Our role

The state and territory member Societies provide services to animals in need through their shelters and inspectorates. In the national office, RSPCA Australia works to influence animal welfare policy, practice and legislation across the country
Go to Our role

Key issues

The RSPCA advocates for the welfare of animals across a number of industries, issues and platforms. Help from our supporters is important to progress change. Working together is key.
Go to Key issues
take action live sheep export alternate
Priority issue
We are closer than ever to finally…
Live sheep export

Support us

Whether you're an individual or a business, there are multiple ways you can support the RSPCA
Go to Support us
An animal in the RSPCA care being cared for by an RSPCA vet
Donate now to support your local RSPCA and make a difference to animal welfare across Australia


The RSPCA is an independent, community-based charity providing animal care and protection services across the country.
Go to About
about us national statistics
Read our National Statistics
Compiled on a national basis by RSPCA…
Annual statistics


By choosing adoption, you’ll not only have the chance to make a friend for life, but you’ll be giving an animal a second chance and helping support the RSPCA.
Go to Adopt
adopt a pet logo
Visit the Adopt A Pet website
Make a difference to a pet’s life today.
Search Adoptapet

Episode S3E7
Delving into dairy cow welfare

Growing awareness of animal welfare has led many caring Australians to actively seek more conscious choices with the products they buy. For some products this is easy, with clear labels on the packaging that identify higher-welfare practices. But when it comes to dairy these labels are largely absent, making it nearly impossible for the average shopper to know if the cheese or milk they select is from a producer with good standards of welfare for their cows.
Generic Avatar
  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 21 June 2024
Join Dr Natalie Roadknight – Senior Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia to delve into all things dairy, including how dairy production works, the impacts and welfare issues for dairy cows and calves and the questions caring individuals can ask produce


Natalie: Early separation of cows and calves. We're doing this for a disease risk mitigation strategy and then we really perhaps should be rethinking the way that we're managing these animals.

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk, where we discuss the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia. I'm Brian Daly, and today we're joined by Dr Natalie Roadknight, Senior Scientific Officer with RSPCA Australia to talk about dairy cattle welfare. Welcome to the podcast Natalie. So the Department of Agriculture lists the dairy industry is the third largest rural industry in Australia, generating $6.1 billion and producing 8.8 billion litres of milk a year. In 2023, Australians on average consumed around 90 litres of milk, 15 kilograms of cheese, and nearly 10 kilos of yoghurt each. And of course, the essential ingredient in all of that is the milk produced by the over 1.2 million dairy cattle on farms around the country. So Natalie, can you first off, give us an overview of what these farms look like; how these dairy cows are farmed in Australia?

Natalie: Yeah, sure, Brian. So a typical Australian dairy farm keeps cows in large groups at pasture with an average herd size of more than 300 cows per farm. And for these cows grass generally makes up the majority of their diet, while they're grazing out there in the paddock, but they're also usually fed some supplementary feed such as grain, hay and crops. And in terms of their daily routine, the dairy cows will be walked from the paddock to the dairy parlour and be milked twice a day using milking machines which the farm staff place onto those cows. And during that milking time, they're generally given some food to eat while they're being milked. So that would be, I guess, the broad overview of a typical Australian dairy farm, but there is a lot of variation between farms in terms of herd size, farm system and cow management within Australia, as well.

Brian: I guess that's the image we have of dairy cattle in Australia, roaming the paddocks. Around the world, we hear a lot about intensive factory farm practices. Is that an issue with dairy cows here?

