OK, so I’m off dairy too

Right now in Australia, the dairy industry is struggling. The farmers have taken some big hits lately and many are going to the wall or really feeling the pinch. Waleed Aly recently spoke of this on The Project and he exhorted his fellow Aussies to consume more dairy, especially cheese.

Now, I’d never given dairy much thought. I happily drank my full cream milk, enjoyed some cream in my coffee, loved a bit of ice cream, and well, you get the picture. I’m like everyone else. Dairy is great stuff. So when I started to be exposed to the claims by animal activists that dairy is an evil immoral industry, I thought, what? I’ve seen the images – all those happy cows being milked, the bottles of milk and cream, frolicking calves and so on. What’s not to like?

But here it is. I recently discovered the horrors of intensive pig farming and what it means for us to eat pigs. This opened my mind to another way of looking at our treatment of our farmed animals and what I found has so profoundly changed my outlook that I cannot believe I never saw this before.

If you make that mental leap, if you truly start to consider what it means to exploit other animals for our own pleasures, all of a sudden the most innocuous things assume a greater gravity. Like dairy.

Wait a minute, I hear you say. Dairy farmers are all great people doing a great job and they are part of the backbone of our country.

Well, I think that in Australia at least, that is probably true. Many, if not most dairy farmers are almost certain to be great people, they do a great job (in the context of the actual process), and they are part of the backbone of our country given how important primary production is. But….

Let’s give some serious thought to the proposition. Now, I am NOT having a go at the farmers necessarily. I think like the rest of us they are caught in a particular frame of mind that has led us away from a more noble way to live.

Straight up, I suggest that no-one needs to consume dairy. Generally speaking, few people eat or drink dairy products for their nutritional or health benefits. Most of us do so because the stuff tastes nice. It’s a pleasure. Which of course is fine, we all like to do things that feel good. But shouldn’t we seriously consider the true equation? What does fulfilling our pleasures cost?

Before I go into that, consider that while most consume dairy for pleasure, the industry likes to play on the supposed health benefits. In fact, one dairy blogger even made this statement recently on her blog:

“I think the overwhelming scientific proof shows that the answer to this question… (should humans drink cow’s milk)… is a resounding YES. The science has consistently shown one of the reasons people in 1st world countries live longer is cow’s milk is now an easily accessible, safe, affordable and nutritious part of our diet.”

Now, I challenged her on that but she chose not to reply. I haven’t been able to research that claim, because I have no idea on what actual basis the claim is made. I won’t pretend to have done exhaustive analysis of the science, but from what I read I am not aware of any specific benefit conferred by dairy that cannot be derived in other ways.

Yes, there is calcium to be had, and that can help prevent problems such as osteoporosis. However, the amount of calcium needed daily is most likely not as high as is often represented, and there are other factors to consider (such as the need for exercise and Vitamin D). The fact is that sufficient calcium can be gained from plant foods (eg leafy greens such as kale). It is also possible to obtain calcium from various fortified non dairy products such as orange juice and soy milk.

I have read that dairy products may be of benefit in preventing certain kinds of colorectal cancers, but without reading the studies I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that these same benefits could be obtained elsewhere – I suspect that the consumption of dairy in such cases is more a matter of the convenience of dairy.

Dairy products are also associated with increased risks of prostate and ovarian cancers and may also contribute to other health risks if consumed to excess. As best I can tell, the most beneficial, least harmful quantity of dairy to consume might be as little as a glass of milk a day.

This is a good summary
This is a slightly more negative summary

On the whole, it seems to me that dairy products are generally best consumed in small quantities, and given possible risk factors, perhaps avoided entirely if we are considering it on a purely nutritional, dietary health basis. Bear in mind too that large scale consumption of cow’s milk is a relatively recent phenomenon and many people are actually lactose intolerant.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I think it’s confirmation that by and large, we consume dairy because we like to, not because we actually need to. So, let’s return to the value proposition.

If we consume dairy because we like to then that behaviour constitutes a pleasure, an entertainment. Perhaps we could simply call it “fun”. After all, what else would we call eating a bowl of ice cream, or drinking a nice milkshake. A pain? A chore? Disagreeable? Miserable? Nope, it’s a pleasure, it’s fun.

So, what’s the cost for this pleasure, this enjoyment? We get our dairy from cows, and the dairy industry exists to service this need. Dairy farmers in Australia breed and raise cows to provide milk. But the sad thing is that this process is anything but benign. I suspect most people are, like I was, ignorant of what actually happens.

