I don’t have a personal moral objection to consuming dairy—in theory. However, the practice of dairy farms in the vast majority of cases (and increasingly in more and more countries) has rendered me a vegan via circumstances. We’re conditioned, by both factory farms and family farms, along with the media, our culture at large, most of our families, and sheer nostalgia, to envision our dairy coming from happy cows who loll away the afternoon grazing on lush green fields and basking in natural relief during their natural milkings. In far less than one percent of cases, that has some semblance to reality.
The real life of a dairy cow is in some cases a far worse fate than those already lined up at the slaughterhouse. Emphasis on already. Once a dairy cow has maxxed out her prime milk-giving years, around the age of five, where else does she go but the slaughter line? And we know that. For most westerners, and certainly anyone reading this, ignorance when it comes to knowing where our dairy and meat comes from is a choice. Not making a choice in our diet is making a choice.
This is the paragraph many readers will want to skip. A cow that produces milk needs to be kept perpetually pregnant in order to, well, produce milk. In most cases, this means her calves are taken away from her within hours after their birth. The huge, artificial influx of calves born solely to be slaughtered is a byproduct of the dairy industry many of us are particularly good at overlooking. Some of these calves aren’t even slaughtered for meat, but rather killed as a nuisance while their mother is immediately impregnated again. Some of the female calves are earmarked for slaughter for consumption (perhaps as veal) or destined to the same fate as their mother. All males will be slaughtered, almost certainly inhumanely, and many immediately. Artificial insemination, artificial milking regimens, and sometimes drugs are used to inflate milk production. The most common drug is bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, which is banned in the European Union and Canada due to potential links to cancer in humans, as well as animal welfare, but is legal in the US. Injecting cows with rBGH is linked to mastitis in the cow, a condition that kills 16.5% of dairy cows annually according to the US Department of Agriculture. (In some ways, those cows are “lucky”). Those that don’t die are often injected with hormones, which of course goes directly into the milk. Zero-grazing is increasingly common around the world, a form of dairy “farming” in which the cow’s food is brought to them—there’s no “need” for the cow to graze, to go outside, or to ever see sunlight (at least, no need in order for them to be continuously pregnant and producing milk). Given the secrecy of the farming industry at large, it’s impossible to know for certain what percentage of our dairy cows spend the entirety of their lives standing on concrete, never getting exercise, never socializing, and in poor health—and never enjoying even a trace of happiness. However, the secrecy in itself is a pretty big indicator of what the life of the average dairy cow looks like.
Terms like organic and free-range don’t mean much. “Free-range,” as defined by the USDA, only requires that the dairy cows have some access to outdoor areas. It doesn’t specify how often, the size of the outdoors, or the quality of the outdoors. Technically, a dairy cow could be legally free-range and spend ten minutes in a tiny, dirty pen area once a month. Plus, the vast majority of dairy products sold and consumed aren’t free-range, anyway.
If a dairy cow doesn’t die in a dairy farm, from mastitis or something else, she will certainly die by age six at the latest in a slaughterhouse (or perhaps simply killed at the dairy farm when she’s no longer “performing” as she should). A cow’s natural lifespan is around 20 years. The average dairy cow will have birthed up to eight calves, none of which she will ever raise. Cows separated from their young scream for them for days. Chances are, she’ll have been born from a dairy cow herself and never know anything different than what’s inarguably a bleak, miserable existence.
It’s nearly impossible to know the real origins of the dairy we consume. In some cases, you may know a local family dairy farmer where you get your products fresh and, rightfully, at a premium. You might even be lucky enough to be able to visit the farm and see for yourself how these dairy cows are raised and treated. But have you asked what happens to the dairy cows after they’re no longer good producers? It’s simply financially impossible for a dairy farmer to continue to care for a cow once she’s passed her milking days.
For the vast majority of us, we don’t know for certain where our dairy products come from—and yet we do. We just choose to pretend otherwise. And it’s not just in the milk we buy or the cheese that adorns our pasta at restaurants. It’s hidden in the ingredients of countless products. It’s the whey powder added to our protein shakes and the evaporated milk in our chocolates. Some dairy products are obvious, like our grilled cheese sandwiches, but so many more are hidden in the items we consume daily. They’re way down on the ingredients list and it’s impossible to ever trace their origin.
All dairy cows suffer. Most suffer the entirety of their short lives. The “fortunate” few on the handful of small family dairy farms left will still end up at the slaughterhouse well before their natural time. Does it matter if we’re actively supporting animal cruelty before or after the animal’s death? Is it “better” to consume an animal’s product because she’s still alive—likely in horrific conditions—rather than after she’s been butchered to fill our plates?
We all have a choice. A more informed choice than we often like to tell ourselves. I choose my diet mostly for moral reasons, somewhat for environmental reasons, but also because there’s truth in the idea that we are what we ate. So, what are we when we eat dairy? We are suffering, we are fear, we are a short and sad lifetime of enslavement. We are mourning for offspring taken from us, we are lame and broken because of our conditions. We are crazed and mad with frustration. We are helplessly railing against a life we know instinctively is wrong and unnatural. We are heartbroken, physically broken, mentally broken, and for what? Because we like the taste of “real” ice cream, because almond milk doesn’t make our cereal taste right, and because we’re really good at lying to ourselves when we see those smiling cow face cartons on our milk cartons.