The life of: dairy cows - Compassion in World Farming

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The life of: dairy cow s
The dairy cows of today descend from wild ox, known as aurochs (Bos primigenius), that were found in most
areas of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Cattle are thought to be one of the first animals to be domesticated,
around 10,000 years ago1. Aurochs became extinct in the 17th century but today we have over one thousand
breeds of cattle. During domestication, breeds have been developed to express certain desired
characteristics such as high milk production, resulting in the dairy cows we see today in commercial farming.
In the 1800s, each cow produced an average 1000 litres of milk annually; in many countries around the
world today, the average annual milk yield is over 10,000 litres per cow2.
1. The m odern dairy cow
A cow can liv e for around 20 y ears but in
commercial systems she will be culled at 6 y ears
old, on average3. She can give birth from 2-3 years
old. Dairy cows have a hierarchical social structure
and communicate by touch, smell, vocalisations
and body language. It is thought that cows can
identify 50-70 different cows4.
Cows kept on natural pastures with
different types of vegetation will vary their
feeding behaviour and browse on twigs from
deciduous trees. Cattle are highly motivated to
look for food and will forage for 6 to 10 hours
a day 5. They also have a strong drive to rest and
will lie for long periods in the day which allows
them time to ruminate.
The progress of intensification in dairy production
was outlined by EFSA (2009)6 to include:
- Breeding and genetic improvement to increase
milk production per cow;
- Large-scale import of complementary feed
ingredients from other continents for a
comparatively low price;
- An almost full scale mechanization of farming,
with advanced building designs and automated
control, providing high productive output against
low labour costs.
birth she will try to find a clean and dry area away
from other cows. As long as the calf is in the
correct position for birth, the labour should not
need any human assistance. The cow will often eat
the afterbirth as this would attract predators in
the wild.
- The new-born calf is licked clean by the cow
and she encourages suckling by nuzzling the
calf in the direction of the udder.
- It is im portant for the calf to receiv e the
m other’s firs t m ilk (known as colos trum )
immunoglobulins to give the calf protection its
immune system is still maturing.
- The farmer norm ally separates the calf from
the cow within the first few days, so that the cow
can be milked for human consumption.
2. Calv ing
In order for cows to produce milk they need to
give birth to a calf. In commercial units, pregnant
cows will be separated from the milking herd
about 2 months before they are due to give birth
(classed as ‘dry cows’). When a cow is ready to give
Cows typically give birth for the first time at about 2 –
3 years old. Calves are able to stand almost
immediately after being born.
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In some systems the calf will never suckle and instead
the mother is milked for colostrum by the farmer and
this is fed to the calf from a bottle, nipple feeder or
The cow has a strong maternal instinct and is
normally distressed by the removal of her calf.
Both the calf and mother will make loud calls
trying to locate each other after they are
3. Calf rearing
- Removed from its mother, the calf is fed from
either a bucket or nipple feeder w ith m ilk
replacer. This is a cheaper and easier alternative
to whole cow’s milk and better for preventing the
spread of disease via milk.
- Calves are put into rearing pens, either singly or
in pairs/small groups. This may be in a barn or
- Around 60% of calves in the UK are reared in
indiv idual pens , for the first 8 weeks of life7. This
means they have very lim ited acces s to s ocial
companions , only able to interact with
neighbouring calves through the sides of the pen.
- When calves reach 8 w eeks old, it is legally
required in the EU that they are put into groups.
- S traw bedding is a requirement by law in the
EU but in other parts of the world many dairy
calves are kept in a barren environment with
slatted flooring.
3.1 Replacem ent s tock
Female calves may be bought from a market at a
few weeks old to be reared on the farm as
replacement stock (to replace older dairy cows as
they are culled), or at around a year and a half just
before they are old enough to become pregnant
for the first time.
In the EU, calves may be kept in single pens for the
first 8 weeks of life.
