a few months for “veal” or “beef” production. Their lives end as soon as they are fat enough for the purpose for which they were bred.


Milk production

Cows are mammals. This means that for them to give milk, in normal cases, they need to be pregnant. This is often done through artificial insemination, with semen obtained from bulls who have been selected to have daughters who secrete large quantities of milk. Today, this method is being substituted by embryo transfer. With this technique, embryos produced by certain cows selected for the purpose of producing embryos (sometimes called “supercows”) are transferred to recipient cows. Problems can occur, the most common being that the supercow embryo is too large for the recipient cow. As soon as the cows give birth, their calves are taken away from them. The separation of the mother cow and her calf is an extremely traumatic experience for both the mother and the calf, who call for each other for days.1 Male calves will be used for meat production, while females are usually used like their mothers as milk producers. After their babies are taken away from them, cows are milked, usually by milking machines that are connected to them. This can last for around 10 months, after which point they are made pregnant again. And then the process starts again.

In this way, the lives of cows consist of a continuous cycle of being impregnated, giving birth to a calf who is taken from her, being milked and then, only a few months later, being impregnated again. This often occurs in factory farms with uncomfortable concrete floors, in which many cows spend their whole lives.2

Milk production per cow has increased in the last few decades, and it continues to grow. This has been made possible by using genetic selection and artificial breeding, as well as by changes to the nutritional content of their food. In addition many dairy cows have been injected with bovine somatotrophin, a peptide hormone which has been genetically engineered to increase their productivity. This causes many health problems, including mastitis and lameness.

This increase in milk production means that an average cow used for dairy production in countries where the dairy industry is significantly industrialized can give up to six times the milk that a calf would need. It would be feasible to exploit the cow and yet not separate her from her calves and kill them when they are just babies. This is not done, however, because more milk can be obtained by separating them and because it permits the maintenance of the veal industry.

The fact that cows can produce so much milk has a positive consequence, which is that fewer cows are exploited to meet the demand for milk. Yet it also means the cows who are exploited suffer from greater health problems because of the greater physical demands on their bodies. When a cow’s production decreases she is killed. This usually happens when she is between three and six years old, not because she is no longer able to produce milk, but because she does not produce as much as younger cows and it’s more profitable to replace her. She may be used for three, four or sometimes five lactations. Her body is then used to produce “ground beef”, which is commonly consumed in hamburgers. If her life were respected she could live up to 25 years or more.


Calves raised to produce “veal”

As we have seen above, calves are separated from their mothers shortly after coming into existence. In some cases this happens only hours after being born. In other cases, the calves are not taken away immediately, but are left with their mothers for one or two days so they can suckle the colostrum from their mothers, which boosts their resistance to some diseases. The separation causes a negative emotional state to calves,3 who cry for their mothers, in vain, for days. That is, if they survive. In some cases, the calves are immediately sent to be killed and sold for their tender flesh. Calves considered to be “non-viable” are killed the same day they are born. They need not have any lethal condition, but simply, for any reason, may not be profitable to raise for “veal” or “beef” production.

In another cases, calves die during or inmediately following birth. Currently, the average incidence of perinatal mortality in cows and heifers varies between 2 and 20% across dairy industries internationally with the majority of countries between 5 and 8%. The major causes of bovine perinatal mortality are dystocia (35%) and anoxia (30%).4

The paradox is that the fate of many of those who survive is worse than that of the animals who are killed before they are one or two days old, because they are made to suffer terribly due to the way they live.5 They spend their entire short lives in crates only slightly bigger than their own bodies. In many cases, their necks are chained or tied with a rope, so they can barely move. In some cases, even their heads are held in place so they can’t move them at all. Their movements are severely restricted so their muscles do not develop and their flesh remains tender. In fact, because they are never able to exercise,6 their muscles are so atrophied that they may even have problems walking when they are transported to the slaughterhouse. In other cases they have slightly more room and are kept in individual pens, yet they are nevertheless alone and deprived of any social contact. And the possibilities for exercising are still very limited.

Finally, they are given food formulas that are poor in nutrients such as minerals, in particular iron, so their flesh remains pale and tender. This is not only bad for the animals because it makes them weak, but also because it causes them very severe digestive disorders.

Sometimes they are not left in crates alone but raised together with other calves outdoors. The health of calves reared in this way is typically better than that of those kept indoors, not only because they can eat better but also because they are able to exercise. Also, as would be expected, they are less stressed than those kept in individual pens or stalls. Yet they are still taken from their mothers, which causes them much distress, and are usually killed while they are between only three and 18 weeks old.