Natalie: Yeah, so as I said, the typical Australian farm on the traditional kind of Australian farm is pasture based. But there is a move towards intensification within Australia in the dairy space now. So that can look like just cows spending more time in a yard eating more supplementary feed rather than being out on the pasture. Or it can be as intense as cows being housed for 24 hours a day, seven days a week under cover and not having any access to pasture at all. So there's a range of intensification pathways that Australian dairy farmers are now taking. And both of these, or all of these systems can have welfare impacts. So with the extensive grazing pasture-based systems, for instance, if they're not well managed in terms of shade and cooling strategies, then cows can be at risk of heat stress and dairy cows are really sensitive to warm weather, even weather that we would find quite pleasant and mild, can feel quite warm to a dairy cow. So heat stress is a real welfare concern, especially with the changing climate now. And on the other hand, we have undercover systems, which are actually quite unforgiving of poor management, for instance, the bedding must be turned and kept really well maintained. So that doesn't get wet or smelly, because obviously that's going to really impact on cow welfare within those systems. And the air quality needs to be well managed as well. So all of these systems rely on good management in order to have a good outcome for the cow. So for extensive systems, the cows need adequate shade and cooling strategies and areas to rest away from muddy areas in winter. Whereas indoors, the bedding and the management of those cows needs to be really well managed in order for them to be comfortable. And cows are motivated to access a pasture at least some of their day. So at RSPCA we believe that cows should be given some pasture access, and not kept solely indoors. And ideally, those cows would have a choice of when to access that pasture so that they can have that advantage of being able to regulate their body temperature and feel comfortable whatever the weather. So being out at pasture when they feel comfortable or being indoors when the weather is poor, for instance, it's going to be good for those cow's welfare.

Brian: Given that choice. We've seen those videos on the internet overseas of cows coming out of the sheds after the winter months and just jumping around on the pasture. It's a ... it seems to be a natural need for them to get out into the sun.

Natalie: Yeah, and I guess here in Australia, our temperatures so much milder than in Europe and Canada and things like that. Where those housing systems are the norm, where those cows are indoors a lot of the time, and so we are able to have cows at pasture for greater numbers of days than they would in those really cold climates as well.

Brian: Turning to the milk production side of things, like other mammals, obviously a cow needs to get pregnant and have offspring in order to lactate. Can you tell us how that pregnancy birthing cycle operates in practice on these commercial farms?

Natalie: Yeah, sure. So yes, as you mentioned, cows do need to give birth to a calf in order to produce milk. And so the way that's done is that when the cow reaches sexual maturity, that cow will be inseminated using artificial insemination generally, so most cows are artificially inseminated to be become pregnant, while some are also mated naturally to bulls. And what artificial insemination is, is that the semen is collected from a bull, it's usually stored and transported to a different farm for use. And then it's instilled into the uterus of the cow through a thin tube. So that's the norm for dairy cattle in Australia, although there is some natural mating, as I mentioned, as well. So once the cow is pregnant, she will go through that pregnancy and then generally have her first calf at around two years of age. And then she'll start lactating and enter the milking herd. And from then on, she will remain in the milking herd until she leaves the farm. So during early lactation, the cow will be impregnated again, because as lactation progresses, the amount of milk that she produces will decrease with time. So in order to keep that production level high, another calf needs to be born. So early in her lactation, she'll be impregnated again, and then around a couple of months before her next calf is due, she'll be dried off. So that means she will stop being milked and have a break from from being milked for a few months to recover and, and reset before her next calf is born. And then the cycle repeats itself. So as you can see from that description, these cows are either pregnant or lactating or both during the majority of their productive lives on the farm. And the aim is generally for a cow to have a calf every year.

Brian: And I guess the big question I'm sure listeners would have is what happens to all those calves?