3.2 Bobby calv es
A bobby calf is one that is slaughtered at an early
age (from immediately after birth up to about a
month old) for consumption. Alternatively, in
many systems the male and surplus female calves
are reared for veal or beef. The age of slaughter
for veal varies in different countries but it is
normally around 5 to 7 months old, or slightly
older in the UK. Calves may be transported to
other countries for rearing and this is typically at
a young age, normally around 2 weeks old.
3.3 Identification
In many countries, ear tags are required for
identification, normally in both ears. These are
fitted at around one week of age. In more
traditional systems the calf’s ears may be notched
or tattooed.
3.4 Mutilations
- Dis budding: To reduce injury during fighting or
handling by stockmen, calves are disbudded (horn
buds removed) so that they are unable to grow
horns. This is either done by chemical
cauterisation (caustic soda is applied to the horn
bud and destroys the cells; this should only be
done to calves under 8 days old) or using a hot
iron. When disbudding by hot iron, local
anaesthetic is required by law in the UK but pain
relief is not. Sometimes farmers will give some
short-term pain relief (circa 6hrs).
- Teat remov al: Female calves are occasionally
born with an extra teat, known as a
‘supernumerary teat’. The farmer will normally
remove it with scissors or a blade. In the UK, an
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anaesthetic must be used if the calf is 3 months old
or over, however pain relief is not usually given.
- Tail docking: Some farmers dock the tails of
calves at about 10 days old based on the disproven
belief that it is more hygienic for the cow, and for
the farmer during milking. This is done either by
hot iron, crushing or tying a rubber band around
the tail which stops the blood flow so it eventually
falls off.
In the EU, calves must be group housed after 8 weeks
old because social contact is important for their
4. Heifers
Docking of tails in the EU is illegal but is still practised
in some member states and in other countries around
the world.
- Cas tration: Male calves may be castrated at any
age, depending on the farmer’s preference. UK
regulations state that only calves under 8 days old
may be castrated by a ring (applied to cut off the
blood supply), and this does not require pain relief
to be given. Other methods for older calves
include surgically or using burdizzos (an
instrument that crushes the spermatic cord). An
anaesthetic must be used if the calf is aged 2
months or over.
3.5 Weaning
- Calv es are giv en hay or barley s traw to
chew on as early as one or two weeks old, which
helps their stomachs develop. They should always
have access to clean drinking water.
- At around 2 w eeks old they w ill also be
offered dried food.
- Calves are usually w eaned (when they are no
longer fed milk and solid food is fed instead) at
around 8 w eeks old, but some producers will
choose to do this earlier to save costs.
- Following weaning, calves can be v accinated
agains t certain bacterial or v iral diseases and
be given treatment for parasites. Vaccination
usually requires a course of injections.
Female cattle that are over 6 months old but have
not yet given birth to a calf are called ‘heifers’. At
about 8 to 9 months old heifers may be branded
for ease of identification, using an iron that has
either been heated (hot iron branding) or cooled
to below 100°F (freeze branding); these
procedures are painful.
The time it takes for a heifer to reach
puberty depends on her weight and breed, but
will be between 8 and 16 months old. Farmers
usually aim for their heifers to become pregnant
at around 15 m onths of age so that they give
birth when they are around two years old. Some
farmers may aim for a lower puberty age so
calving is before 2 years old, as they believe this
gives greater production rates. This is achieved by
altering their feeding regime to increase their
weight, inducing puberty earlier.
5. Reproduction
5.1 Oes trous cy cles
To achieve synchronised calving (see 7.), cows’
oestrus cycles (which occur over an 18 to 24 day
period) may be synchronised by the farmer. This
can be achieved using hormonal implants either in
the ear or intra-vaginally, or by giving an injection.
These hormone implants differ from the EU
banned hormone ‘Bovine Somatotrophin’ (BST),
which is still widely used in the USA and other
countries around the world. BST is given to a cow
to increase her milk yield but is shown to increase
the risk of mastitis and lameness8.
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5.2 Heat
When a cow is ‘in heat’ (receptiv e to m ating),
she will typically become more active and spend
more time licking, sniffing another cow’s vulva
and attempting to mount other cows. A cow on
heat will mount others regardless of whether they
are themselves in heat, but if they stand to be
mounted it is likely that they are also in heat.