Calves raised to produce “beef”

Those calves that are not used to produce veal are raised to produce “beef”. The way they spend their lives varies. Some of them are kept for their entire lives in indoor feedlots. Others spend the first six months of their lives outdoors. After that period, they are brought into barns or pens, where they stay until they are sent to a slaughterhouse. When they are outdoors, however, they often lack any shelter, and may have to endure harsh weather conditions. In almost all cases when they live in groups they live in crowded conditions.7 These calves whose destiny is to be used for meat production are fed with milk replacers until they start to eat solid food. Milk replacers are used because the milk produced by cows is sold for human consumption. In some cases, calves are reared with nurse cows (who are not their mothers). When they start to eat solid food, they are given food products with high concentrations of grains designed to make them grow as much as possible. This diet is not good for their digestive health, and even though they are young they have many problems, including ulcers.

Antibiotics are commonly given to these animals until they are around four months old because it increases their appetite and therefore their growth. Of course it also prevents some diseases. This has bad effects on their health, although since they are killed when they are very young they commonly die before the most problematic effects of massive antibiotic consumption manifest into serious health problems. They are killed when they have grown enough that it is no longer profitable to feed and keep them, usually between the ages of six to nine months.


In addition to all of this, several kinds of mutilations are standard in the industry:


To mark who animals belong to, as slaves, they are branded, which is a procedure which can cause them much suffering.

Tail docking

The tails of cows are cut. This is done allegedly to prevent certain diseases, although a main reason why it was introduced was to make it easier to milk cows (because in this way their tails, which might be stained with excrement, cannot interfere with the milking).8 This procedure can be done in different ways. It can be done by simply cutting their tails with a sharp instrument, or it can be done by putting a rubber ring very tightly around the tail until a point at which the tail dies. It falls off or is cut off with a sharp instrument. In either case, the animals feel much pain not only when they lose their tail, but also afterwards. In addition, this mutilation leaves them with no way to defend themselves against flies in the summer.


Males are castrated because it increases their growth rate and because it reduces aggression between them in feeding lots and during transport. It’s also done to reduce possible injuries to workers when they transport the animals and in slaughterhouses. Castration can be done by simply cutting the animals’ testicles, by cutting the spermatic cord or by placing a very tight rubber cord over the testicles which stops the blood flow to them. No anesthetics are given for this painful operation (supposedly “to avoid complications”).9


This is often done at the same time that the animals are castrated. This is another very painful procedure which can be done by cutting the horns of the calves or by burning them.10 Caustic chemicals can be used for this. This is done in order to reduce the risks to workers in the transport, handling and killing of animals. In addition, it is done to reduce the harm that steers can cause to each other if they are bred together in feedlots, since they are crowded and stressed there and fights can occur. Also, if they don’t have horns the bruises they might suffer during their transport can be reduced. It is clear that it is all due to factors introduced by human exploitation that the idea of dehorning them has been developed. When they are only a few weeks old (less than a month) this procedure is done using caustic potash or electric irons (this is probably the most common method). When they are older other methods may be used, such as simply sawing the horns off, or using clippers to cut them off.


A single exploitation system

As we have seen above, the exploitation of all these animals, those who are killed when they are only a few weeks old, those who are killed when they are a few months old, and the cows exploited until they are exhausted, are clearly linked together. It is important to bear this is in mind since many people in good faith reject eating meat because they don’t want to eat animals yet consume dairy products in the belief this is not harmful to them. However, the consumption of milk and veal is linked, and by demanding one of these products we are promoting the production of the other. The use of leather, which is part of the economic value of these animals, also contributes to this exploitation. To reject the killing of animals one must also reject dairy production.

Further readings:

Breuer, K.; Hemsworth, P. H.; Barnett, J. L.; Matthews, L. R. & Coleman, G. J. (2000) “Behavioural response to humans and the productivity of commercial dairy cows”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 66, pp. 273-288.

Broom, D. M. & Johnson, K. G. (1993) Stress and animal welfare, London: Chapman & Hall.

Chesterton, R. N. (1989) “Examination and control of lameness in dairy herds”, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 37, pp. 133-134.

Conneman, G.; Crispell, C.; Grace, J.; Karszes, J.; Torbert, L. & Putnam, L. (1997) Dairy farm business summary: Intensive grazing farms, New York: Department of Agricultural, Resources, and Managerial Economics.

Cook, N. B.; Mentink, R. L.; Bennett, T. B. & Burgi, K. (2007) “The effect of heat stress and lameness on time budgets of lactating dairy cows”, Journal of Dairy Science, 90, pp. 1674-1682.

