Cattle

In this fact sheet: Dairy cows & welfare, Supermarket policies & The Soil Association, Beef cattle & welfare, Disease, SlaughterReferences



There are around 10 million cattle in the UK, most of which are reared for either beef (beef cattle) or milk production (dairy cattle). There are currently 1.8 million adult dairy cows and 1.7 million adult beef cows. The rest are younger animals (1).

Dairy cows & welfare

The UK is the 9th largest milk producer in the world and the 3rd largest in Europe. Figures from the Milk Development Council for June 2009 indicate that of the 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK there were 410,000 heifers (heifers are young cows over 1 year old that have yet to give birth) and 491,000 total in-calf replacements between the age of 1 and 2 years (1,2). Over 90% of dairy cattle breeds are black and white Holstein-Friesians. Other breeds include Ayrshire, Guernsey and Jersey cows. There are a few herds of buffalo in the UK kept for milk production to make mozzarella cheese (1).

Dairy heifers are first used for breeding at approximately 15 months old. The majority of dairy cows in the UK are impregnated by artificial insemination (AI). Bulls are first used for breeding from one year old and a single animal can father over 15,000 calves a year by AI. Pregnancy lasts approximately 9 months and so heifers will be around 2 years old when they first give birth. Cows are impregnated again 2 to 3 months after each birth (calving). As lactation lasts around 10 months the cow is simultaneously pregnant and lactating for 6 to 8 months during each calving cycle. Cows have a 6 to 8 week period between lactation ceasing and their next calving. Most calves are taken away from their mother within 24 to 48 hours. The cow is then milked for human consumption for around 10 months. Immediately after giving birth, the first milk that cows produce is colostrum. This contains essential antibodies, vitamins and minerals, and cannot be sold as regular milk. After a few days the colostrum changes over to regular milk and the calf is taken away. The calf is fed milk replacers based on dried skimmed milk with fat supplements before early weaning at around 5-6 weeks (3). Calves would naturally suckle for 6 to 12 months. There is a strong bond formed between the mother and her calf in the first few hours after birth, enforced separation is therefore a very traumatic experience for both (4). Female calves may be kept for milk production whereas male (bull) dairy calves are an unwanted by-product of the milk-production industry.

Many of the 482,000 young males are killed shortly after birth by a shot or electrically stunned. Other calves are exported on long journeys to continental veal farms (see Beef Cattle & Welfare) (5).

Milking occurs 2 or 3 times a day and is fully mechanised. Through selective breeding and concentrated feeds dairy cows can produce up to 10 times more milk than they would naturally. A typical dairy cow produces up to 6,500 litres of milk a year (6). Normally a cow kept with her calf would produce less than 1,000 litres of milk throughout the lactation period (7). This huge overproduction of milk has severe welfare implications for dairy cows and has resulted in a number of 'production' diseases.

The use and marketing of the genetically engineered milk-boosting hormone, Bovine Somatotrophin (BST) in dairy cattle has been banned in the EU since 1st January 2000. Less intensive systems allow the dairy cows to graze on pasture during the spring/summer months and are then housed indoors in cowsheds during the winter. Cows will spend about 7 months a year indoors. The practice of keeping dairy cows indoors for most, if not all (zero grazing), of the year is increasing. Cows are either kept in sheds with a straw-covered bedding area and an un-bedded concrete floored area or in free stall housing where cows are not constrained and can chose which cubicle to enter. Some cows may be tethered in individual stalls whilst being milked. Figures for 2008 indicate that out of 10,112 Dairy Type Farms in England, 415 (4.1%) are without grassland (grassland includes temporary and permanent grassland, sole right rough grazing but excludes common rough grazing) (1). A cow’s natural lifespan is 20 to 25 years. By the time the dairy cow is just 5 years old she is worn out by the strain of constant milk and calf production and is slaughtered as she is of no further use to the industry.

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358 (England and Wales), Registered Company No. 00959115 (England and Wales)

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)