Mounting behaviour is typical of a cow in heat.
5.3 Mating and pregnancy
Cows are impregnated either naturally by a bull
in the herd, or via artificial ins em ination (AI)
carried out by the farmer. The use of AI is
w idespread in the dairy indus try and this may
be because of ease, lack of suitable bull stock, the
ability to choose different sires for different cows,
or to choose the sex of the calf. For AI to be most
successful, farmers sometimes use devices to help
alert them to a cow coming into heat. For
example, tail paint (if the paint get rubbed off, it
suggests the cow has been mounted),
pedom eters (to detect an increase in activity),
Kamar pads (detectors that turn bright red when
a cow has been mounted) or a teas er bull (a
castrated bull that will mount cows on heat) may
be used.
Successful mating is very dependent on
good body condition for the cow/heifer at
unsuccessful mating and an increased risk of
calv ing difficulties , but being overweight can
also cause problems. The breed of the sire (father
of the calf) affects the ease of calving, as cows that
are cross bred with larger breed males may have
calves too large to pass through the cow’s pelvis;
this is particularly problematic for the heifer
during her first calving and may result in a
caesarean section.
During pregnancy a heifer is kept in her rearing
group. The gestation period for a cow is around
283 day s . Her diet needs to be monitored
carefully to ensure that she continues to grow
while pregnant, as she is not fully grown until
about 3 years old.
6. Lactation
The cow produces milk immediately after, or even
just before, giving birth. The farmer may start
milking the cow straight away (but feeds the first
milk (colostrum) to the calf), or the calf may be left
with the mother to suckle for the first few days
post calving. The cow will then be m ilked either
once, tw ice or three tim es a day , depending
on the dairy system. The farmer will often try to
get the cow back in calf w ithin 2 m onths of her
giving birth, so that she produces one calf per
year. However many farmers do not achieve this
and cows often give birth every 400 days or more.
6.1 Milking
Milking cows by hand was the traditional method
up until the mid-20th century, when milking
machines became more commonplace. Milking
machines allowed for herd sizes to increase as
farmers were then able to milk more cows in a
short space of time.
There are many different m ilking
des igns
herringbone and parallel parlours, and modern
rotary parlours which are used to milk large herds,
sometimes with automatic milking machines.
A rotary milking parlour is commonly used in larger
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These graphs show the milk yield of 3 types of dairy cows, all Holstein Friesian (HF) but with differing
desirable traits (
High Production North American H
High Durability North American HF and
New Zealand HF) . (a) Milk yield over the lactation period for 3 different types of cows when fed on
a pasture based diet; (b) Additional milk yield attained over the lactation in comparison to (a) by using a
high concentration diet.
The cows are brought into a holding yard before
entering the milking parlour. Cows often enter
the m ilking parlour in the s ame order, which
reflects their position in the social group.
Electrical fencing may be used to drive the cows
forward into the parlour. Some farmers choose to
feed concentrate to the cows while milking which
motivates the cows to enter the parlour. Some
farms have v oluntary m ilking s y stem s (VMS)
which allow cows to decide when they are milked
(though the farmer will decide how many times
per day each cow can gain access to the machine).
Farms with VMS typically have one milking
machine for every 60 cows, and cows can be
m ilked by the m ilking m achine at any time of
the day or night, w ithout any ass is tance from
the farm er.
7. Calv ing patterns
The ‘calving pattern’ refers to the timing of
calving for the whole herd. This may be:
- S easonal calv ing: All cows in the herd give
birth at a particular time of year and this is usually
timed to match food supply. S pring calv ing
utilises the grass growing period of temperate
climates, therefore ensuring plentiful food supply
at pasture. Autumn calv ing means that cows can
be fed a total mixed ration in the winter when
their yield is highest and then be out at grass
during the summer months while they are dried
off. Good herd fertility is particularly
im portant for this to work as cows must become
pregnant at similar times.
