'Mega factory farm' threat grows for Australian dairy cows

If a disturbing international trend takes hold in Australia, dairy cows cruelly confined to factory farms could become the 'norm'...

LAST UPDATED: 27 March 2017

More milk, more cruelty. The practice of keeping a dairy cow indoors on concrete and feeding her mainly grain — to stop her 'wasting' energy on walking and grazing — could be starting to take hold in Australia as industry demand for more milk at any cost seemingly ratchets up.

Signalling increased community concern, local residents in Gippsland recently rose up to defeat a proposed expansion of a dairy mega factory farm in the region, where 1,000 cows would have been kept largely indoors and their milk exported.

(The company applying for expansion) has as its showpiece the biggest farm in east China ... There, more than 5000 cows — some imported from Australia — are housed in large barns, milked three times a day ... and fed on alfalfa hay imported from the US or oaten hay and vetch from Australia...The Australian, 4 April 2015

Dairy cows in shed on concrete floor - Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Dairy cows naturally graze throughout the day, but internationally more and more dairy facilities are restricting cows to hard-floored barns, or 'feedpads', and entirely replacing their grass-based diet with high-energy grain-based feed. This housing system is referred to by the dairy industry as 'total mixed-rations' (TMR) production, but is essentially factory farming of cows.

Currently only a very small number of Australian dairy facilities use TMRs, but animal advocates and some in the dairy industry are concerned that intensive dairy production systems favoured overseas are starting to appear in Australia.

While long walks to milking sheds from pasture may also carry some welfare risks, standing on hard concrete-based flooring all day can cause lameness and injuries; a high-energy diet has been linked to painful digestive conditions like 'acidosis'; and selective breeding for extreme milk production already leaves dairy cows vulnerable to suffering mastitis (an infection of the udder).

The main reason for switching from the traditional Australian grazing systems to barn-housed cows is that if the dairy cows don’t have to walk several kilometres twice a day to be milked, and use less energy keeping warm, their milk production becomes all-year round and increases from an average 6000 litres a cow each year to more than 11,000 litres each.The Australian, 4 April 2015

Industrialised milking - Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Dairy — made crueller

In almost all commercial dairy production, a dairy cow's life is one of repeated separation and sorrow. When she gives birth to a baby — which she is usually forced to do every 13 months to keep producing milk — she'll nuzzle and lick her calf, making soft noises thought to help the calf recognise her voice. The bond between mother and baby is undeniable. But her baby will be taken away, usually within twelve hours, so her milk can be collected for human consumption. She'll often call for her calf in distress, sometimes for days or weeks, but they won't be reunited.

If her calf is male, he'll most likely be killed at only days old, because he will never produce milk. This is the sad fate of hundreds of thousands of 'bobby calves' each year in the Australian dairy industry. If she's female, she might live — to endure the same trauma as her mother, when her own calves are taken and when she is eventually sent to the slaughterhouse.

What freedom means to cows

These lucky dairy cows were saved from heading to the slaughterhouse after a long German winter inside a barn — and their joyous response to freedom (and lush spring grass!) will warm your heart.

How you can help create a kinder world for cows

  • The worrying move towards factory farming of Australian dairy cows is only happening to meet consumer demand for 'cheap' milk. You can help reduce this demand by going deliciously dairy-free! With the range of calcium-rich dairy alternatives growing every day, it's only becoming simpler and more enjoyable to make choices that are kind to dairy cows and their calves.
  • A carefully crafted industry image of cows grazing on green pastures means that the reality of dairy comes as a shock to most Australians, who would never knowingly support cruelty to cows. You can help reveal the truth by sharing this page with family and friends.

Voiceless 2015, The Life of the Dairy Cow: A report on the Australian dairy industry
Dairy Australia 2010, Feeding Systems Used by Australian Dairy Farmers

Curious about calcium? Discover the facts about the calcium dairy myth...

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