The Life of the Dairy Cow

1441 aka "Cheeky Girl" on the left

1444 aka “Cheeky Girl” on the left with the pink nose

Meet 1444, known to us as “Cheeky Girl”. If you were in the paddock alongside me, she would certainly want to meet you. As a calf, a yearling and now, a mature cow, Cheeky Girl’s always been one of the first in the herd to wander up to you in the paddock. You’re busy working on the fence, you turn around to see who’s sniffing you and there she is, every time!

Vegan group, Voiceless, today launched an “expose” of cruelty to Australian dairy cows called The Life of the Dairy Cow: A Report on the Australian Dairy Industry. The group claims dairy farmers are secretive and that:

“…the average dairy cow is subject to a perpetual cycle of calving, milking and forced impregnation. She has been bred to produce double the milk she could have thirty years ago, and to ensure her yield remains at its peak, she is forcibly impregnated every 13 months to produce a calf who is immediately taken away from her and, in many cases, killed within a week after birth.”

“The emotional suffering this causes, along with the physical pain inflicted through standard mutilation practices and the prevalence of painful diseases, impact negatively on her welfare, but remain mostly hidden from the view of consumers.”

Here, I’m going to tell you about the life of one of our dairy cows, Cheeky Girl. The underlined links are to previous blog posts I’ve written here on Milk Maid Marian.Β  I’ll let you make up your own mind.

Cheeky girl as a rising two-year-old

Cheeky Girl as a rising two-year-old

Cheeky Girl was born in July four years ago. She was conceived in the paddock after her 10-year-old mother’s courtship with one of our eight bulls. At two days old, she was brought to the warm young calf shed where, in a pen with one or two other newborns, she was protected from the devastating BJD and fed with enough vital colostrum to give her the best chance of a long life. After the 48 hour window for colostrum absorption had closed, she was offered ad-lib pellets and water to help her rumen develop.

Seven days later, after we were sure Cheeky Girl had learned to suckle strongly, she joined a group of 16 calves in this sheltered outdoor fox-proof enclosure guarded by our Maremmas, Charlie and Lola.

One morning when she was a few weeks old, Cheeky Girl’s horn buds were cauterised to protect her herd-mates (and the people who care for her) from potentially fatal injuries later in life. It’s a job we hate but one that is done in the interests of every animal and person on the farm. And, yes, we know it hurt but by the afternoon, Cheeky Girl was looking for a scratch again. This year’s calves were spared this discomfort as naturally polled sires became available.

When Cheeky Girl was big and strong enough, we weaned her from her mother’s milk, vaccinated her against seven deadly diseases and let her join a mob of about 40 of her peers in a paddock by the forest. Aside from clover and rye, she was fed silage and high protein pellets to keep her growing and healthy. She was vaccinated and drenched regularly to prevent parasite attacks that might otherwise debilitate a young growing cow.

At 15 months, our four Jersey bulls began to flirt with Cheeky Girl and her peers. We only let the youngsters run with this small breed of bulls so there is less risk of complications. When her own calf was born in the carefully monitored “springer’s paddock” by the dairy, Cheeky Girl became a fully fledged member of the milking herd for the first time. She is fed grain in the dairy, lives her entire life roaming the paddocks with her herd mates and enjoys added silage or hay when the pasture’s growth slows in summer and winter.

Cheeky Girl makes about 25 litres of milk per day grazing free-range in the paddocks. She hasn’t fallen ill with mastitis or lameness but, if she does one day, help will be swift and attentive. Like her mother, Cheeky Girl can look forward to a long and healthy life – perhaps staying in the herd until the ripe old age of 14 or 15. And when she’s no longer able to cope with cold winters or becomes seriously ill, we will make sure she suffers as little as possible. We cannot stop the cycle of life from turning but we can do our best to look after our animals the whole way through.

50 thoughts on “The Life of the Dairy Cow

  1. great insight Marian, thanks for the posting it’s always good to hear the farmers story as how it really is on the farm daily.

  2. Great article Marian. The way to overcome the lies, distortion and religious dogma of groups like this (and veganism can most certainly a fundamentalist belief system) is to quietly and patiently point out the faults in their arguments. You will never get extremists to accept that there is room for tolerance in the world but you will win over anyone willing to rationally examine the issue.

    BTW, I’m drinking a glass of milk as we speak (well, a White Russian but close enough). Cheers Voiceless!

  3. It is a great article, Marian. You have a well-run, humane operation, and I am glad to see you point out your own farm as a an example of good management. Not all farms are so well run and the animals so well-cared for though. I don’t know what the mimimum standards for farm animal care are in Australia, but perhaps this is some of what various protest groups are seeing, resulting painting all producers with the same brush.

    I did a quick Google search and came up with more than a few links on Biodynamic dairies in Australia. What are your thoughts on these type of dairies?

