A Question of Ethics: Dairy Farming

Milk: the “nutritious” white stuff that played a huge part of my childhood memories; from drinking vats of banana Nesquik, to turning it multi-coloured in my Lucky Charms cereal. We were advised to drink it daily, and were outraged when Margaret Thatcher “took it away from us” in the 80s.

According to This is Dairy Farming, British dairy farmers produce around 11 billion litres of milk annually; of which 5 billion litres is sold for drinking, and 6 billion litres is used for dairy products such as cheese and butter. We really do love the stuff!

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It’s been in my life for nearly 30 years and a key part of our nation’s diet; so – as a vegan – what’s my beef (pardon the pun) with milk now? Well, it wasn’t until I actually knew where milk came from, and how it’s made, that my taste for dairy soured altogether. I used to love creamy yogurts, and sprinkled cheese on almost everything. Now, not only do I avoid the stuff, I disagree with the ethics of the whole industry entirely.

I personally found my discoveries of the dairy industry rather emotional – so much so that I became vegan as soon as I found out. But in order to really explore the ethics, I want to let the facts speak for themselves; and allow others to share their thoughts and experiences of dairy farming. So here goes…

How Milk is made

After speaking to a few people, it’s surprising to hear that not many people actually know how milk is made. We all know that milk comes from cow’s udders, and that it’s produced very much the same way a human mother produces milk. But how we industrialise the production of  billions of litres, isn’t so widely known.


The production of milk requires that a cow be in lactation, which can only occur after giving birth to a calf. Dairy farmers usually begin breeding or artificially inseminating heifers around 13 months of age; and just like a human mother, cows carry their calf’s for 9 months. After birthing, milk production steadily declines, until, at about 305 days after calving, the cow is dry. About sixty days later (one year after the birth of her previous calf) a cow will calve again.

It is through this continuous cycle of insemination, pregnancy, parturition, and lactation – followed by a rest period of about two months – that milk is produced for human consumption. Most cows are milked twice a day, but in a robotic milking system cows are sometime milked four to five times a day

PHOTO: The Guardian
PHOTO: The Guardian

Newborn calves are removed from their mothers quickly – usually within three days – as the mother/calf bond intensifies over time and delayed separation can cause extreme stress on the calf. Bull calves are raised as steers, and sold for beef or veal; while females follow their mothers and become dairy cows. And so the cycle begins again.

When cows are not productive

Dairy cows may continue to be “economically productive” for many lactations. In most cases, 10 lactations are possible. However; the average herd life of many is fewer than 3 lactations.

Photo: NADIS
Photo: NADIS

In 2009, approximately 19% of the US beef supply came from cull dairy cows: cows that can no longer be seen as an economic asset to the dairy farm. Over 90% of all cows are culled for 4 main reasons:

  1. Infertility – Hormone treatments are sometimes given to dairy cows in some countries to increase reproduction and to increase milk production.
  2. Mastitis – Treatment is possible with antibiotics but milk from organic cows are not given these.
  3. Lameness – caused by a range disease, management or environmental factors.
  4. Production – Production below 12 to 15 litres of milk per day is not economically viable.

Domestic cows can live to 20 years, however those raised for dairy rarely live that long. The average cow is removed from the dairy herd around age four and marketed for beef. The average lifespan of a dairy cow in the UK is about six and a half years.

Dairy and the environment

Though we are talking primarily about the ethics of dairy farming, it’s worth questioning the environmental ethics too; as 2-4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from dairy farms.  A Few questions worth asking are:

  1. Is it the most efficient use of land and food resource?
  2. What is the impact to water supplies and what about contamination?
  3. Is it a sustainable industry for feeding a growing population?
  4. How much of milk packaging is recycled?

world farm day

Additional reading: 

Finally watch the below film from PETA as a slightly more emotional view of dairy: 


So there we have it, a (painfully) objective review of the dairy industry. There is obviously heaps of info I couldn’t fit in, so please share any info you have or feel free to ask questions.

I’m really keen to get to the bottom of the ethics of dairy farming and hear other people opinions; vegan and non vegan! 

So what do you think about the ethics of dairy?

One thought on “A Question of Ethics: Dairy Farming”

  1. Reblogged this on Miss Saigon and commented:
    I’ve always wanted to include some more background knowledge about dairy (and eggs) into my blog but somehow never found the time (and words) to write something. Thank you, Trudi for your summary. I’m sure the more often you confront people with the truth, the more they start thinking about their dietary choices.
    Best example: Jordie. It was another “wow!” moment for me, when he told me he won’t eat KFC again. ❤


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