Natalie: Yeah, great question. So in Australia, and in many other Western-style nations, the general typical management system is to separate the cow and calf, it's very soon after birth. So within the first 24 to 48 hours, the cow and calf are separated. And this is done to for few reasons, such as to increase the amount of milk that can be collected from the cow, rather than going into the calf. And to make it easier for management of the cow calf, especially around cow milking time. Another big reason that's often stated is to reduce the risk of disease transmission from the cow to the calf. However, there have been some recent literature reviews that have been conducted that actually show that there's not a lot of evidence to support this reason of, of disease risk reduction. And they did highlight that there are actually quite a few welfare advantages to keeping cows and calves together for longer. I guess another thing to think about is early separation of cows and calves, we're doing this for a disease risk mitigation strategy, then we really perhaps should be rethinking the way that we're managing these animals and, and why they're getting sick so easily in the hygiene around that environment that we're raising them in the way we're managing them. And think about other ways that we could reduce the disease risk in less drastic ways that don't need to separate the cow and calf so early on in life. So that's cow and calf separation. And once the cows and calves are separated, the calves will then go on to be raised in small groups, usually in pens undercover with some bedding in Australia. And they fed milk or milk replacer through artificial feeding systems. And in terms of the female calves that are going to be used to enter the milking herd later on and become dairy cows, they'll generally be raised on farm or sometimes they're raised off farm, and they'll be weaned onto solid food at around 6 to 12 weeks of age and, and eventually end up in the milking herd. There'll be a small proportion of the female calves that will be raised and sold as pregnant breeding animals and they'll be exported live overseas, often to places such as China, and there are welfare issues associated with this live export of dairy cattle. They're pregnant dairy cows; they're heavily pregnant often on these trips. And there's a long journey the transport is a psychological and physically stressful process for cattle and we know that quite well. But there are also welfare concerns once that cattle arrive in its destination countries because sometimes the standard of care in these countries is not what we would expect on Australian dairy farms. And so there are welfare problems or concerns around that as well. So I guess that's the female calves or the majority of the female calves anyway, but there will still be some surplus female calves, and also the male calves, which will not go down those two pathways. And these calves are generally called bobby calves. And they can be sold at a young age for slaughter, or killed on farm soon after birth. Or they may be raised to an older age.

Brian: In series one of the podcast we had an episode on bobby calves, and so it's still a, I imagine, a major welfare issue for the industry.

Natalie: Yeah, so it's both an ethical and a welfare issue for the industry. Bobby calves as I said, are often slaughtered at a young age that's ... so they're transported off farm at around five days of age, after which they'll be either transported to a sale yard and then an abattoir or just direct to the abattoir. And from an ethical perspective, there are concerns about producing these unwanted byproducts of dairy production, and whether that is an okay thing to be doing. And they're also concerns that this killing of a calf soon after birth, really devalues animal life. And from a welfare perspective, there are a number of concerns as well. So the negative welfare impacts from the management of these calves is really centered around, especially the transport process. So time off feed can be quite long for a calf that that's ... that's that young, there can be long journey times and multiple handling events. And because these calves are so young, they're really vulnerable to these activities more so than adult animals. And this is because they've got low body fat, so they ... they can get cold more easily, they can get run out of energy more easily, they're more susceptible to disease compared to older cattle so they can more likely to become sick during that process, they fatigue more easily and get tired, so that the stresses of the transport can really take their toll on these young animals, they're unsteady on their feet, so they can fall more easily during transport. And they're more difficult to handle than older cows because they don't follow each other like, like other cows do, because that's a learnt behaviour. And so that can put them at risk of poor handling outcomes. So, for all of these sorts of reasons, they are really vulnerable animals, and that whole process of transport and fasting can be really a welfare concern for these calves.

Brian: And as you say, an ethical issue to be looked at as well. And I imagine the early separation, it'd be stressful for the cows as well, the mothers ...?

Natalie: Yeah, and so it is really stressful for them, and they often will vocalise when the calf is taken away from them. There is some evidence that if, if it's done really soon after birth, it's perhaps a little bit less stressful than if it if they're given time to bond together. But in practice, it's pretty hard to to prevent that bond formation, because it happens quite quickly between the mother and the young. And so yes, generally the cows do get distressed; not every cow will behave in the same way when the calf is removed from her. But yeah, it's it's a really stressful time for those cows. And they will show that in their behavior vocalising; some of them follow the calf as it's leaving the paddock in, in the truck, and that sort of thing. So we do see those signs of distress in the cows.

