Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

The lives of beef cattle and dairy cows

. Updated: 17 December 2018


Cattle are farmed either to produce milk or to produce meat but the two industries are intrinsically linked.

Cows reared for beef

In the UK, some beef cattle spend their time between living indoors in sheds during the winter months and outside for the rest of the year, others are reared indoors in intensive systems year-round. While calves in less intensive systems may stay with their mother until they are weaned, others are taken from their mothers as soon as 12 hours after their birth and are raised in pens on milk replacements and pellet feed. Within the first weeks of life male calves are castrated and have the buds of their horns burned off with no anaesthetic.
Outdoor reared cows feed on pastures before slaughter whilst others are transported to ‘fattening sheds’ and fed high-bulk cereals. The conditions in the fattening sheds are barren and crowded and may or may not have straw covering the slatted concrete floors; the cows often find it difficult to stand and may become lame as a result. They are sent for slaughter at approximately 10-12 months of age. Sometimes transported great distances, this adds to the stress they must endure, and the spread of disease. Once arriving at the slaughterhouse, the cattle are stunned (often ineffectively) using a captive bolt pistol before being shackled upside down by the leg and having their throat slit.

Cows reared for dairy

In the UK, dairy cows are most commonly kept in pastures during the summer months and indoors in the winter. However, the practice of keeping cows indoors all year round, known as zero-grazing, is becoming more prevalent. Cows naturally produce milk for their own babies after giving birth, but dairy cows are subjected to the same cruelty as in other intensive farming systems to constantly supply humans with milk. Maximum production is paramount to farmers and cows are bred to produce between 20 and 50 litres of milk each day; around ten times the amount her calf would suckle.

Calves are usually taken from their mothers within the first two days of birth, breaking the strong maternal bond and causing suffering, anxiety and depression for both mother and baby. Under natural circumstances, a calf would suckle between six months and a year. Cows are impregnated again approximately 60 days after giving birth to continue the cycle of milk production.

Despite being able to live up to twenty years of age, dairy cow milk production reduces after the first two or three years, and so they are sent to slaughter, usually at around 6 years of age. Their meat often ends up in low-grade burgers or pet foods.

Female infants taken from their mothers may also become dairy cows, going through the same process of impregnation and losing several babies, as their mother did. Male infants may be killed as soon as they are removed from the mother or grown for ‘low quality’ meat. Male or female calves could also be sold and reared as veal.


You can help cows reared for meat and dairy by adopting a plant-based, vegan diet.

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