The suffering of farmed cattle

The size of the total cattle herd in the UK – including both dairy and beef animals – is around 10 million. Of these, 1.8 million are adult dairy cows.



In order to produce commercial quantities of milk, dairy cows are forced to endure a constant cycle of pregnancy and birth. Lactation does not occur unless this cycle is perpetuated. Calves are usually removed from their mothers within 24 hours of birth, after suckling their mother’s first antibody-rich milk, known as colostrum. Separation of mother and infant causes acute anxiety and suffering for both animals. Mother cows have been known to break out of fields and then walk for miles to be reunited with calves taken to auction.

The calves’ fate is one of the industry’s dirty secrets. Each year, over calfhalf a million unwanted calves are born in the UK. Many females replace their worn-out mothers in the dairy herd. But the males are often regarded as waste by-products. Some are reared on veal farms for a few months before being slaughtered; others are killed within a week or two for baby food, or for cheese and pie ingredients. Some are simply shot in the head shortly after birth. Every year in the UK tens of thousands of calves are slaughtered so that farmers can sell their mothers’ milk.

Milk-producing machines

Dairy cows in the UK are typically black and white Holstein/Friesians, selectively bred to provide maximum milk yields. In an unfettered state, a cow will feed her calf for approximately six to eight months. Milk is secreted at a maximum rate of about eight to ten litres per day, which the calf suckles on four to six occasions. The mother produces less than 1,000 litres throughout the duration of her lactation, storing approximately two litres in her udders at any one time.

In modern dairy farming, however, cows can be expected to produce between 6,000 and 12,000 litres during their ten-month lactation. This means they may be carrying as much as 20 litres each at any one time. Producing so much milk puts the cows’ bodies under enormous strain.

Exploitation of the reproductive system

The most common technique used to impregnate dairy cows is artificial insemination. But, increasingly, powerful hormones are being used to force high quality cows to produce large numbers of embryos, which are surgically removed and inserted into lower grade females who then bring the calves to term.


Dairy cows are usually kept outside on pasture from mid-spring to mid-autumn, but for six months of the year they are kept indoors. Housing typically consists of concrete cubicles around a central communal area. The cubicles are separated by metal bars and must have suitable bedding material on the floor, which can include straw, wood shavings or ash. Urine and excrement is collected in a passageway behind the cubicles, or passes through slats in the floor of the communal area. Where slated floors are not used, passageways should be cleared twice a day to prevent slurry from building up.

cow in stall

Such housing is usually barren, with little to stimulate the cows, and has been associated with behaviour problems such as aggression and bullying. Housing cows in close proximity for long periods also has implications for their health, including an increased risk of mastitis, lameness and contagious diseases.

Around ten per cent of dairy cows in the UK are now being housed all year round in what have become known as ‘zero-grazing’ units. Such operations only compound the issues already associated with housing cows for long periods and prevent them from expressing many of their natural behaviours.


Between 20-40 per cent of British dairy cows are lame at any one time. In fact, inspections of the feet of cull cows at slaughter reveal evidence of past or present foot damage in nearly all animals. Lameness is caused by a number of factors. These include the quantity of bedding available, the move towards cubicle housing and the now near universal practice of feeding animals wet, fermented grass (known as silage), rather than dry hay. Silage produces wet faeces and acidic slurry, which can soften the feet and cause infections.

Also implicated in lameness is the reliance on concentrated feed supplements, which are difficult for these slow-digesting ruminants to cope with. The result is the release of inflammatory substances into the bloodstream, which lead to a condition known as laminitis, an acutely painful foot disorder. Another important reason for dairy cow lameness is the vast size and weight of the modern animal’s udder. It is so large and distended that most cows simply cannot stand or walk properly.


Dairy cows are prone to infection of the udder caused by bacteria and other environmental pathogens entering via the teat canal. This acutely painful condition is known as mastitis and can often cause pus to seep into milk. There are around 50 cases of mastitis for every 100 cows during a year and current regulations allow milk to contain hundreds of millions of pus cells per litre before being considered unfit to drink.