- Batch calv ing: like seasonal calving, but calving
may occur at more than once in the year, i.e. cows
may be divided into a spring calving group and an
autumn calving group. This again may be to
ensure food av ailability or to utilis e the m ilk
prices , choosing peak lactation (just after the calf
is born) at high price times.
- All y ear round calv ing: each cow in the herd
calves at a different time throughout the year.
This offers m ore ev en m onthly m ilk
production and does not rely on synchronised
calving, but needs a feeding system that can
sustain the herd consistently throughout the year.
Farmers may also choose seasonal and batch
calving to reduce labour costs by hiring extra staff
only at peak labour times. Both these calving
patterns have finite periods for calving and,
consequently, conception. All year round calving
means that if a cow does not become pregnant
from the first attempt, there is more flexibility for
farmers to try again one or more times (a cow that
does not become pregnant will be of no use in the
dairy industry so will be culled or sold).
8. Hous ing
Around the world, dairy cows are kept in very
different housing systems and herd sizes range
from just a few, to thousands. In temperate
climates, indoor housing is common during the
wetter and colder months when there is a lack of
grass at pasture. This is often the case for most of
the year - around 5 to 7 months10.
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Tie-s tall:
- Usually used for small herds with <100 cows and
may be used as winter housing or all year round.
- Each cow is tied in place by either a chain,
stanchion or rope tied around her neck; this is
v ery res trictiv e to her behav iour. With a rope
or chain the cow may be able to turn and lick
herself but if it is too short or she is in a stanchion
this is not possible.
- The bedding varies: straw, peat, or mattress (the
thickness of mattress is important for cow
comfort), or the floor may be bare.
- Water and food is provided, and grass may be
brought to the cows.
- In some systems the farmer will allow cows
outdoor access once a day. In small traditional
herds this will involve walking them or giving
them access to a loafing area. Many tethered
animals are not giv en any daily ex ercise.
- Tie-stalls can be separated into individual
partitions, partitions between every 2nd cow or
there may be no separation at all. Cows are only
able to s tand up and lie down in a tie-stall
- In the USA and the EU, farmers may use an
electrified cow trainer, where a metal wire is
suspended above the withers (shoulder) of the
cow. When her withers raise as she goes to
defecate or urinate she will receiv e a shock if she
doesn’t step back, so she learns to s tep back
which ensures dunging in the passage way.
Cubicles /free s talls :
- This system is used frequently for large herds.
- Cows are able to mov e freely around the barn
and lie in indiv idual cubicles or stalls. The
separation bars vary in design and their width is
important for comfort.
- There is a walkway for the cattle to access the
cubicles. They sit with their rear to the passage
which ensures dunging is done into the passage.
Bedding varies but materials like sand, straw or
peat are often used, which may cover a mat or
mattress inside the cubicle.
- Forage feed is delivered at a feed barrier, which
should be long enough that all cows can feed at
the same time. Dairy cows need to drink a lot of
water and this is normally provided in troughs.
- This system is used for zero-grazing herds, as well
as winter accommodation for those that go out in
the warmer months. Herds may also be given an
In tie-stalls cows are tethered in one place by a chain
(top), rope or stanchion (bottom). Food and water is
brought to them. Cows are only able to stand or lie down;
in stanchion systems they cannot even scratch their
Cubicle design varies and bedding materials include:
sand, straw, peat and mattresses. Sand is preferred by
the cow. Waterbeds can also be used.
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additional hard-standing (i.e. concrete) ‘loafing
area’ that gives them access to outside.
Loos e hous ing/straw y ard:
- Indoor housing on concrete/wooden flooring (or
in some countries, earth), bedded w ith s traw .
- Cows are kept in groups of varying size,
depending on the accommodation and herd size.
- This system may be in place alongside other
housing; it is commonly used for dry or sick cows.
- As in cubicle housing, forage feed is delivered at
a feed barrier and water is available in troughs.
- Straw yards may be used as winter housing or
may be used all year around on zero-grazing
- To reduce infection risk, straw should be rebedded daily.