Eicher, S. D. (2001) “Transportation of cattle in the dairy industry: Current research and future directions”, Journal of Dairy Science, 84, Suppl., pp. E19-E23.

Fallon, R. J. (1992) Calf rearing, Dublin: Teagasc.

Forkman, B.; Boissy, A.; Meunier-Salaün, M.-C.; Canali, E. & Jones, R. B. (2007) “A critical review of fear tests used on cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and horses”, Physiology & Behavior, 92, pp. 340-374.

Fourichon, C.; Beaudeau, F.; Bareille, N. & Seegers, H. (2001) “Incidence of health disorders in dairy farming systems in western France”, Livestock Production Science, 68, pp. 157-170.

Hemsworth, P. H. & Coleman, G. J. (1998) Human-livestock interactions: The stockperson and the productivity and welfare of intensively farmed animals, Wallingford: CAB International.

Hudson, S. J. & Mullord, M. M. (1977) “Investigations of maternal bonding in dairy cattle”, Applied Animal Ethology, 3, pp. 271-276.

Krutzinna, C.; Boehncke, E. & Herrmann, H.-J. (1996) “Organic milk production in Germany”, Biological Agriculture & Horticulture: An International Journal for Sustainable Production Systems, 13, pp. 351-358.

Mellor, D. & Stafford, K. (1999) “Assessing and minimising the distress caused by painful husbandry procedures in ruminants”, In Practice, 21, pp. 436-446.

Metz, J. H. M. & Groenestein, C. M. (eds.) (1991) New trends in veal calf production: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Veal Calf Production, Wageningen: Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation.

Munksgaard, L.; Ingvartsen, K. L.; Pedersen, L. J. & Nielsen, V. K. M. (1999) “Deprivation of lying down affects behaviour and pituitary-adrenal axis responses in young bulls”, Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, Section A, Animal Science, 49, pp. 172-178.

Rauw, W. M.; Kanis, E.; Noordhuizen-Stassen, E. N. & Grommers, F. J. (1998) “Undesirable side effects of selection for high production efficiency in farm animals: A review”, Livestock Production Science, 56, pp. 15-33.

Rollin, B. E. (1995) Farm animal welfare: Social ethical and bioethical issues, Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Sainsbury, D. (1986) Farm animal welfare: Cattle, pigs and poultry, London: Collins.

Sandøe, P.; Christiansen, S. B. & Appleby, M. C. (2003) “Farm animal welfare: The interaction between ethical questions and animal welfare science”, Animal Welfare, 12, pp. 469-478.

Schreiner, D. A. & Ruegg, P. L. (2002) “Responses to tail docking in calves and heifers”, Journal of Dairy Science, 85, pp. 3287-3296.

St.-Pierre, N. R.; Cobanov, B. & Schnitkey, G. (2003) “Economic losses from heat stress by US livestock industries”, Journal of Dairy Science, 86, suppl., pp. E52-E77 [accessed on 18 August 2016].

Huxley, J. N.; Main, D. C. J.; Whay, H. R. Burke, J. & Roderick, S. (2004) “Animal welfare assessment benchmarking as a tool for health and welfare planning in organic dairy herds”, Veterinary Record, 155, pp. 237-239.

Rushen, J.; de Pasille, A. M.; Munksgaard, L. (1999) “Fear of people by cows and effects on milk yield behavior and heart rate at milking”, Journal of Dairy Science, 82, pp. 720-727.

Turner, S. P. & Lawrence, A. B. (2007) “Relationship between maternal defensive aggression, fear of handling and other maternal care traits in beef cows”, Livestock Science, 106, pp. 182-188.

Van Putten, G. (1982) “Welfare in veal calf units”, Veterinary Record, 111, pp. 437-440.

Van Reenen, C. G. & Blokhuis, H. J. (1993) “Investigating welfare of dairy calves involved in genetic modification: problems and perspectives”, Livestock Production Science, 36, pp. 81-90.

Veissier, I.; Gesmier, V.; Le Neindre, P.; Gautier, J. Y. & Bertrand, G. (1994) “The effects of rearing in individual crates on subsequent social behaviour of veal calves”, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 41, pp. 199-210.

West, J. W. (2003) “Effects of heat-stress on production in dairy cattle”, Journal of Dairy Science, 86, pp. 2131-2144.

Wiepkema, P. R.; Van Hellemond, K. K.; Roessingh, P. & Romberg, H. (1987) “Behaviour and abomasal damage in individual veal calves”, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 18, pp. 257-268.

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