Knowledgebase > Dairy


Last updated 27 November 2017

Dairy Cows – Introduction.

Like any other mammal, to produce milk a cow must become pregnant. At around two years old, sometimes having lived to this point in crammed conditions rather than green pastures, they are artificially impregnated. This is an invasive process where semen is extracted from a bull before they force the dairy cow into a trap where she will be forcibly impregnated. The cow will often be restrained while this occurs so she cannot resist or fight back as an arm is inserted into her rectum and a metal insemination rod is inserted into her uterine body where the semen is deposited.

Fast forward to when the calf is born: he or she will typically be taken from mum within a day. Then it’s time to put the ‘ready-to-milk’ cow back into the herd so more money can be made. This cycle of misery is typically repeated around five times before the cow herself is considered ‘spent’ and no longer offers any value to the Dairy industry.

Cows are maternal and a baby needs a mother.

Like most other mammals, cows are maternal animals and the relationship between the mother and her son or daughter is very important to both of them. In nature, a calf may suckle from their mum for up to 12 months and a strong bond is formed between mother and child. In the dairy industry, they usually get just one day together. Mother cows are known to become quite distressed when their calves are taken away, and have been seen to bellow for days. This process is repeated almost annually, with a new child each year, and the same result.

The separated calf is typically frightened and bewildered, unable to understand why they have been taken away from mum. The stress and trauma created for the baby is significant.

What happens to the babies?

If the baby calf is female, she is destined to endure the same cycle as her mother. If the baby is male, he is killed, either on the farm (a hammer to the skull or cutting of the throat are recommended as suitable methods in Queensland1, for example) or kept in pens for another 10-12 weeks, loaded onto a truck to be sent to slaughter, and turned into 'veal'. Post separation, while some farmers feed the calf colostrum, not all do. Even for those who do, this is no replacement for a mother’s milk.

An estimated 800,0002 bobby calves, a ‘waste product’ of the dairy industry, are killed every year. Some are killed at one-day old, mostly males though sometimes females if they are deemed unsuitable on the farm. Five-day old calves can have milk withheld for up to 30 hours before being slaughtered (if they were able to stay with their mum, they would have been fed up to five times in this period). As a result, they’re usually frightened, hungry and stressed as they are transported for slaughter – their final destination.

Painful procedures without anaesthesia

Within the first couple of months, a dairy cow will have her horns removed. Removing the horns is typically done in one of two painful ways:

1. Disbudding - horns are removed and cauterised with a hot iron 
2. Dehorning - scoop clippers are used to extract the horn as well as the entire root, which is not only painful but can result in a fractured skull. This creates significant pain, trauma and stress for the cow.

Although on the decline, up to 20% of cows still have their tails docked (amputated) which is painful and can cause nerve damage. Again, no pain relief is considered necessary.


Mastitis, caused by bacteria or injury, is the most common ailment for a dairy cow. This is a painful, persistent, inflammatory reaction of the udder tissue. If left untreated, and bear in mind it can be difficult to detect early, severe clinical mastitis can lead to the death of the cow.

The weight of a cow’s unnaturally heavy udder (dairy cows have been bred to maximise udder size) can also cause stretching or tearing of ligaments which can lead to foot issues, such as laminitis. These foot issues can also create more discomfort for the cow.

What happens to the Dairy Cow when she’s no longer profitable?

She will then likely become a ‘beef cow’ and be sent to slaughter. In nature, she could live up to 20 years. In this cycle, she will be killed at around 7, ‘spent’ from such abnormal volumes of milk production. The industry has drained the life from her for most of her adult life. As an older, broken cow, some are too weak to walk onto the truck (and may be killed on the farm instead).

Facts and figures

Australian dairy farmers produce 9,102 million litres of whole milk per year3.

Dairy is the third largest agricultural industry in Australia, worth $2.4 billion in exports. Australia exports around 45 percent of its annual milk production (the top three recipients being China, Japan and Singapore) 4.

There are 2,665,074 dairy cows in Australia (down 2% since 2014-15). With ‘factory farming’ on the rise, milk production has increased by 17% from 2001 to 2015-16 yet the number of dairy farms has declined by 39 per cent, as the below Industry Overview by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources highlighted5.

‘From 2000–01 to 2015–16 the gross value of Australian dairy production increased by 17 per cent in real terms to an estimated $4.3 billion. Over the same period the number of dairy farms declined by 39 per cent ...’


  1. Business Queensland Humane killing of premature and day-old calves [ONLINE] [Accessed 14 October 2017].
  2. The Life of a Dairy Cow Voiceless reported, 2015. [ONLINE] [Accessed 10 October 2017].
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics Agricultural Commodities, Australia [ONLINE][email protected]/0/97B95C93A7FD9B75CA2573FE00162CAF?Opendocument [Accessed 14 October 2017].
  4. National Farmers Federation Major Commodities - Dairy [ONLINE] [Accessed 15 October 2017].
  5. Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Dairy Industry Overview [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 15 October, 2017].

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