- Straw bedding is good for lame cow s as it
provides a soft surface which is m ore
com fortable to s tand on.
- In large enough sheds it allows the cows freedom
to lie more naturally, in groups and be
comfortably spaced.
Outdoor hous ing
- Outdoor housing is not necessarily pasture-based
farming; cow s can be kept outdoors on
concrete, s and or soil with food brought to
them. In some countries dairy cows have access to
- Some farms give pasture access during the
summer months, but house cows inside during the
winter when the weather is poor and there is not
enough grass.
- New Zealand style farming is entirely pas turebased and the cows are outside for the entire
year, often with no shelter.
- A loafing area might be the only outside access
cows have and this is an area attached to the
indoor housing.
- In hot climates such as S audi Arabia the cows
have a barren outdoor area which they will only
use at night when temperatures drop.
Loose housing - straw bedding area in a barn (can be
just bare earth). Cows about to give birth are also
housed in straw yards (top). Bulls on dairy farms are
also often housed in loose housing when they are not
running with the herd (bottom).
9. Feeding
- An entirely gras s -based diet can be sufficient
for the cow to thrive whilst producing 4,000 litres
of milk per year.
- Dairy cows can now produce higher yields of milk
which require significant energy. A diet of grass
Outdoor access does not necessarily mean cows are
kept on grass: A Californian farm with cubicles outside
under shelter and acres of barren land (top); In New
Zealand cows live on pasture all year around, normally
without any shelter from bad weather or the sun
Page 7 of 9
Updated 01.09.2012
alone will not provide enough energy to produce
high milk yields and keep the cow in good health.
- Concentrates, which are used to supplement
grass, contain energy and protein-dense foods
such as grains and oilseed meals.
- Gras s and concentrates may only provide
enough energy for 5,000 litres of milk
production/year, but a medium-high yielding cow
will produce between 8,000 litres and 14,000 litres
(more likely 11,000) a year.
- Total m ix ed ration (TMR) is a diet that includes
hay, fermented grass (silage), maize silage and
high energy grains like brewers grains, soy bean,
cotton seed and citrus pulp.
- TMR ensures that cows get a complete diet which
is necessary to enable them to produce high
quantities of m ilk w ithout w eight los s . Cows
producing very high yields (e.g. over 12,500 litres
per year) can be very hungry and they will choose
TMR over grass.
periods of the summer months to ensure they get
an adequate diet while at peak lactation.
10. Zero-grazing
This term refers to instances where cows are
housed indoors with no access to pasture. In some
cases cows have zero-grazing through most or all
of their lactation and may only be allowed out
to pasture (if at all) for about tw o months , at
the end of their lactation but before the birth of
their next calf. This time is so minimal that we
would classify such a system as zero-grazed. An
animal m ay be zero-grazed but s till be on a
diet of gras s ; in more traditional systems cows
are often tethered all year round without access
to pasture but grass is brought to them – this is
more often the case for lower yielding, traditional
breeds. For high yielding cows, their diet during
lactation may be made up exclusively of TMR to
ensure they get the energy they need. In countries
such as Britain there is a move towards higher
yielding cows and so cow s are being kept ins ide
for longer periods to receive the TMR they need
in the summer months.
11. Mega Dairies
Top: cows eating TMR, which is a balanced diet to help
provide the energy needed for medium to high yielding
cows. Bottom: cows at pasture; a diet of grass can only
provide enough energy to produce around 4,000 litres of
milk a year.
- Cow s m ay be fed TMR throughout the y ear;
it may make up the whole diet (more often early
in the lactation when the yield and energy
demand is high) or be given in addition to grass at
pasture. As the cow requires m ore TMR to
produce high y ields of m ilk, there is a trend in
the industry for cows staying indoors for longer
The intens ification of the dairy indus try has
led to fewer but larger farms, and mega dairies
have recently been appearing in the EU. These
systems are usually zero-grazing but if they do
provide pasture, the more cows within a herd, the
further they have to walk to pasture to obtain
sufficient nutrition as well as space to defecate. A
high volume of faeces in one area not only
prevents cows from being able to find sufficient
clean grass but also causes w ater pollution.
