Dairy Cows

Increasing demand for cheap milk has forced most Australian dairy farmers to maximise the productive output of their cows, pushing them beyond their natural limits. These cows suffer short lives of emotional stress and physical strain to ensure their milk yield remains consistently high.

Each year, Australians consume an average of 104 litres of milk, 14 kg of cheese and 4 kg of butter per person.Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Agricultural commodity statistics 2012 (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 2012) 63.

Over the past three decades, Australian dairy cows have been selectively bred and reared to significantly increase their average lactation from over 2,900 litres to an astonishing 5,900 litres of milk per cow annually.1 This genetic manipulation has had a disastrous impact on the welfare of the dairy cow.

Under constant pressure to produce more and more milk, Australian dairy cows are increasingly being factory farmed: moved off-pasture to indoor production systems and fed unnatural, grain-based diets.2 Few of these changes are visible to consumers, most of whom continue to hold idyllic views of dairy production as it was half a century ago.

Image vs reality

Many people believe dairy cows live idyllic lives within traditional farming systems, naturally producing enough milk to feed their young and provide for human consumption.

In reality, the dairy cow is subjected to a continuous cycle of calving, milking and impregnation.3 This is exhausting work that takes a serious toll on her body.4


Pushed to their physical limits, mother cows become susceptible to painful diseases like lameness6 and mastitis.7 Standard on-farm mutilation practices such as tail docking, disbudding and dehorning also cause her and her offspring severe pain and distress,8 and can be performed without pain relief in some jurisdictions.9

In as little as seven or eight years, milking cows become worn out and when their milk yield falls, or they have repeated bouts of mastitis or lameness, they are slaughtered.10

Forced pregnancies

Like other mammals, a mother cow must give birth in order to produce milk. 

To ensure she continues to produce high volumes of milk throughout her short life, a dairy cow is forcibly impregnated so that she gives birth to a new calf every 13 months.11

Typically, her calf will be taken from her within just 12 hours of birth.12 Separation can be stressful for both mother and calf,13 as a strong maternal bond can form between them in as little as five minutes.14 Over the days following separation, a mother cow can bellow day and night in search of her calf, often returning to the place where the calf was last seen.15

This perpetual cycle of impregnation, birth and separation is an inherent part of dairy production. While the calf is only made to suffer separation once, the current practices of the dairy industry forces mother cows to endure this process repeatedly simply to ensure her milk yield remains high.

Calves as waste products

As a result of these forced pregnancies, every year hundreds of thousands of calves are born into the dairy industry. While a proportion of female calves are kept as replacements for the milk producing herd, those females who are not required and the male calves are considered ‘wastage’ and are slaughtered shortly after birth.16

Each year around 450,000 unwanted dairy calves (known as bobby calves) are born and either killed on-farm or sent for commercial slaughter within just five days of being born.17 The vast majority of calves are separated from their mothers, given a last feed and then loaded onto trucks bound for sale yards and slaughterhouses for use in pet food, leather goods, the pharmaceutical industry or for veal.18

Those calves who stay on-farm can be slaughtered by chemical euthanasia, the use of a firearm or stunning by a captive bolt. Alarmingly, a newborn calf can also be killed by striking their head with a blunt instrument, such as a hammer, in a number of Australian jurisdictions.19 If the calf still shows signs of life, farmers are advised to compress the chest wall with a fist, shoot them in the head or take a knife to their neck or chest.20

It is time for action

Domestic and international demand for dairy produce is booming but the price of Australian milk has declined steeply in recent years.21 To compete commercially, Australian dairy farmers have been forced to maximise production while reducing their overall operative costs.

The implications of high production dairying on the modern dairy cow are immense and it is a critical factor in almost all the welfare concerns which exist in today’s industry.

It is time to break the silence that surrounds the suffering of dairy cows.

One of the easiest ways to ensure consumers have the information they need to make informed and ethical food choices is through assurance schemes. Like schemes currently in use in the egg, meat chicken and pork industries, a dairy assurance scheme would enable dairy producers to grow and market their products in accordance with a set of established welfare standards.

Establishing nationally recognised dairy industry assurance schemes would give ethical consumers the opportunity to make a genuine choice to purchase higher welfare dairy produce, and in turn, incentivise producers to improve on-farm practices.

Beyond that, there is an urgent need to introduce legal protections to better protect Australian dairy cows and their calves from the welfare issues they face in the modern dairy industry.

It is clear that law reform is needed to improve the life of the Australian dairy cow. It is important to note, however, that certain welfare issues such as the birthing and premature slaughter of hundreds of thousands of infant bobby calves per year cannot be regulated away. There are some practices that are simply inherent in the commercial dairy industry.

What you can do

You can take action to protect dairy cows by:

  • Making humane choices – Switch to dairy-free alternatives like soy, rice, oat or nut milk. Encourage retailers and supermarkets to offer more cruelty free products.
  • Contacting your MP – Tell your local MP that you want stronger legal protections for dairy cows.
  • Donating to Voiceless – Help us continue to provide a voice for dairy cows by donating today


To find out more about the Australian dairy industry, read Voiceless’s report ‘The Life of the Dairy Cow’. It features a full list of recommendations for on-farm management, retailer responsibility and industry practices.

Last updated April 2015