Cattle are raised, slaughtered and used to produce milk for the beef, dairy, and veal industries.
The US Department of Agriculture counted over 9.1 million dairy cows used for milk production in 2010. Although all cows are grazing animals, inclined to live together in herds and range grasslands, dairy cows today are kept in confined animal feeding operations (often referred to as “factory farms”), in open barns or tied in place to individual stalls. Movement, socialization, and access to the outdoors is limited or denied.
Today’s dairy cow has been genetically selected to produce up to 12 times the amount of milk needed to feed her calf. Producers have maximized productivity, but the cows unquestionably suffer poor welfare as a result. Producing such vast quantities of milk in one lactation cycle is so taxing and stressful that dairy cows are typically kept only for three or four years (or three cycles of pregnancy, birth and lactation) before they are slaughtered.
In traditional pastoral conditions, before industrial farming, cows could live up to 25 years, but today most cows suffer from lameness and other painful conditions that are consequences of poor-welfare breeding practices in industrial systems.
High-welfare, pasture-based dairy farming represents a significant improvement for cow welfare.
In order for a dairy cow to produce milk, she must give birth to a calf. While most female calves are kept with the herd to be used for milk once they are mature, male calves typically are separated out to supply the veal industry. Right after a dairy cow gives birth to her calf, farmers take the calf away from his or her mother. In the case of a male calf used for veal, he is typically confined in a small, solitary stall for 16 to 18 weeks until slaughter.
The approximately 700,000 calves killed for veal in the United States each year are deprived of nearly all emotional and physical comfort. They have no interaction with their mothers or other cows, have severely restricted movement, are fed only a compromised liquid diet, and are purposefully kept anemic and weak in order to yield tender, pale meat. A young calf is prevented from the early developmental experiences (e.g., exploring, exercising, grooming) that provide the foundation for physical and mental health. As a result, they suffer from stress and disease during their shortened lives.
Unfortunately, there is little financial incentive to improve veal calf welfare, as the pale meat favored by many chefs comes not from healthy calves but rather from weak, deprived ones.
The welfare of veal calves is so poor that high-welfare certification programs such as Animal Welfare Approved do not certify any veal. From the perspective of those who consider animal welfare an important consideration when farming, “high-welfare” veal is simply not possible to produce.
Learn more about the problems associated with raising calves in veal crates by reading the fact sheet from our Inhumane Practices section.
Over 30 million cattle are raised for meat in the US each year.
Cattle raised for meat often graze on range for their first seven months of life. This initial ability to walk around, socialize, and eat the food most readily digestible for cows means that these animals start off with better lives than many other farm animals, such as pigs, chickens, and dairy cows.
However, conventional beef cattle systems also incorporate painful mutilations like castration, dehorning and disbudding, and branding, all without any medical relief for the pain. Even tail docking, typically associated primarily with dairy farms, may be performed when cattle raised for meat spend their early months not on the range but in cramped indoor barns.
Whether cattle raised for meat start their lives on the range or inside a barn, however, they end up on a feedlot for their last six months before being sent to slaughter. At the feedlot, cattle are confined together in dirty conditions, standing on unnatural slatted concrete floors or in muddy “dry lots” free of vegetation. They are fattened on grain, which causes internal stress and disease because cattle stomachs have evolved to digest forage (i.e., grasses), but are poorly adapted to digest the grains and concentrates (e.g., corn) that producers use to fatten them more quickly.
High-welfare, pasture-based farms allow cattle raised for meat to graze and stay in their bonded groups throughout their lives. They spend most of their time outdoors and are allowed to express natural behaviors and eat the food they prefer the way they adapted to eating it, by grazing.