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The Real Deal with Dairy

Growing awareness of farmed animal welfare has led many caring Australians to actively seek more conscious choices with the products they buy. From meat, to eggs, to fish, individuals are becoming mindful of how their choices at the checkout impact animal welfare and are wanting to purchase from producers that give their animals a good life with higher standards of animal care. But what about dairy?
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 21 June 2024

Growing awareness of farmed animal welfare has led many caring Australians to actively seek more conscious choices with the products they buy. From meat, to eggs, to fish, individuals are becoming mindful of how their choices at the checkout impact animal welfare and are wanting to purchase from producers that give their animals a good life with higher standards of animal care. But what about dairy?

For those who choose to include dairy in their diet, but also want to support better welfare, making an informed choice can be frustratingly difficult. With many other animal-based products, there are labels and assurance schemes to help guide decision making, but when it comes to dairy in Australia these are lacking. The nature of dairy product production also makes it hard to trace a product from the market back to an individual farm, as multiple farms will often supply milk to a single processor. Processors then use the milk, mixed together from all of their farm suppliers, to make a variety of products such as cheese, yoghurt and cream as well as carton milk.

So how do dairy farming practices impact the roughly 1.3 million dairy cows across Australia, and how can the welfare challenges currently inherent to dairy farming be addressed?

How the milk is made

Cows are curious, playful, and intelligent animals who form close bonds with other cows in their herd. In Australia, the majority of dairy cows live at least part of their lives outside on pasture, so while there is a lower risk of some of the welfare issues associated with intensive indoor dairy farming, there are still some key welfare issues in dairy farming that need improvement.

Many consumers don't think of this when they open a carton of milk – but like all mammals, cows must give birth in order to produce milk, and so a mother cow is kept on an almost continuous cycle of pregnancy, birth and lactation throughout her adult life to ensure she continues to produce a high volume of milk. This cycle will eventually take a toll on her body nd when her physical health, fertility or milk yield declines, she will generally be sent to slaughter, usually at around the age of 4 – 8 years.

The calves born into these cycles are typically separated from the mother cow soon after birth, usually within 24 hours. Reasons given for this early separation include managing disease risk, increasing the amount of saleable milk, and increasing the ease of animal management. However, early separation causes distress for both the cow and her calf; and while there is evidence that very early separation can reduce distress as there is less time to bond, there is also evidence of the animal welfare benefits when calves are reared by their mothers for longer, such as improved calf growth rates and reduced risk of mastitis for cows. The dairy industry could  significantly improve cow and calf welfare by implementing a more gradual separation process.

What happens to her calf?

Most female dairy calves are reared as replacement calves to join the milking herd. A small proportion of female calves are reared to be used for breeding. Male calves and surplus female calves may be reared for beef or killed on farm at birth, though most  (around 400,000 per year) become bobby calves . Sadly, these bobby calves are considered low value, an unwanted by-product of producing the milk, and are often subject to a lower standard of care, cleanliness, and housing than female replacement calves. This causes undue stress to the young calves, already vulnerable from being separated from their mothers. Bobby calves are typically fasted (not given food or water), transported and then slaughtered from five days old onwards.

Whether calves born into dairy are destined to join the dairy herd or not, it’s important that special consideration is given to their vulnerability as young animals, and that they are cared for in a way that meets their specific needs. This is where having enforceable and consistent standards of care could go a long way to raising calf welfare. In addition, strategies such as raising more calves as beef animals would help reduce the number of calves that are killed at a very young age.

Other key concerns

Lameness and mastitis are common health problems for dairy cows, and they impact on cow welfare due to the pain and discomfort they cause.

Lameness is a painful foot condition that can occur when dairy cows are regularly made to walk long distances from paddocks to shed in wet conditions, particularly if the walking tracks aren’t well maintained or if cows are pushed to move too fast. It can also occur by standing on concrete floors for long periods or walking on stones or other rough surfaces. The soles of the feet can become overworn and bruised. However, lameness may also be related to nutrition, infectious disease, or impatient stock handling. Good dairy cow care – including diagnosing and treating lameness early, alongside proper maintenance of the areas the dairy cows use and low stress stock handling - can reduce the risk of lameness and decrease this unnecessary suffering.

Mastitis is an infection that causes painful inflammation of a dairy cow’s udder. It is typically caused by bacteria and is one of the most important health and welfare issues affecting dairy cows. It can affect up to 10% of dairy cows each lactation and is mostly associated with poor udder hygiene caused by dirty milking equipment or environmental conditions (e.g., mud). The risk of mastitis can also be affected by the shape of the udder and cow nutrition. If left untreated, it can cause death in severe cases. Good dairy management such as maintaining proper hygiene, and careful handling and observation during milking, can reduce the risk of mastitis and ensure that when it does occur, it’s detected and treated promptly.

What you can do to help dairy cows

There’s often a disconnect when it comes to dairy, whether it’s because there’s a preconceived notion of happy cows spending their days grazing on green hills, or because milk products – like eggs – come from animals that aren't immediately slaughtered to produce the product. And, there are still those that still don't make the conscious connection that, in order for milk to be produced, a dairy cow must be impregnated and lactating over and over again for her entire lifespan. This includes enduring being separated from her calf each time.

Many dairy farmers do care about their animals, but there is still a lot of work to be done to overcome the welfare issues inherent to the industry. Dairy farmers should have a robust action plan for reducing lameness and mastitis in their herds; multi-modal pain relief should be standard for painful husbandry procedures such as calf disbudding; and all animals on farm, including bobby calves, should be given top quality care, with the goal of eliminating ‘wastage’ altogether.  

Conscious consumers can also make a difference, by showing brands that dairy cow welfare matters to them. For those that choose to buy milk, cheese, yoghurt or other dairy products, ask the brand or producer directly about their animal welfare standards and farming practices and choose to purchase from those that are open and transparent with their information.

Every purchasing decision is the chance to speak up for farmed animals and influence the dairy industry to improve cow and calf welfare.

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