Other illnesses

About 7-8 per cent of cows suffer from the condition known as ‘milk fever’ in the course of a year. This is caused by the sudden depletion of calcium reserves each year from the heavy burden of birth and lactation. This can cause muscle tremors and weakness, bloating, constipation and even coma and death if not quickly treated.

Some cows also get ‘grass staggers’ caused by a lack of magnesium in the diet. General depletion of nutrients caused by increasing intensification also triggers cases of brucellosis and viral infections, as well as susceptibility to salmonella bacteria.

A dairy cow with enlarged udders after stunningCows naturally live for as long as 25 years, but by the time they reach four or five on modern dairy farms, they are likely to be physically exhausted, lame and infertile. No longer able to produce the amount of milk demanded of them by the dairy industry, these worn-out animals are sent to a slaughterhouse.


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Beef cattle

More than 2.5 million cattle are slaughtered for meat in the UK each year, with most of these coming from beef herds. As well as suckling their own calves, many youngsters born to dairy animals are also raised within beef herds. For this reason, dairy cows are often artificially impregnated with beef bull semen in order to produce heavier, ‘beefier’ calves that will generate more money for farmers.


Male calves reared for beef are often castrated, despite being slaughtered before they reach sexual maturity. Methods commonly used include surgical castration, tight rubber rings that restrict blood flow, and appliances that crush the spermatic cord of each testis – the so-called ‘bloodless castrator’.

Both dairy cows and beef cattle are de-horned – a painful procedure – to prevent animals injuring each other and farm workers. Horns contain both blood circulation and nerve endings, and so local anaesthesia and cauterisation are necessary to stem bleeding. If horns have already developed, they are removed with saws, horn shears or cutting wire.

Young animals whose horns are not established can be disbudded. A hot iron is applied to the horn-forming tissue when the calf is less than two months old, permanently preventing growth.


Cattle are susceptible to a number of diseases that can prove fatal in both humans and bovines. The spread of some of these illnesses can be attributed to particular farming practices, including food regimes, moving cattle between herds, and poor hygiene and biosecurity.

Some of the serious outbreaks of cattle disease in recent decades have included:dead cattle in a grab during foot & mouth disease outbreak

  • BSE (or ‘mad cow disease’), which causes serious neurological damage in cows and humans
  • Foot and mouth disease, which can cause miscarriage, mastitis and lameness
  • Bovine tuberculosis (TB), which causes serious respiratory problems
  • E. coli (O157:H7), which causes serious food poisoning in humans
  • Schmallenberg virus, which causes birth defects and miscarriages in various animals

Whilst there is legislation in place to prevent some of these illnesses from spreading amongst animals and infecting humans, sporadic outbreaks continue.

Read Animal Aid’s guide to Animal diseases and their impact on human health

Live Transport

copyright Val CameronCurrent EU rules allow cattle to travel for up to 14 hours without a rest or water. They must have a rest period of at least one hour after a 14 hour journey, after which, they may be transported for a further 14 hours. After the second 14 hour journey, if the destination has not been reached the cattle must be unloaded, given food and water and rested for 24 hours. The journey times can then be repeated and this pattern can be repeated infinitely. Time spent on aircraft or specialist livestock vessels does not count towards the 14 hour maximum journey time.

A number of organisations and politicians are campaigning for a maximum overall journey length of 8 hours. Whilst this would be a considerable improvement on current legislation, it is still a long time to be spent in a confined space with no room to turn around, lie down and without access to water.

Go Vegan

girl and cowKilling an animal for food can never be regarded as humane. Animals’ lives are just as important to them as ours are to us and none go to the knife willingly. Choosing organic or free-range over factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, continues to cause pain and suffering. The only viable solution to end animal suffering is to adopt an animal-free diet. We can acquire all the nutrients we need from plant-based foods and with more supermarkets and high street shops stocking vegan food, it’s never been easier.

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