Dairy Cows

Many people don’t associate dairy cows with factory farming because, unlike pigs and chickens, who are nearly all bred and raised indoors, dairy cows, depending on what country we are talking about, live at least part of their lives outdoors. The trend, however, is towards 100% indoor dairy farming, and towards ever larger units. This is known in the trade as ‘zero-grazing’. It is likely that the image of the dairy cow grazing in the meadow will ultimately disappear from the landscape, in the same way that we rarely see pigs or chickens outdoors nowadays.

A Change of Heart

Michelle worked as a dairy farmer in Israel for 15 years. Her decision to quit this cruel industry was largely influenced by her experience as a mother. In the dairy industry, calves are routinely stripped away from their mothers so that farmers can sell the milk that was intended for them. For Michelle, this process of separating mother and child became too much to bear. She eventually went vegan and her hope is that others will learn about the cruelty of dairy farming and do the same.

Read about farmers who recognise farm animals as friends, not food.

Many Irish dairy cows live at least part of their lives outdoors, however the future for the dairy cow globally is the indoor system, similar to that seen on this footage.

Globally, there are approximately 280 million cows producing milk. The EU is the largest milk producer with about 23 million dairy cows. Milk production is on the increase in South-East Asia. In China, there has been a rapid rise in milk production with an estimated 12 million cows currently in the system. This number is rising fast, despite the fact that, until recently, milk did not feature much in the Chinese diet.

The Holstein-Friesian is the most common type of dairy cow in the UK, Europe and the USA. She has been bred to produce very high yields of milk and the evidence bears this out: milk production per cow has doubled in the past forty years. An average of 22 litres per day is typical in the UK, with some cows producing up to 60 litres in a day during peak lactation.

Traditionally, a cow should live for about twenty years, however in the intensive system that is the modern dairy, the physical toll of continuous milk production wears the animal out with alarming rapidity. Sometimes the cow is despatched to the slaughterhouse on account of chronic lameness, and in any case most dairy cows will end up in the slaughterhouse after three or four years when the quality of milk produced deteriorates. The slaughterhouse is the thanks she gets for her hard labour.

Dairy cows are bred for high milk production. Their flesh has much less value than that of the cow raised exclusively for meat. They are artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth, after which they produce milk for ten months.

The vast majority of calves born in the dairy system are taken away from their mother within hours of birth. This causes obvious distress to the cow and the calf, and has long-term effects on the calf’s physical and social development. Most female calves are reared to join the milking herd. Male calves (approximately 50% of calves born will be male) have no use in the modern dairy. Typically, they are killed shortly after birth, or they are exported for the meat industry. These journeys can last for eight or nine days in the case of countries in the Far East or in North Africa. Often only a week old, the calves are frightened, hungry and exhausted. In the worst, and common scenario, the calves are exported to countries that specialise in the raising of young calves for veal, where in veal units, they will live a short and miserable life in close confinement in windowless sheds.

On large dairy farms, cows are typically kept in a holding facility where they are fed and watered. In some systems, they have their waste removed mechanically, before being led into the milking area. Milking is almost always carried out mechanically.

Cows can go lame for a number of reasons – bacterial infection, such as hoof lesions, sole ulcers, laminitis and digital dermatitis. These are usually caused by the cows standing for very long periods on concrete floors, or by ineffective foot trimming, or by inadequate nutrition, and often by a combination of all of these. Mastitis (inflammation of the udder) is very common and is caused by bacterial infection prevalent among dairy cows. The udder becomes infected, usually as a result of contaminated milking equipment or bedding. Cows that are housed for long periods of time are more likely to develop mastitis than those out in the open.

Cow infertility is a major productivity problem for farmers with high-yielding dairy cows. It can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, by general poor health, by stress, by a combination of all the above.

In some systems, cows are kept in tie-stalls, where the cow is tethered by either a chain, stanchion (metal bars) or by a rope tied around the neck, for up to 24 hours a day, throughout her life. Tie-stalls prevent the cows from exercising, from socialising with other cows, from turning around, from scratching themselves.

Cattle are ruminants. They graze on grasses and other vegetation. They require a lot of fibre in their diet. Dairy cows that produce high yields of milk are fed concentrates and less forage. This leads to a build-up of acids in the rumen (part of the stomach) which can cause acidosis. Cows with acidosis often have diarrhoea and can develop laminitis (damage to the feet that causes lameness).


There are currently about 18,000 dairy farmers in Ireland, producing 8 billion litres of milk from 1.5 million cows. Cork is by far the largest producing county, with 380,000 cows. Tipperary comes next with 174,000, followed by Limerick with 119,000 and Kerry with 105,000. Ireland’s dairy industry operated for decades within a milk quota system imposed by the EU. This quota system was abolished in 2015 and since then, there has been an exponential increase both in the number of dairy cows and in the volume of milk produced.