Dairy Farming: What Is It? And How Does a Dairy Farm Work?

Dairy farming
Credit: L214

What could be more natural than a fully grown weaned adult human being drinking the breast milk of a different species? When put like that, it does sound a little weird doesn’t it? So how did drinking cows’ milk become so normalised? It is natural? And why don’t we drink the milk of dogs or moose… or whales? After all, they produce milk for their young, too. As soon as you start to ask why we drink milk, a thousand more questions pop right up.

History Of Dairy Farming

Humans didn’t always drink the milk of another species. After childhood (which is when all other mammals stop drinking milk) our ancient ancestors simply couldn’t digest it, and even today most adults worldwide still do not produce the enzyme lactase which is needed to digest the milk sugar, lactose.

However, most Europeans do have this gene, and this genetic change in homo sapiens came into being around 7,500 years ago. With the ability to actually digest the white stuff without getting sick, their health improved, largely for two reasons. First, it meant that communities were no longer quite so reliant on crops that could fail, and second, milk was less likely to harm them than their local contaminated water supplies.

The co-evolution of milk tolerance and dairy-farming went hand-in-hand until today when there are 264 million cows in dairy farms all over the world. And yet, almost 100 percent of people with Asian, African and Native American ancestry develop lactose intolerance by adulthood, while in black communities, the incidence is over 70 percent. Those who do consume dairy can experience bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramps, and they may not even know what is causing it.

What’s going on? Why are there so many cows and so much milk when so few people can digest it? The answer can be found in the phrases ‘cash cow’ and ‘white gold’. That’s right. Milk is aggressively marketed to people, even though it makes them sick, because others make money from it.

What Is a Dairy Farming?

It is utilising and exploiting the reproductive systems of cows (and less commonly sheep and goats), in order to mass produce a product that is sold for consumption.

So, why do we milk cows and not dogs or moose or whales? It has nothing to do with the taste or suitability of the product. It’s just that cows are bigger and so make more milk than dogs, and they are more easily domesticated than moose or whales. It really is that simple.

How a Dairy Farm Works

Cows don’t naturally produce milk. Like all mammals, they must first be made pregnant, and the breast milk their bodies make is intended to feed their young. To ensure near-constant production, farmed cows are repeatedly made pregnant through artificial insemination. They are selectively-bred for optimal milk yield, despite the toll it takes on the animals – painfully distended udders, teat infections and lameness are all commonplace in modern-day dairies. Still, we are never satisfied. We want every ounce of milk from each cow, and we cannot spare even a drop for the calf for whom the milk was made. Besides, it’s the milk we want, not the baby, and so the young animals are taken from their mothers soon after birth to stop them drinking that valuable liquid. Both mother and calf grieve for days at this devastating separation, as any parent and child would.

The newborn females may be taken and isolated inside a hutch. Unable to nuzzle their mothers or find comfort in a herd, they are all alone, often chained, and able only to stand up or lie down until they are old enough to be impregnated and milked.

The males obviously can’t produce milk and as they are the wrong breed to put on muscle for beef, farmers won’t waste feed on them. Instead they may be raised for veal, chained inside crates and kept permanently weak, so their flesh is pale and tender. Or they may be shot in the head on their very first day of life.

It’s a brutal regime.

Where Is Dairy Farming Most Common?

India has the greatest number of dairy cows – almost 60 million. The European Union has the second largest number, and then comes Brazil and the United States.

Although India has the most cows, the European Union collectively produces twice the amount of milk. The United States comes second, with just under 100 million metric tons of milk produced each year.

How Many Dairy Farms Are There In The United States?

Despite increased production, the number of dairy farms in the US has actually decreased significantly. This is, in large part, because farms are getting bigger and increasingly industrial, and they hold more cows on each.

Today, there are more than 60,000 dairy farms in the United States, with the largest number situated in Wisconsin. California, however, has more cows and produces the most milk, followed by Wisconsin, Idaho, New York and Texas.

Since the average dairy farm makes a financial loss, this whole industry survives only because of subsidies. In other words, taxpayers are picking up the check even though 65 percent of the population can’t digest the product.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Dairy Farming?

Where to begin?

Dairy farming is one of the most environmentally damaging industries on the planet, and for multiple reasons. The first is that cows used for their milk (and meat) are key drivers of climate breakdown. This is because both they and their manure produce a lot of methane, which produces 21 times as much warming as CO2. Shockingly, the biggest dairy companies in the world have the same combined greenhouse gas emissions as the UK, the sixth biggest economy in the world.

The industrialisation of dairy farming means that these grazing animals no longer graze, and instead their food is manufactured and processed elsewhere, and brought to them. That feed contains soy, much of it grown on deforested lands, including the Amazon. In all, 80 percent of the world’s soy crop is fed to farmed animals making animal agriculture a key driver of deforestation and decimation of wildlife.

Millions of large farmed animals eating a lot of food means there is inevitably also a lot of poop. A 2,000-cow dairy farm, for example, generates more than 240,000 pounds of manure daily. Scale that up for the nine million dairy cows raised in the US, and it’s obvious that this is just too much manure to spread on the land as fertilizer. Instead, it is stored in ‘lagoons’ but all too often it leaks out or is accidentally (sometimes, perhaps, deliberately) spilled out, and its effects are devastating. It poisons the air and causes respiratory problems in people who live nearby, and it gets into the land and waterways where its impact is catastrophic.

According to the EPA, excess nutrients from agriculture, including chemical fertilizers and dairy manure, are a major source of water pollution across the US. The nitrogen and phosphorus contained in the manure cause algae blooms that result in oxygen-deprived dead zones where no life can survive. These dead zones are growing in both number and size, and no wonder. The manure from 200 milking cows produces as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people. So, America’s nine million dairy cows produce the same waste nitrogen as between 225 and 450 million people.

