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.
The average natural lifespan of a cow is 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.
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.
There are currently about 18,000 dairy farmers in Ireland, producing about 8 billion litres of milk from 1.6 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.
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 28 litres per day is typical in Ireland, with some cows producing up to 60 litres in a day during peak lactation.
Globally, there are almost 300 million cows producing milk. The EU is the largest milk producer, but India has the largest number of dairy cows (58 million). Other large milk producers are the U.S., China, Russia and Brazil.
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.
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).
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.
Globally, the trend 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.
The vast majority of calves born in the dairy system are taken away from their mother within hours of birth. This causes 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 from Ireland 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.