Achilles’ hoof: Why do dairy cows get sent to the meatworks?

by | Oct 27, 2022 | Opinion

Glen Herud, founder of the Happy Cow Milk Company, faces up to one of the industry’s toughest questions: why are retired dairy cows culled instead of left to live their natural lives?

Why are dairy cows culled? This is one of the most common questions we receive. Animal welfare and the short lifespan of dairy cows are the dairy industry’s Achilles’ heel. The subject gets glossed over and is not really discussed.

When people ask, “why can’t cows retire and live a natural life?” I assume they are imagining a cow that can no longer get milked and is moved to the back paddock where she lives a tranquil life until she eventually dies peacefully in her sleep. I would love that to be the reality, but it’s not possible on many levels. I’ll give three practical reasons why this can’t happen and then I’ll explain how we can make the current system better.


Glen Herud, founder of Happy Cow Milk: confronting an inconvenient truth

Retirement is expensive

First, cows are expensive to feed. Let’s assume a farmer has a 43 hectare (ha) farm and they milk 100 cows.  We’ll also assume that 10 cows (10%) are retired every year. These 10 cows will require 2.8 ha of land for them to feed on. In the second year, another 10 cows retire needing a further 2.8 ha and in the third year, another 10 cows retire needing another 2.8 ha of land. In just three years, the farmer has 30 retired cows that require 8.5 ha.

The farmer now only has 34.9 ha of land to milk cows on and the milking herd has dropped 20% to 80 cows. This trend continues until the retired cows start to die “naturally” which may take a few more years.

In short, there is a very real cost to keeping cows fed. Who will pay for that? And is that a good idea anyway?


Is a natural death a good death?

It’s possible that a natural death is actually a slow horrible painful death. Not many of our pets die a natural death. Oftentimes, our pets get to the stage where the vet tells us that the most humane thing to do is to euthanise them.

This is the same with cows. Consider what is happening in India. It’s illegal to slaughter cows in most states of India. The unintended consequence of this policy is that cows are abandoned when they are unfit to be milked. No one wants them as they are a burden and it’s also illegal to kill them. The cows are abandoned and left to die a natural death of starvation or injury. Now, India has some 5 million stray cows.

A dead cow is still a valuable cow

A cow’s body is a difficult thing to get rid of, but it also has a lot of value. It’s a real waste to simply discard it. When a cow is processed at the meat works every part of her body has a market and a purpose. A lot of our beef in the supermarket is from cull cows. We have pet food because of cull cows. We have leather from the cow’s hides, the bones are used for fertiliser, and the keratin from the hooves is used in fire extinguishers.

If we think of the emissions that went into growing the cow it would be a waste to simply allow all those resources to go to waste. Sending cows to the meatworks is a sustainable thing to do.


Humane dispatch

These are all very practical and logical reasons why cows are sent to the meatworks. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a grizzly sort of business and no one really likes the thought of death and killing. And it could be managed better.

So what actually happens to these cows? I’ve toured the local meat works and I’ve seen the cow’s final moments of life. There is a full-time vet present ensuring that cows are not distressed or uncomfortable. It’s actually in the best interests of the meat works to keep the animal’s calm. This is because if cortisol (stress hormone) is present in the meat, it can have an adverse effect on the meat quality.

A cow walks down a laneway like she has done many times in her life and calmly enters the building. Before they know it, and out of sight, she is “dispatched” with a bolt gun. I can condone this because the cow does not suffer, and the benefits of this system outweigh the alternatives.


How can we make this better?

What I can’t defend is the short lifespan of a modern dairy cow. In the example above, I used a cull cow rate of 10%. In reality, the cull rate of dairy cows is closer to 20-30%. The average dairy cow lives to the age of five or six years old. That means she is only milked for three or four seasons before she is culled. Add to this, the fact she also had three or four calves in her short life, and they were taken from her at birth and sent to the meatworks at four days of age too.

The research is clear, the more intense the farming system and the larger the herd size, the shorter the lifespan of the cows. The research is also clear that the longer a cow stays in the herd, the more profitable she is. A cow that is 10 years old is a very profitable cow.

So, there are already incentives to increase cow’s lifespan. The number one reason a cow is culled is that she does not get in calf (pregnant) in the required time frames needed. In seasonal supply farms, farmers want all their cows to calve in a four-six week period. If a cow gets pregnant too late and is due to calve outside of the required window, she will almost certainly calve too late in all of the following seasons.

The second main reason for culling a cow is she gets mastitis multiple times. Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the udder and it’s the main cause of antibiotic use on dairy farms. The third main reason is due to feet issues or some sort of injury. It’s interesting to note that poor production is not one of the main reasons cows are culled.

I often talk about the “Happy Cow Way” of farming and explain it as removing the pressure on the cows. I speak about taking our foot off the throttle and not pushing everything so hard. This issue is a good example of what I mean. The 100% seasonal supply dairy system where all cows calve once during the year is a high-pressure system. It promotes the culling of cows that can’t conceive exactly when they are supposed to. There’s no room for error.

If farmers calved twice a year, that would give the cow a second chance to conceive and be productive. It’s an example of designing a farming system that reduces the pressure on the cows. Happy Cow Milk farmer Chris Falconer actually buys other farmers’ cull cows and gives them a second chance on his farm.  He’s not the only one, this article outlines how Chris and other farmers are using cull cows to build their farming businesses.


How Happy Cow Milk changes things

Our mission at Happy Cow Milk Co is to enable a kinder, fairer and greener dairy. The way we are doing that is to make it easier for the great dairy farmers of the world to sell their milk to their local communities. This enables customers who want to support a better way of farming to buy milk from just those good farmers.

By enabling farmers to sell milk direct to the community they have to supply milk 365 days per year. To do this, farmers need to have multiple calvings per year. This means fewer cull cows and longer lifespans as I described above.

I’m having a number of conversations with potential Happy Cow farmers. Most of them want to run 15-20% of their herd supplying Happy Cow Milk. This is enough to provide that backstop to cows who are a bit slower to conceive. The Happy Cow Herd becomes the backstop herd.


Happy Cow Milk Company is Crowdfunding to enable it to start rolling out Happy Cow Milk to farmers around the world. If you want to help its mission for a kinder, fairer, greener dairy, please cllick to read more

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