Aside from affecting the respiratory health of workers and local residents, and aside from the fact our taxes prop up this environmentally damaging industry, and aside from the fact it makes so many people who consume it sick, dairying affects people in another important way. When we overproduce milk we are being recklessly wasteful of land, water, feed and farmers’ time. Wouldn’t these vital resources be better used in the production of nutritious plant-based foods that are sustainable and essential for optimal health?

Instead of situating these damaging animal-based industries among poor, underserved communities, often predominantly inhabited by people of color, wouldn’t it be better to grow healthful plant foods that can be made locally available? ‘Food deserts’ is a term commonly used for areas where affordable, healthful food is in short supply, but food justice activists instead talk about ‘food apartheid’, as this issue connects directly to a systemic racism inherent in the food system.

There is much that is damaging about the dairy industry, and that is before we even talk about the cows themselves.

How Are Cows Treated On Dairy Farms?

Cows are treated as though they are inanimate machinery – you turn on a tap and out comes the milk.
As we know, cows produce milk only when they are pregnant, as their breast milk is intended for their babies. Every day that pregnancy is delayed is a day’s loss of milk, and so pregnancy is not left to chance. Cows are artificially inseminated which involves one human hand entering the cow’s anus to manipulate her cervix into position while the other hand inserts a tube of semen into her vagina. Suddenly, milk doesn’t seem quite so wholesome, does it?

When the babies are born, they are taken from their mothers so they don’t actually drink the milk that was made for them. Cows show extreme distress at this separation, often bellowing with grief as any mother would. Cows have been known to break out of farms and trek for miles in search of their calves, such is the strength of their determination and love. And spare a thought for the calves themselves. Newborns need their mothers, and yet they are taken forcibly, and either killed or isolated. Their mothers can only look on and cry out for this to stop but it will happen again and again, as that is the only way to keep the milk flowing.

In CAFOs, cows who are naturally grazing animals and have four distinct areas of their stomachs to help them digest grass, are denied access to pasture. They are also denied stimulation, and have nothing to do all day but stand, eat and be milked. And suffer. Standing around is not pain-free when you consider the prevalence of lameness on America’s dairy farms to be up to 55 percent.

And there is an immense biological price to pay for being near-constantly pregnant while simultaneously milked. No wonder, cows break down when still so very young. When they can no longer produce as much milk as is demanded of them, they are trucked to slaughter. It’s not a problem for the farmer, as there are always plenty of female calves who can take the place of their mothers, until they too collapse under the emotional, psychological and physical strain of being a dairy cow.

Is Dairy Farming Cruel?

Dairy farming is cruel because cows suffer physically. As well as lameness, there is a high incidence of clinical mastitis – a painful infection of the teats usually caused by bacteria transmitted during the milking process or through living in filthy surroundings. It is so common that it occurs in all dairy herds. Mastitis is undoubtedly painful, but each day, every day, those same infected teats are inserted into machinery to have the milk drawn from them.

Dairy farming is cruel because cows suffer psychologically. Cows are intelligent, sentient beings, with individual personalities, the ability to learn and display long-term memory. They even remember those who have handled them roughly. Cows have needs and desires, but in modern intensive farms they are afforded nothing that makes their lives worthwhile.

Dairy farming is cruel because cows suffer emotionally. Is there anything more cruel than forcing someone to be pregnant then stealing away the baby so you can harvest their milk? When put in simple terms, dairy production sounds like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Dairy farming must rank among the cruelest industries on the planet.

Dairy Farming Facts

Here are ten things you may not know about the dairy industry.

  1. The veal industry is inextricably tied to the dairy industry. If you hate the thought of a baby animal being confined, chained, deliberately kept weak and anemic and slaughtered young, it’s not enough to boycott veal. You need to boycott milk, too.
  2. In some states it is still legal to remove the tails of dairy cows. A survey of 113 North Central and North Eastern US dairies found that tail docking was practiced at 82.3 percent of the dairies.
  3. Tie stalls – where cows may be tethered continuously – are the primary form of housing on 39 percent and 75 percent of US and Canadian dairy farms, respectively.
  4. The hairs around cows’ udders may be burned off using a propane torch. The industry admits that some cows ‘react’ to this shocking procedure.
  5. Dairy farmers in the US can still use the growth hormone bovine somatotropin (bST) to boost milk yields. It also increases the risk of mastitis, lameness, indigestion and diarrhoea in cows, and is banned in the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina.
  6. Journey times for US dairy cows being taken to slaughter can be up to 28 punishing hours without rest.
  7. When a cow is suffering from mastitis, neutrophils end up in the milk – these are the inflammatory immune cells that cause pus. In the European Union, the legal limit is set at 300,000 cells per ml of milk. In the United States, it is more than double at 750,000 cells per ml. But how much pus in your latte is too much?
  8. Antibiotics and pesticides are also ‘prevalent’ in retail cows’ milk.
  9. Gastroenterologist Dr Angie Sadeghi says that milk is ‘such poison to our gut’.
  10. Oxford University researchers found that the most sustainable dairy milk was still worse for the planet than the least sustainable plant milks. Their advice? Choose plant milks.


There can be no more ruthless industry than the dairy industry. Animals are exploited for their reproductive capabilities, and their young are simply disposed of. It’s an industry that trashes the environment, causes immense suffering to gentle, sentient beings, and makes people sick.

No wonder, sales of milk are declining as people abandon this cruel, damaging ‘poison’, and choose plant milks instead.

Find out more about making healthy, compassionate food choices by trying vegan for 31 days HERE.

Are plant milks expensive where you live? You can make them at home cheaply and easily. Check out these simple recipes and you’ll never go back!

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