    • Thanks Lavinia but there is nothing exceptional about my farm. Everything I’ve described here is pretty standard (except perhaps the use of polled sires as they are quite new).

      Biodynamic worries me to be honest because of the reluctance to use antibiotics – such an approach towards medication for our children would be considered outrageous.

      I believe that if a cow is sick, we should treat her with the most effective medicine we have, straight away.

  4. A lovely post Marian – do you really think the majority, or even many people, think the way of any of the vegan groups? After all, they are still very much a minority in our world. I don’t think even all vegans think the way as outlined above of Voiceless, who sound like a fairly extreme group. The same as some of the animal liberation groups. Their hearts are probably in the right place initially, but get carried away by one or two ”bad apple farmers” and then go way too far the other way. Roy and I sometimes consider veganism or vegetarianism (and we certainly eat a lot less meat than we used to) but would never for a moment dream of being so strident and anti-animal farming, in a call for everyone to ”follow our way!” Long may animal farmers who really care for their animals live and prosper.

    • Hi Kayepea,

      No, I don’t but when their media releases become news in mainstream papers like the Herald Sun and the Courier Mail, I think it’s important to answer the questions that readers might have about what really happens on farm and why.

      The dairy community is not perfect by any stretch but the vast majority of farmers will go without dinner every time to help a cow in trouble.

  5. Cheeky COW may need to take a new role as the ambassodore of best practice. Dairying is an interesting one because few people visit dairy farms and therefore rely on the media………a balance view is always best and if the voice identifies the actual farms then as an indusrty we should investigate and correct

  6. Loved your post!
    I read it to my 5 year old so this city kid could appreciate not only where his milk comes from but get an understanding of farming life – the life of a cow and a cheeky one at that. x

  7. Well said, I only have one dairy cow, the rest are beef cattle, but I always wonder about articles like that. No truth whatsoever, but sadly articles like that are widely read and repeated.

    Cheeky Girl you are beautiful!

  8. I saw a lady on tv saying we were not meant to drink cows milk, that was only for her calf. She said she would rather drink monkey or ape milk as they were nearer to our make up. This was a person that had no idea what she was talking about and I know has no idea what a poor cow goes through when she is not milked on time. I love your blog and seeing it dispel things people put out there, people that have no idea what they are talking about.

  9. Well it seems I’ve been naive Marian, in light of what you say about the papers (which I don’t read) running adverse articles, and also in light of the comment, including that which you so deftly answered from the rude Angela Brito. I was not aware, never having run a blog, of the problems one encounters in that field.
    You are teaching me daily in more ways than you know….thank you. So… maybe you DO need to defend that which you do so well.

  10. You do seem to be one of the ‘kinder’ dairy farms out there. I just don’t understand how it cannot be considered cruel to take away offspring so young. It’s financially unreasonable to keep male calves. As the demand for dairy grows keeping your higher welfare practices becomes unattainable for the wider market. I would like to hear your point of view

    • Thanks, I think, Yol fox, but all of the practices are bog standard for dairy farmers. We are in no way exceptional except that I like to write.

      We hate to separate the calves from the cows, too, but do it in the best interests of the calves. Please have a look at this explanation https://milkmaidmarian.com/2012/02/10/why-we-raise-calves-away-from-the-herd/

      I think the strong herd instinct protects both calf and cow from the distress a human would feel. Cows settle back very quickly into the company of their herd mates and calves into the company of their little mates (we never keep them isolated, always in groups).

      As demand for dairy grows, it is more likely that there will be greater profitability for farmers. I must admit, this sounds like good news to me πŸ™‚

      • Thanks for getting back to me. Can I please enquire what will happen to Cheeky Girl and her friends once she is too old to produce calves/milk? It saddens me that what appears to be the most part that these lovely creatures are sent to abattoirs after a lifetime of service. But I just want to establish I’m not going to bite back or start a mud slinging argument. Just want to know if it’s financially feasible to keep retired cows a show of thanks? I suppose with these milk wars going on it’s not always possible to promise a fairy tale end?

        • Maybe if we were all willing to pay more for and not always put profit over welfare it would be a lot better world for everyone.

          • Maybe so. There are times when I despair about our society’s indifference to the land and our fellow people and animals.

            Some things are more important than being the first to have the latest iPhone.

            On the other hand, I am always surprised to find how many good people there are, especially in times of crisis.

        • I know exactly what you mean, Yol Fox. It is always sad to send an old cow off to market, especially if they’re a favourite like Cheeky Girl. I can remember my father in tears after he had to farewell Queen Bessie, who he loved for more than a decade.

          What we can’t escape, though, is that life for a really old or disabled cow gets very unpleasant. They feel the cold, their joints get sore and they struggle to keep weight on.

          I’m sure if you’ve owned an elderly pet, you’ll understand what it takes to keep them comfortable.

