Dairy Cows - Photo © Twyla Francois

Dairy cows

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Dairy cows in Canada have been bred to produce much more milk than they would naturally. According to the Canadian Dairy Commission, in 2016 there were just under a million dairy cows in Canada, each producing an average of 8,830 litres of milk per year.

To produce milk, cows must give birth to a calf. A young cow (heifer) is first impregnated via artificial insemination at around 15 months. Gestation lasts 9 months. Once she gives birth, her calf is removed from her and she is impregnated two to three months later. Female calves re-enter the system, eventually producing milk, while male calves, useless to the industry, are sold for veal.

This process takes a heavy toll on cows' bodies. Intensive milking combined with perpetually large udders, confinement and the stress of repeated pregnancy and birth causes physical ailments such as mastitis and lameness. Naturally, cows can live to 25 years. In a modern dairy, they typically burn out at age 4 or 5.

When this happens, they are culled -- i.e. removed from the herd and shipped to slaughter. Culling is a serious welfare issue, as noted in a recent report from the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council (NFAWHC). The report finds that currently about 40% of dairy cows -- approximately 350,000 animals -- are culled each year. Reasons range from low milk production to failure to breed; however, a key reason is compromised health.

A recent transport study led by the Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) has shown that of dairy cows being transported, only 55% were found to be fit.

The study notes that the process of shipping from farm to slaughter can take as long as 10 days. This is because animals can be sent to auction, and often are shipped across the country or into the U.S. The long travel time prolongs the suffering and worsens painful conditions such as lameness, mastitis, and engorged, dripping udders that need to be milked.

The removal of calves immediately after birth is another serious welfare issue related to dairy cows. Cows are highly maternal, and have been known to bellow for days after the removal of a calf. Eyes on Animals, an Amsterdam-based organization, shared this video on allowing newborn dairy calves to remain with their mothers for longer periods following birth.

Guidelines on the care of dairy cows in Canada are set down in a code of practice developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council. Unfortunately, the code is voluntary and supports systemic practices (such as calf removal) that are inherently cruel. Transport of cows -- and all farm animals -- is governed by Canada's federal Health of Animals regulations, which are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Learn more about transport issues by reading CFIAs Compromised Animal Policy.