Mega dairies therefore do not have sufficient
space for this to be possible and herds cannot
obtain sufficient nutrition on the pasture
provided (if provided at all). For high-yielding
cows this is likely to be true for any herd of 1000
or more, though the geography of some farms will
limit the number to much less than this. For lower
yielding cows, which only need to be milked once
a day (such as New Zealand style systems), larger
numbers can be kept since they don’t need to walk
to the milking parlour so often, they can get all
their nutrition from grass and their faeces are
spread over a large area of pasture.
Page 8 of 9
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12. S laughter
Cows can liv e for ov er 20 y ears but on
commercial farms the age at slaughter varies
considerably. Farms with poor management, highyielding cattle or high disease rates will s laughter
their anim als at a m uch y ounger age,
normally after four lactations (around 5-6 y ears
old), but sometimes after 2 or 3. Lameness,
mastitis and poor fertility are common reasons for
early culling.
The slaughtering of cattle is normally
performed at an abattoir but if a cow is injured on
the farm and unable to travel, it may be shot on
farm. Cows can be killed using several different
- Non-penetrating captiv e bolt gun: A gun-like
device is used for stunning and strikes the skull to
induce unconsciousness; the throat is then cut.
This is just us ed for calv es as it is not effective
enough for adult cattle.
- Penetrating captiv e bolt gun: As above but it
can also kill the animal as the rod penetrates the
Orlando, L (2015). The first aurochs genome
reveals the breeding history of British and European
cattle. Genome Biol. 2015; 16: 225.
Ekesbo. I. (2011) Farm Animal Behaviour:
Characteristics for Assessment of Health and
Welfare, Cattle, pg 53, CAB International 2011
Mohd Nor, N., Steeneveld, W., & Hogeveen, H.
(2013). The average culling rate of Dutch dairy
herds over the years 2007 to 2010 and its
association with herd reproduction performance
and health. Journal of Dairy Research, 1-8.
Fraser, A. F., Broom, D. M., (1990) Farm animal
behaviour and welfare, 3rd edition, Bailliere,
Tindall, London, 437pp.
Tucker, C.B (2009) The Origins of Cattle in The
Ethology of Domestic Animals. 2nd Edition. London:
CABI International
EFSA 2009 3.2.2
skull and destroys the brain. The throat is then cut
to bleed the animal. This is commonly used for
adult cattle.
- Electrical s tunning: electrodes are placed
across the animal’s brain and a current is applied
for a few seconds; once unconscious the throat is
cut and the animal dies from blood loss. This is
rarely us ed in cattle.
- Current EU legislation stipulates that animals
must be stunned before slaughter however there
is an ex ception for religious com munities , to
slaughter without pre stunning. The majority of
animals killed in the UK for halal s laughter
are s tunned firs t, since many Muslims believe
this is an acceptable part of the slaughter process.
However some religious slaughter is done without
pre-stunning; animals killed for Halal or Kosher
meat will have their throats cut while
cons cious and die from blood loss. In some
countries animals may be killed by this method
regardles s of religion.
Marcé, Guatteo, Bareille, & Fourichon (2010). Dairy
calf housing systems across Europe and risk for calf
infectious diseases. Animal. 2010 Sep;4(9):1588-96.
doi: 10.1017/S1751731110000650.
SCAHAW (Scientific Committee on Animal Health
and Animal Welfare), 1999. Report on Animal
Welfare Aspects of the Use of Bovine
Somatotrophin.. Directorate General Health and
Consumer Protection. Report of the Scientific
Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare
(SCAHAW). Adopted on 10 March 1999, 91 pp.
Horan, B. et al (2005) The effect of strain of
Holstein-Friesian, feeding system and parity on
lactation curves characteristics of spring-calving
dairy cows, Livestock Production Science, Vol 95,
231- 241
Annex to the EFSA Journal (2009) 1143, 28-284
Page 9 of 9
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