There are around 10 million cattle in the UK, most of which are reared for either beef (beef cows) or milk production (dairy cows). There are currently 1.8 million adult dairy cows and 1.7 million adult beef cows.
Dairy cows and welfare
- The majority of dairy cows in the UK are impregnated by artificial insemination, which occurs 2-3 months after each birth.
- Calves are taken away from their mother within 24 to 48 hours which is traumatic for both.
- Male calves are an unwanted by-product of the milk production industry and are killed shortly after birth.
- Through selective breeding and concentrated feeds cows produce up to 10 times more milk than they would naturally.
The huge overproduction of milk has severe welfare implications for dairy cows and has resulted in a number of 'production' diseases, including mastitis and lameness.
Supermarket policies and the Soil Association
Marks & Spencer (M&S), Waitrose and Morrison’s are supermarkets which give dairy cows some access to grassland. Asda, M&S, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose are supermarkets which encourage farmers supplying their own label milk to rear male dairy calves for veal or beef instead of killing them at birth.
The Soil Association organic standards put animal welfare first, with many conditions for dairy cows which need to be met to reduce stress.
Beef cows and welfare
- Beef calves from a dairy herd are taken from their mothers and fed formula before early weaning at 5-6 weeks.
- Calves have to endure castration, disbudding and dehorning.
- 15-20% of British beef comes from intensive farming systems where calves are kept indoors all year round.
- Less intensive systems allow the calves to remain with their mothers and have a predominantly grass-based diet.
The most well known disease affecting beef cows is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), however cows can suffer from a range of other diseases.
A cow’s natural lifespan is 20 to 25 years but dairy cows are considered 'worn out' at 5 years old by the strain of constant milk and calf production and are slaughtered. Beef cattle are slaughtered between 1 and 2 years.
Cattle are stunned by electricity or percussion (captive bolt) before being killed by cutting the blood vessels in their neck (sticking).
Find out more
You can find out more about cattle production and welfare, disease, transport and slaughter, as well as a full list of references, by reading the in-depth cattle fact sheet