Here it is, in a nutshell. You can read a more detailed expose at this link (and from what I have been able to uncover, this is a reasonably objective analysis)

Oh, and if you disagree, feel free to comment, but I’d rather you keep to the facts rather than just some emotive hearsay. I know I might be wrong but I did spend a fair bit of time researching this and I think I’m on target.

Dairy cows are bred to produce milk. No dairy cow would exist if we didn’t create them. It is nonsense indeed to argue that if we didn’t farm them they’d suffer more. No, they wouldn’t because they wouldn’t exist.

Cows are impregnated frequently to ensure milk production. On average I gather this is around every 12-18 months. This is done either naturally (via servicing by a bull) or artificially (someone sticks a rod into their vagina and guides the sperm to its destination by sticking an arm up their rectum).

Calves are taken from their mothers early, usually within a day. Here is a dairy farmer’s arguments for why they should do this.

Now, while good arguments are offered for why this is so (and I think I generally concede the point here), it should be clear that cows did not evolve to be separated from their young. It IS a stressful event, plenty of research and anecdotal evidence supports this.

It also causes certain deleterious outcomes. For example, Flower and Weary found in 2003 that “Calf response to separation also increases when the calf spends more time with the cow, but there are long-term benefits of prolonged contact in terms of sociality, fearfulness and future maternal behaviour. Health, weight gain and future productivity are also improved when the calf is allowed to spend more time with the cow.”

Male calves are generally redundant. Not being a dairy farmer, I can’t speak with authority on how such calves are dealt with. All I can report is what I find from research. Basically, pretty much all male calves are killed almost immediately, although some are kept alive for longer. I doubt many at all survive past their first year or two. Dairy farmers seem to think this is OK, it’s just a necessary drawback to farming. Umm… yeah, sure it is.

In 2015, some 630,000 calves were slaughtered, predominately sourced from dairy.
Around 50-60,000 calves are killed on-farm each year as waste. Farming guidelines suggest on-farm killing should be done humanely, but this can range from shooting to bluint force trauma (eg a hammer).

Industry figures suggest that the average age at death for calves is:

Bobby calf: 1-2 weeks
Veal calf: 4-6 months

Some farmers claim to be more compassionate and will sell their calves to beef farmers who will usually raise and fatten the calves until slaughter. This is often at around 18 to 24 months of age. I suppose that could qualify as ‘compassionate’…

From what I’ve seen, dairy farmers who blog seem to shy away from talking about how male calves are disposed of. I think there’s a bit of head in sand going on. The majority of male calves, as best I can tell, are trucked to slaughter from as young as five days old. As soon as they can make the journey, they are off. Now, again, it’s hard to know how that feels to a calf. But I will go out on a limb and suggest it’s pretty bloody awful. Remember, this would not happen to one calf at all if there were no dairy.

Truly, no matter how a dairy farmer chooses to dress this up, it is horrible. Babies are taken from their mothers, jammed into a truck, taken some distance to a place of slaughter, and there executed. It is emotive to call these animals babies and mothers, but if you can come up with a more objective term then I think you are seeking to paper over the cracks in the façade of compassion.

You can see something of this treatment in the video here. Watch from 1:50 onwards. Warning – this shows graphic violence.

Dairy cows have short lives. Now, again, I haven’t got first hand knowledge and I know some farmers claim that their cows live quite long lives. I am going to call bullshit on this for most cows however. Here is one such claim, but note that the writer is careful not to say just how many 14 year old cows she has, nor the average age of her herd:

“Farmers and cows both benefit from farming, Dennis. An Aussie dairy cow gets to roam in the paddocks, is cared for when she’s sick and, most importantly, doesn’t die a slow, excruciating death as wild cattle often do. And you’ll be delighted to know that we are milking 14-year-old cows on our farm, right now!”

What I can uncover from my own research suggests that the average age of a dairy cow is around 5 years in Australia. At the end of the day, a cow is a unit of production, and farmers cannot afford to be too generous in keeping unproductive animals. As I understand it, culling is an important part of herd management. I believe that cull rates are around 20-30% per annum, but I stand to be corrected if that figure is incorrect.

Dairy Australia notes that the current Year To Date figure for cull cows as at April 2016 is 69,648. Their website notes that “…cull cow prices are still at record highs for the year to date, with sales volume per head up 36%, and the average price up 44%”.

