Cow dairy

Last updated 1 August 2020

The notion that animals do not suffer in the dairy industry could not be further from the truth. Dairy not only involves the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals every year, but years of torment for mothers who have their babies taken from them annually and their bodies exploited until they physically cannot take anymore. Like humans, cows are strongly maternal beings who form close bonds with their young and must be pregnant or give birth to produce milk1.


Semen collection:

Anal probe and semen being collected from bull.


Only specific bulls are used for breeding to produce calves of the ‘highest quality’. Semen is collected from bulls through the use of ‘electro-ejaculation’. This involves forcing a large rectal probe inside the anus of the bull that acts to stimulate them until they involuntarily ejaculate2.

When bulls are no longer economically viable for farmers they are generally sent to slaughter. 


Cows being artificially inseminated. Source: No Bull

Artificial insemination (AI):

The AI process involves the farmer forcing their arm into the cow’s anus and holding her cervix as a guide, while inserting a straw (‘gun’) containing the bull semen into the cow’s vagina, through her cervix, and depositing the semen into the body of her uterus3.


Diagram of Artificial Insemination technique. Source: Dairy Australia


Dairy cows are impregnated annually to ensure milk production remains consistent. With a gestation period of 9 months, this means that each year they’ll spend 9 months pregnant with 3 months off/’rest’.

Artificial insemination of cows is used widely within the Australian dairy industry, for several reasons:

  • AI gives farmers significant control over when their herd will be calving. Many farms split the herd’s calving so that some of the herd will calve over autumn and others will calve in spring. This is done to spread the farmers’ workload over the year and to keep milk supplies consistent. For smaller farms the cost of using AI for their herd is often cheaper than feeding a bull for 12 months of the year.
  • Bulls can also be difficult for farmers to handle, so AI proves an easier alternative.
  • For larger herds, farmers have the ability to choose ‘better’ genetics and match cattle with bulls that will fix genetic ‘flaws’4.


Mother cows chasing after their calves after they have been separated from them. Source: Animal Liberation
Watch the video here: 


Calves are separated from their dam (mother) almost immediately - usually within 12-24 hours of birth5. Research has shown this separation causes calves to become distressed, pessimistic and even depressed6. There are also numerous reports of cows crying out for their calves for days to weeks on end after being separated from them. Cows are also known to chase after the vehicle taking their calves away, in a desperate attempt to stay with them.

Some of the female calves are reared by farmers to eventually be ‘replacements’ in the milking herd, generally having their first insemination at 15 months old and birthing their first calf at 2 years old.


The term ‘bobby calf’ refers to a newborn calf who is less than 30 days old.

Male bobby calves, unable to ever produce milk, are largely considered waste products of the dairy industry; aside from a small number kept and used for breeding, the majority are killed within the first week of their lives due to their lack of usefulness to the industry.

One third of female bobby calves born into the dairy industry will also be slaughtered as they are not required for replacement in the ‘milking herd’7.

Bobby calves in Australian slaughterhouse holding pens.


Dairy Australia estimates that an average of 400,000 bobby calves are slaughtered in abattoirs every year, however this figure does not include bobby calves that are slaughtered on-farm8. Other sources estimate as many as 700,000 bobby calves are slaughtered in Australia each year. Calves can be killed on farm by method of blunt-force trauma within their first 24 hours of life 9. Other methods include the use of firearms, captive bolt gun or chemical euthanasia 10.

Outline for the destruction of cattle. Source: Dairy Australia


If calves have not been killed on farm within their first 5 days of life, they are often taken to livestock sales to be sold to abattoirs. The hides are pulled from their slaughtered bodies to be turned into leather, while rennet for cheese making is extracted from their stomachs, and their by-products and blood are sometimes used by the pharmaceutical industry 11. A small number of bobby calves are grown out for longer, up to 20 weeks, to be slaughtered for veal 12.

There have been several campaigns exposing the cruel treatment of bobby calves in the Australian dairy industry during their transport, sale and slaughter.

Dairy cows

Dairy cows waiting to be milked.


Selective breeding of cows turning them into milk machines:

Dairy cows have been selectively bred in order to produce higher levels of milk than they would naturally 13, with modern dairy cows producing around 20-40L of milk per day14. Calves only drink 5-10L of milk per day – the industry uses this as a justification for separating calves from mothers as they say mothers are at risk of developing mastitis due to calves not drinking enough. However, this is only a solution to a problem that the industry has created by turning cows into milk machines.

Dairy cows udder



Cows are generally milked twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, however some herds are milked up to 3 times a day. Far from the days of squeezing milk by hand into a bucket, milking today is done by hooking cows up to an industrial machine called a milking parlor.

It is estimated that up to one third of dairy cows suffer from mastitis, a painful inflammation of the mammary glands caused by bacteria entering the teat and moving into the udder. Contaminated equipment can quickly spread mastitis throughout a herd. Mastitis causes the udder to be swollen, hot, and sometimes gangrenous and blackened. Cows can become extremely unwell, miserable, and even die. Milk produced by cows with mastitis is abnormal and can contain increased levels of blood and pus.


Productive lifecycle of the modern dairy cow. Source: Voiceless

Dairy cows are culled once this exploitative cycle has taken a toll on their body and their milk production declines, making them less economically viable for farmers. Dairy cows are culled at approximately 7 years old, often whilst pregnant. 


Live export:

Australia exports dairy heifers overseas to be used as breeding stock, in order to expand dairy herds in those countries15. In 2017, Australia’s export of dairy cattle totaled 51,976 head. Cows are subjected to extreme conditions onboard live export ships, often deprived of food and water for long periods of time16 and commonly succumbing to heat stroke, respiratory disease and physical trauma long before reaching their intended destination17. These animals are often exported to countries where they will have little to no legal protections whatsoever18.


Environmental impacts of cow’s milk

Methane and waste

Cattle manure emits methane, a greenhouse gas estimated to be roughly 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas19 . The warming potential of methane is 25 times than that of CO2, meaning 1 tonne of methane is the equivalent of 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide20. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that the livestock sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector. The dairy industry alone is producing 12% of Australia’s total GHG emissions21.

Water use

10% of Australian water use is attributed to the dairy industry22. It takes a massive 1,020 litres of water to produce just 1 litre of milk.