Brian: Yeah it's a really, really concerning issue. And aside from these issues, obviously, is there any other challenges that the dairy industry is facing today, like is tail docking, for instance, still practiced?

Natalie: There are a number of animal welfare issues as well as the ones we've just outlined. Tail docking has been actually voluntarily phased out by the dairy industry, although it is still legal in some states, but it's probably a very low number, if any farmers doing that in Australia now, which is a great thing. But there are other painful procedures that are still undertaken in the dairy industry. So for instance, removal of horns from cattle, so, horns are generally removed in the dairy cattle because of the risk of the injury to both staff and to other animals within the herd from the horns. So some of these farms in the dairy space don't actually use effective pain relief when this is done. So that's a real welfare concern, as well. Or they do it too late when the horn is attached to the underlying skull bone, which makes it a riskier and more painful procedure. So there are some hornless genetics within the Australian dairy herd now but it is still a small proportion of the herd currently, so if horns are to be removed from dairy calves, they should really be done prior to six weeks old and that means that the horn bud is still sort of just attached to the skin and soft tissue rather than the bone itself underneath, making it less of a risky procedure. And it should be done, when the area has been numbed with an anaesthetic, the calf has been sedated, and then the calf should be given a longer acting pain relief as well. And so that's not across the board and in the dairy industry, and really, we should be seeing that this practice of pain relief being used. But another major issue in the dairy space is the underfeeding of calves. So this is perhaps a less well-known welfare issue in the dairy industry or less talked about, I guess, by the public. But traditionally, calves are fed a very low amount of milk per day. So around four liters per day for a 40 kilo calf, for instance, has been a traditional amount. And this has given over one or two feeds per day. But calves given unlimited access to milk can actually drink more than 10 litres a day. So more than twice the amount that they have been traditionally fed. And so it's not hard to conclude that these calves are probably quite hungry. And these low feeding volumes, we know it can leave calves, both hungry, but it can also lead to poor growth and reduced milk production later in life because they can't actually develop their organs, including their udder in the way that they would if they had adequate feed. And they also showed fewer play behaviors. So that indicates that these calves are experiencing less positive welfare states as well while they're growing up. So it's a real welfare concern. And although there's a slow shift to feeding calves more, there's still around half of Australian farms feeding calves on very low milk volumes of four litres a day, which is a real welfare concern. And some calves are also only feeding once a day, which is really not often enough because calves generally would drink if they have the opportunity around seven to eight times a day. So between meals, those calves are probably getting quite hungry. So there's some of the additional welfare concerns for calves. For cows there's also a few welfare concerns. Heat stress, I already mentioned is becoming increasingly a problem. And other common health concerns such as mastitis, which is inflammation and infection of the udder. Lameness and difficult birthing are all quite common on dairy farms as well.

And has the industry acknowledged these issues that they working on them, do they have plans to address them?

Yeah, the industry is aware of all of the welfare issues mentioned. And they have resources available online for producers on most of these topics that we've talked about today, particularly the ones that impact on farm economics. But change is slow. And the change on farm and progress on farm often lags a bit behind the scientific knowledge. So even though we know that calves should be fed more than we have known that for quite some time, there still hasn't been an uptake amongst the majority of farmers to feed calves better, for instance, and industry bodies, and governments can be reluctant to push that progress. In terms of the bobby calf issue, there is currently a joint project between Dairy Australia, and Meat and Livestock Australia, that's working to increase the number of dairy calves that are grown as beef animals rather than being killed early on in life. So that's a positive step in the right direction in terms of those calves living a longer life and being used rather than than just being killed and seen as a waste product. And when it comes to the issue of early cow calf separation, although the industry is aware of this issue, and that there are people that are concerned about it, there is a bit of a lack of prioritisation on this topic. And one thing we really need in this area is more research to identify the optimal time from a welfare perspective for when cows and calves should be separated, because eventually, they will need to be especially if it's a male calf, the male calf is not going to enter the dairy herd. And so but we don't have that knowledge about especially on a pasture-based system like the norm is in Australia, about when we should be doing that for the benefit of the cow and calf at this stage. It'd be really good to see industry invest in research in this area.

