The Lifecycle of the Dairy Cow

When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, my parents would take us to a dairy farm down the street. They had a little market that sold some delicious ice cream. You could even go behind the store and watch the cows grazing in the pasture. Sometimes the cows would come up to the fence, munching their cud, to visit people. “This ice cream came from you,” I said to them, holding up a scoop of chocolate chip — noticing the same pattern on the cowhide as what was on my cone. Little did I know what these cows go through to get that dollop of ice cream to me. I appreciate these gentle creatures even more now, and hopefully after you read this, you will too.

For most people, there’s a huge disconnect between the food they see at the grocery store and how it gets in the package. I’d guess the dairy industry prefers it that way, because lots of customers might second-guess purchasing a gallon of milk while shopping. The overwhelming majority of dairy cows live a very fast, eventful and torturous life — yet it’s quite productive.

In the wild, bovids (cow-like beings) can live up to 25 years. On industrialized farms, they live for about 3 to 5 years. Let’s take a look at that lifecycle.

Phase 1 — Life as a Heifer
A cow that’s never had a calf is called a heifer. Around 15 months old, she’s put into an enclosure, called a cattle crush, where she is artificially inseminated.

You can learn how to do it here. Despite the nice illustrations, the process doesn’t seem like very much fun for all those involved.

Approximately 9 months after having a human arm and a dipstick-like tube stuck in her reproductive parts, the cow is ready to give birth.

Phase 2 — Motherhood
The USDA recommends the calf and its mother be separated an hour after birth. That way the cow’s colostrum (the extra-nutritious milk mammals produce for newborns) can be extracted and tested to see if it’s fit to be sold. If it’s low-quality colostrum, it can be fed to the calves. High-quality colostrum is packaged as a supplement marketed to help with ailments ranging from diarrhea to blood pressure — none of which has been proven to work.

If colostrum isn’t being collected, the calves are allowed to stay with their mothers for 1–4 days before being removed. Since we mammals like to bond with our babies, this early separation greatly affects both cow and calf. The mothers are known to scream for days after their babies are taken. Once baby mamma cow is fertile again, Phase 2 is repeated. Until she she’s no longer able to make milk.

Phase 3a — If the Calf is Female
After being separated from their moms, the newborn females are fed either formula or low-quality colostrum until they’re ready to join the milking herd. Then in a few months, they’ll be inseminated like their mothers and the process repeats. (See Phase 1)

Phase 3b — If the Calf is Male
So what if a calf is unlucky enough to be born male? Depending on the farm, and the state it’s in, there are a few things that can happen to the baby bulls — if they’re not killed on the spot.

Option #1. They’re raised to sire more cattle (this doesn’t really happen very often, since it’s not economical to raise a bull when farmers can just purchase bull sperm and only raise the cows).

Option #2. They get trucked out to a veal farm where they spend the next 18 months in crates, unable to turn around until they are slaughtered. This practice is now illegal in a handful of states. You can read more about it at the Humane Society.

Option #3. They go to a “humane” veal farm, where for the next 18 months they are able run around a bit and eat some grass before they get slaughtered as “rose” veal. Here’s an example of a rose veal farm.

Many people will not eat veal because of how the bulls are treated. However, veal farmers make a fascinating argument. They reason that since half the dairy cows brought into the world are male, then people who consume dairy should also consume veal. What else are we supposed to do with all those boys?

Phase 4 — The End
Due to the strain put on a cow’s body (and I haven’t even gotten into hormones for milk production and fertility) a dairy cow’s life expectancy is no more than 5 years. Constantly being pregnant, not getting exercise, producing and being milked an ungodly amount by scary pumping machines sure takes its toll. From inactivity the cows actually lose their ability to walk. All this milking often results in painful mastitis (which of course leads to antibiotic usage that contributes to antibiotic resistance we all have to deal with), Naturally there comes a drop in her milk production, so off to the slaughterhouse she goes, to become ground beef.

So why should we care? What’s the point of appreciating the lowly cow? After so many years of domestication the thing is basically a mooing vegetable, right? Not so! Cows display many behaviors that we would consider to be intelligent. They solve puzzles, show emotion, even make friends and enemies.

This article isn’t trying to convince anybody to cut dairy out of their diets. Delicious milk products are interwoven in our foods tighter than the braids of Swiss Miss herself. On the other hand, what I am trying to do is let people in on the process of what it means to be a dairy cow. And if you don’t like what they go through, there are alternatives for just about every cow product around. Here’s a handy list of alternative dairy products. Add your favorites in the comments!

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