Photographs of industrial rows of cramped pens, each imprisoning a solitary calf, will shock those who still believe in the fairytale of the pastoral dairy farm, where blushing maidens milk smiling cows. Welfare legislation says that calves should only be held in solitary pens until they are eight weeks old, but Animal Equality claims that the battery calves it photographed at Grange Dairy in Dorset are up to six months old – too large for their hutches– and say that some have grazes on their backs. But trading standard officers say there is no evidence of any breach of animal welfare requirements. Marks & Spencer, which sells milk from the farm, said it was “disappointed” to see the report, but it has refused to drop the supplier.
Upsetting as the story is, what happens elsewhere in the dairy industry amounts to systematic cruelty. In reality, the daily practices of most dairy farms are more distressing than those of meat production. A mother cow only produces milk when she gets pregnant. So, starting from the age of 15 months, she will usually be artificially inseminated. Farmers mechanically draw semen from a bull, and then force the female cow into a narrow trap, known as a “cattle crush”, where they will brutally impregnate her.
When she gives birth, her calf will typically be removed within 36 hours, so the farmers can steal and sell you the milk that is meant for her baby. Wildlife experts say that a strong bond between cow and calf is formed quickly after birth. Following that callous separation, the mother will bellow and scream for days, wondering where her baby is. The answer depends on the gender of the calf. If male, he will probably either be shot and tossed into a bin, or sold to be raised for veal, which delays his death by just a matter of months. But if the calf is female, she will usually be prepared for her own entry into dairy production, where she will face the same cycle of hell that her mother is trapped in: forced impregnation, the theft of her baby, and a return to the cattle crush two or three months later.
For at least six months of the year, she will often be confined inside dark sheds. But a growing number of dairy farms in Britain use a “zero-grazing system” in which cows spend their entire lives indoors, in increasingly intensive structures.
A dairy cow is often pumped with antibiotics and hormones so she produces an unnatural amount of milk. Under normal circumstances, she would generally only have a maximum of two litres of milk in her udder at any one time, but rapacious farmers may force her to carry 20 litres or more. Her udder becomes so heavy that it makes her lame and she often develops an agonising infection called mastitis. The strain this puts on her body means she is exhausted by the age of five. Soon, her milk yield will no longer be considered profitable. Or she might simply collapse under the agony of it all. Either way, she will be dragged off by a tractor, squeezed into a cramped truck, and driven to the slaughterhouse, to be killed and turned into burgers or baby food. Her throat slit after five sad and torturous years – under natural circumstances she could have lived to 25.
Dairy is proving to be a vulnerable spot for the entire slaughter racket. The public is steadily waking up to the fact that the reality of milk production is not a matter of trivial imperfections, of concern only to idealist vegans, but in fact the most dark and wicked part of all farming. And delicious, non-dairy milk, cheese and dessert alternatives are now widely available, so as people learn the truth it is easy for them to ditch dairy for good. In January, Sainsbury’s reported that sales of its new own-brand vegan cheeses were 300% greater than it had anticipated.
Smaller businesses are also evolving. The Fields Beneath cafe in north London abruptly stopped offering cow’s milk last week, replacing it with vegan alternatives like oat, almond and soy milk. It posted a notice in its window, explaining that it took the move after watching the powerful five-minute YouTube video entitled Dairy Is Scary. The notice added: “We didn’t think it was either.” And Ice Shack, an ice-cream and dessert parlour in Manchester, is transforming into a fully vegan business next week.
The industry is starting to panic. David Dobbin, chairman of Dairy UK, fears a “demographic time bomb” as young people increasingly shun milk. Only 10 years ago, there were about 21,000 dairy farms in England, Scotland and Wales. Industry analysts believe there will be fewer than 5,000 left by 2026. The National Farmers Union’s dairy spokesman Michael Oakes said on Monday that the message of anti-dairy campaigners is “not going away”. He called for “positive promotion” of the industry.
They’ll have their work cut out. Even the planet’s most shameless and gifted spin doctors would find it hard to put a positive angle on the brutal reality of most dairy farms.