Note that cows natural lifespan can be as much as 20 to 25 years.

This page has some interesting data and information which provides further insight into herd management and culling of animals. I cannot vouch for its validity.

Dairy cows are subject to a range of health risks due to the very fact they have to produce high volumes of milk. They generally tend to produce much more milk for longer than in their natural state. This can lead to significant negative outcomes such as mastitis and lameness. Both are leading causes of death and culling.

While farmers claim that they manage mastitis well, there is evidence that current trends may run counter to this. Shum, McConnel, Gunn and House said in November 2009 in the Australian Veterinary Journal:

“The incidence and causes of mastitis are largely influenced by farm management. The relatively high prevalence of coliform mastitis in the intensive high-producing herds in (New South Wales) contrasts with the low incidence reported in surveys of pasture-based herds in Victoria. If the Australian dairy industry continues its current trend of intensification, coliform intra-mammary infections may emerge as an increasingly important cause of mastitis.”

One interesting fact is that it seems that over time, dairy cows are becoming less fertile (or more accurately, harder to inseminate). I am not sure if this applies in Australia. This means that, given rates of mastitis and lameness have not also decreased, more cows are likely to be culled for reasons of poor productivity.

See for example this paper.

Australian dairy farmers tend to argue that they farm as small family run enterprises and hence can afford to be more humane. This might be true in an abstract sense, however the trend is not in that direction. Yes, most farms are family managed enterprises, but the pressure is to find ways to do more with less. Average herd size has increased from 93 cows in 1985 to an estimated 284 currently. There is also a trend emerging to very large farm operations of over 1,000 head of cattle.

The very problems that Waleed Aly highlights is part of this. It’s also worth noting that the industry is actively seeking to secure overseas markets and like with beef cattle, this will inevitably lead to more industrialised operations. I suspect the small family owned concern may become a thing of the past if dairy continues to thrive in today’s conditions and economic climate.

Falling farm numbers do reflect a long-term trend observed in agriculture around the world, as reduced price support and changing business practices have encouraged a shift to larger, more efficient operating systems.

Note too that on the supply side, farmer-owned cooperatives no longer dominate the industry and now account for less than 40% of Australia’s milk production. The largest co-operative is Murray Goulburn (MG) accounting for nearly 37% of national milk output.

One final comment is to do with what we as humans think cows feel. It is very hard to know how another animal thinks and feels and there is a distressing tendency for most to disregard the inner experience of animals, especially our farmed animals.

When it comes to cows, we should sometimes reflect on the natural evolution of the animal and what that means in terms of outward displays of inner experience. By this I simply mean that when a cow shows little sign of concern such as we might display in a similar situation, I don’t think it follows that we should assume that the inner experience is equally diminished.

It would make more sense to err on the side of caution. Is a mother cow distressed when her baby is taken away? Does a calf experience distress and fear when separated from its mother? Does a bobby calf have a terrifying ordeal on its way to slaughter? Are cows really happy with their increased milk production, risk of lameness, frequency of mastitis?

I cannot say, but I do not believe for a moment that cows are unthinking unfeeling beings. I suspect that their stoical nature is rather likely to be (intentionally?) misinterpreted.

As an example, cow/calf bonding is an essential part of natural behaviour and evidence for this has been noted in research. Marchant-Forde and Weary found in 2002 that “Dairy calves are… capable of individual recognition based on auditory cues at a very early age”.

Vocalisations between cows and calves increase with time after birth, perhaps indicating a survival (fitness) benefit to fewer vocalisations in the first hours after birth. This does not indicate that cows and calves are less bonded earlier as the behaviour may simply be a survival mechanism.

In other words, it may be safer for a cow and calf in nature to keep quiet in the first day or so after birth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t bonded from the moment of birth…

With all of this said, here is my own take on the matter.

1. Dairy is a pleasure and not essential to health or sustenance.
2. The dairy industry exists to make money, not make us healthier, or to make cows happy.
3. Dairying involves substantial harms to animals. It seems that it directly contributes to the deaths of between one half and one million animals per year in Australia.
4. Many animals suffer in dairying. Whether it be mastitis, lameness, other health issues such as Bovine Johnes Disease, the enforced separation of mother and calf, or the horrors of male calf disposal.
5. All dairy cows are units of production. While farmers most likely do care for their animals to an extent, the economic bottom line is always the bottom line. When it comes down to the difference between being profitable and not, the cows will cop it in the skull every time.
6. In modern Australia, we can happily obtain many plant-based milk alternatives. These are in many cases just as tasty or satisfying as traditional dairy.
7. As a pleasure, there is simply no compulsion on us to consume dairy if the cost in animal welfare is too high. I think more of us would do well to think about that.