Brian: We've talked a lot on this podcast previously about higher-welfare assurance schemes like RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme for meat and eggs, for instance, as well as other forms of labeling that helps us make informed choices. But these are most glaringly absent on dairy products. Can you tell us why that is?

Natalie: Yeah, there might be a number of reasons for that. I guess one of them is that the way that milk is generally processed means that it can be hard to trace a product from the shelf back to an individual farm. And this is because several farms or a number of farms may supply one milk processor and all the milk gets mixed together and then goes out into dairy products. So that could make it difficult if one of those farms wants to have a higher-welfare scheme but the others don't. It can make it difficult to identify where the milk is going in the supply chain and which one which part of it is from a higher-welfare farm. So that's one aspect of it. The RSPCA has developed a standard for non-replacement dairy calves as a first step to addressing the concerns around bobby calves. And the standard requires that calves have at least 20% of their body weight per day, which is about eight liters for 40 kilo calf and that they fed three times daily, and has requirements around good pain relief, including anaesthetic and sedation, for the disbudding procedure for calves, and around transport as well. So it requires that the calves are only transported after they're 10 days old, and that they're only off feed for around 12 hours if they're less than 30 days old at that time. So that's our first step towards better welfare standards for dairy animals. But RSPCA Approved's vision is for a future of higher-welfare farming. So there is a hope that in the future, we will release a dairy cattle standard, as well. For that wil cover dairy cows as well, and the female cows on farm.

Brian: Yeah that'd be great to see. And there's a growing number of people choosing dairy alternatives, like soy, almond or oat milk, and I believe lab-grown milk products are now actually available in the US. But what can consumers do now to support better dairy cow welfare here in Australia?

Natalie: Yeah, so in the meantime, before, you know we have any labeled schemes, what consumers can do if they do want to buy dairy products is to ask the manufacturers of those dairy products about the conditions that the animals are living in. So this lets manufacturers know what people want and that welfare and higher welfare is important to the consumers. So examples of some questions that you could ask consumers could ask the manufacturers are things like do they the farms that supply, the processor or the manufacturer, use best-practice pain management when removing horns from the calves? Do that feed their calves high milk volumes? Are they finding ways to grow bobby calves out for beef or to have different pathways other than early life slaughter? Do they export their dairy cattle? Or are they allowing more contact between cows and calves? And do they have lameness and mastitis reduction strategies in place? So these are the sorts of questions that consumers could ask from manufacturers - just signal that these are important issues and that we people really do care about how these animals are taken care of on farm.

Brian: As you say, before we get to an accredited scheme, consumers really can do something about this.

Natalie: I think the the power of buying power and power of market and people asking these questions is probably greater than then we realise.

Brian: I think you're right. Thanks for your time today, Natalie. It's interesting given the size of the dairy industry, in purely commercial terms, it would seem the welfare of the primary source of production, the cows should be the utmost importance. And couple that with consumers being more informed around animal welfare issues in food production, and a growing preference for plant-based alternatives to dairy and new technologies that could be big disruptors to the industry just around the corner, it would seem imperative to do so. So let's hope the industry rises to the occasion. And thank you and the RSPCA for always advocating for better animal welfare, including for these beautiful bovines in the dairy industry. Thanks, Natalie.

Natalie: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian: We've been talking today with Dr. Natalie Roadknight, Senior Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia, and thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on dairy cattle welfare, visit RSPCA Australia's website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the website, or all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

subscribe box

Stay informed on big issues and how you can help improve animal welfare across Australia.

Subscribe today and we’ll keep you updated on all the latest campaigns, events and news.