A wholesale move away from traditional dairy and the greater acceptance of plant based alternatives would be a far nobler choice. And while many might bemoan the loss of their cream or their cheese, I think it’s weak in the extreme to argue that our tastes, our pleasures, are worth any degree of suffering by the cows that would not exist but for our selfish desires.

As for non-dairy alternatives, if this became mainstream, modern innovation would soon find a way to make plant-based options entirely palatable to all. And very soon, we’d have forgotten entirely about why we thought traditional dairy was so essential. It would really only take one generation, after all…

Vegan Cheese!


11 thoughts on “OK, so I’m off dairy too

  1. Thank you for linking to the blog post on the “The Life of the Dairy Cow” report which is the most comprehensive consumer focused report into the welfare of Australian dairy cows by Voiceless. As you can see, their welfare comes in second and they are considered mere machines to be used and exploited for profit and palatable pleasure.


  2. Hi Graeme

    As the dairy blogger you mention in this article thank you for giving me the right of reply. As I have mentioned in my replies to you in the past you and I share many of the same values but we have different perspectives.
    You are obviously a deep philosophical thinker and read a great deal and I am confident there are many things that are part of your areas of expertise
    As some-one with a degree in pharmacology, with a strong nutrition focus I can in all credibility declare the well-known health benefits of dairy.
    As a 6th generation Australian dairy farmer I have been on many dairy farms and whilst I don’t claim the Australian dairy industry is perfect I can assure milk drinkers that the vast majority of our farmers are providing the best whole of life experience that they possibly can for their animals.
    As some-one who has sat on national animal welfare policy advisory groups I can also assure you that the industry is highly committed to waking up every day to being a better farmer than they were yesterday
    The reason I didn’t post your comment is I don’t think now is the time to have these philosophical discussions when many of our dairy farmers’ mental health is fragile. I think now is the time to be compassionate towards your fellow human beings. When all people are nice to all people then we can be truly sure that all animals will be treated with respect and given the best whole of life experience they deserve
    It is clear from the many emails I have had like this one I quote the Australian public
    “believe that farmers’ (whatever they’re farming) should be paid a price for their product that allows them to cover the true cost of production, that allows farmers to maintain/replace infrastructure, improve the land, provide for the welfare of their animals, care for themselves and their families and make a bit of profit as well. In other words, a truly sustainable farming system that takes into account economics, environment, people and animals. This can’t happen if people have a belief that food must be cheap. And this can’t happen if retailers keep underpinning that belief with ridiculous price wars.”

    many thanks

    Lynne Strong


    1. Thanks for commenting Lynne, and I agree with your your decision not to post my submitted comment at this time.

      You say “I can assure milk drinkers that the vast majority of our farmers are providing the best whole of life experience that they possibly can for their animals.” I understand what you mean and I am sure you believe this to be so. My point though is quite simply that if we didn’t consume dairy, then there would be no need for anyone to be seeking to ensure the best whole of life experience for their animals. And you surely must agree that if we really kill around 600,000 to 800,000 animals a year (including very young calves), then around 50% of the national herd isn’t getting any quality of life experience at all.

      You also say “As some-one with a degree in pharmacology, with a strong nutrition focus I can in all credibility declare the well-known health benefits of dairy.” As I am genuinely interested to learn more, can you point me to any peer reviewed evidence that dairy and only dairy provides these benefits. Or is it more likely that the same benefits are available in other forms and it is the convenience of dairy that makes it desirable in that sense? For example, what possible benefit does traditional dairy offer (in medically appropriate amounts) that couldn’t be obtained from plant-based options?


      1. Read the book The China Study by T Colin Campbell, one of the most senior nutritional scientists in the US, with over 50 years experience. He was bought up on a dairy farm, is NOT an animal activist, but he sets the record straight in a very compelling way and after reading his book you will never drink dairy again. Read it – change your life for the better!


  3. Thanks for the link to the Australian Dietary Guidelines Lynne. I had a read and I’m not sure that I’d take from them what you seem to be implying. Note they are offering guidance around a status quo, not necessarily evaluating any appropriateness around our food choices.

    Now, it seems to me that the benefits of dairy boil down to convenience. The guidelines don’t point to an intrinsic benefit, rather that the nutritional elements in dairy are useful to us. Note they disregard butter, cream and ice-cream and recommend low fat forms of milk, cheese and yoghurt. This means to me that butter, cream and ice-cream, and full fat forms of dairy are more than likely not associated with healthy outcomes. They also suggest a somewhat moderate consumption of low fat forms of milk, cheese and yoghurt (on average maybe 2-3 serves per day it seems).

    One of those references I linked to (the Harvard School of Public Health) broadly agrees but also notes there is no conclusive evidence that more than one serve of dairy a day offers any increased benefits.

    “Currently, there’s no good evidence that consuming more than one serving of milk per day in addition to a reasonable diet (which typically provides about 300 milligrams of calcium per day from nondairy sources) will reduce fracture risk. Because of unresolved concerns about the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, it may be prudent to avoid higher intakes of dairy products”.

    Please, do read this reference:

    As far as I can tell from the Guidelines, it isn’t dairy specifically that is of benefit, but elements such as calcium, protein, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and zinc. Indeed, the focus appears to be on calcium.

    As I mentioned in my blog post above, all of these with the exception of B12 are available naturally in other forms. It is more than likely simply the convenience of dairy that makes it more attractive, but the benefits are not inherent in dairy alone.

    Clearly, we can get all of these elements from other sources. For example, calcium can be had from dried figs, sesame seeds, dark leafy greens (like kale), bok choy, white beans, black-eyed peas and other pulses, seaweed (think sushi), fortified soy and nut-milks, unhulled tahini, white/brown bread, enriched fruit juice, broccoli, tofu, soya mince and molasses.

    Now, what can we take from this? Simply put, low fat forms of milk, cheese and yoghurt, consumed in small quantities, seem to be associated with sound health outcomes. However, the same outcomes would also be associated with plant-based options. As well, there do appear to be health risks with dairy, for example consuming too much, or consuming high fat versions (eg cream and ice cream). Dairy then offers beneficial outcomes in some cases, but in others poses a health risk.

    With this in mind, we should consider the ethical question. Here I’d like to put to you a specific question. I am interested in your view. Especially if you could be as objective as possible.

    The dairy industry exhorts us to consume all forms of dairy. Full cream milk, ice cream and other highly sweetened forms of dairy are readily available. As an industry, higher volume sales are important, and thus the industry benefits if more people consume more dairy. Waleed Aly clearly asked us to consume more cheese. If all consumers only consumed the recommended dietary intake of low fat forms and did not consume cream, ice-cream, butter and so on, I assume the overall demand/consumption would drop. Not good for profits. So, the dairy industry wants us to knock back as much dairy as we can possibly get.

    Now, factor in the ethical question. All dairy cows in Australia exist only because we breed them. All harms they experience are directly attributable to dairy farmers’ activities. Something like 500,000 to 800,000 animals a year die young (they are killed) due to dairy. Lameness, mastitis, BJD and other negative health outcomes in our dairy herd are directly due to dairying. Emotional stresses due to separation of mother and calf, artificial insemination, and other on-farm activities affect the health of dairy cows. All attributable to dairying.

    If then we can get all the nutritional benefits we need from other food sources, if we can create tasty and nutritional dairy replacements such as coconut, rice, almond and soy milks, and if we can also get our calcium etc from natural foods such as leafy greens or fortified dairy replacements, then surely there is no compelling reason for dairy products on a nutritional basis. And if there is a genuine ethical question over dairy, which I think there is when we look at the harms to the animals, what should we choose to do? Is convenience and human pleasure worth harm to more than one million feelingful creatures every year?

    My question then is, given these facts, would you argue that Australians should continue to consume dairy, and indeed consume more of it?


  4. Thanks for your thoughtful, thorough and interesting post. I also became aware of the horrific abuse of cows and calves in the dairy farming just a few years ago and stopped consuming dairy products. I don’t miss any of them and feel healthy, happy, and rewarded drinking and eating plant based products: milk, cheese, ice cream and butter.

    We need to be aware of the suffering we cause to sentient and gentle creatures, whose milk we consume, even though it is not required for a healthy diet and can be harmful for us (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/10/dairy-industry-milk-federal-dietary-guidelines). We humans should extend our moral code to fellow beings whom we abuse and kill only to please our taste buds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Zahava and thank you for your kind comments. And for opening your mind to something we should all be open to. If we can lead happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?


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