          I think it’s unfair to keep an elderly animal going on in pain. And on an average sized farm like ours with 250 or so milkers, that would mean a lot of elderly animals. Each weighs around 550kg, lives outdoors and has a strong herd instinct.

          We feel that the best outcome for an elderly or disabled cow is a long, healthy life ensconced in the herd followed by a humane, quick end, without a lingering decline.

          Personally, I would rather die of a heart attack in the paddocks than slowly in a hospice.

  11. Well i’ll be damned…

    In your video of calves romping around there are two dogs in the background, my favourites…Pyrenean Mountain Dogs.

    Wonder who else picked this up…

    πŸ™‚

      • I aint that good to be able to tell the difference between a PMD and a Maremma from a video… but hey they are very closely related…well sort of related….well they look alike from a distance…well it was a short video and I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

        Lucky I aint a farmer, I would be rustling up the wrong animals.

        πŸ™‚

  12. What do you do with the bull calves Marian? I grew up on a dairy farm so I am not naive to the processes – the cows are treated well to keep them in excellent health in order to ensure excellent milk production, but the bull calves? They are usually removed from the cows virtually immediately after birth, and shortly thereafter sent off to market, in most cases for slaughter.

    • Yes, even though we know they are a fact of life, we always manage to be disappointed to see a bull calf born, Jo.

      There simply isn’t enough room on the planet for all the bulls nature throws up. If they were in the wild, I guess it would make more sense as more would die early of natural causes than they would here on the farm.

      We sell every one we can to local beef farmers, so they are thumping great beasts by the time they go to market.

      There is little local appetite for veal (calf meat) in Australia and, thankfully, we don’t have the dreadful practices of confinement in crates and induced anaemia here to ensure white flesh.

      New technology is making sexed semen more and more viable. Hopefully, that will help to provide an answer.

      Until then, we will focus on ensuring the best, least stressful lives for the bull calves that must go to market.

  13. Hi
    What about the comment re keeping cows impregnated to produce milk? I know how it feels when you need to feed the baby NOW so I empathise with the cows who want to get milked. But how do you keep them producing milk? How long after they give birth do they stop producing milk and is there something you do to prolong that process?
    Lovely lovely blog btw. I found it via the “checkout” on abc.

    • Hi Nic,
      Thanks for “checking out” Milk Maid Marian!

      We milk the cows twice a day at consistent times of the day. This signals to the cow that milk is still needed, reduces the risk of discomfort and mastitis.

      Other than that, we don’t do anything to prolong the time the cow keeps producing milk.

      The time a cow produces milk after a calf is born differs with each individual. One of my neighbours who keeps assiduous records tells me she has some cows still milking who have not calved in four years but that is definitely not the norm.

      On our farm, we have two groups of cows: those that got in calf very quickly (so 10 months of milking and two months of rest) a and those that will have a calf after 16 months of milking and two months of rest.

      I hope this answers the question. If not, just let me know.

      For a technical paper on “lactation length”: http://www.depi.vic.gov.au/agriculture-and-food/dairy/handling-and-management/extended-lactation/how-long-will-cows-milk

  14. Just like caged eggs are being phased out for free range due to public recognition of the cruelty involved, so too must dairy practices change such that the public pay a higher price for cruelty free milk. This involves different calf and cow management. Unless the dairy industry work with people such as Voiceless: the animal protection institute and Animals Australia, guaranteed, farmers will end up fighting a losing battle just like the cage egg farmers are. If people can farm in a kinder way, why wouldn’t they? Dairy Australia needs to listen to what the public wants and act to support their farmers.

    • Hi Linda,

      I am wondering the same thing: if people can farm in a kinder way, why wouldn’t they? The dairy community as a whole has lots of animal welfare programs and does consult with the different groups. It does take a very proactive approach.

      I guess that from my point of view as an average farmer, Voiceless’ approach is extraordinarily counterproductive. It contains inaccuracies, doesn’t reflect the day to day life of a real cow and is very alienating to the farmers who put our hearts and souls into looking after our cows.

      Aussie dairy farms are worlds away from the US practices of massive confined herds fed growth hormones that concern animal welfare groups.

      Growth hormones are illegal here, confined herds are as rare as hen’s teeth and most farms are family run with an average herd size of about 260 milkers.

      Because we are family farmers, farming in a kinder way is very close to our hearts.

      My blog is here to give other Aussies a taste of what the average Australian dairy farm is really like. Why? Because I want to create the discussions that farmers and the rest of Australia need to have.

      Unless we can all have a discussion free of name-calling, it will be at the expense of progress for the animals.

    • Sorry Linda, you’re so wrong to compare diary cows to caged chickens. You need to get out more. These issues are world’s apart. Please get out of the city and visit a diary and see how happy the cows are on their irrigated green pastures. Stop raising your cortisol levels fighting for cows rights. There is no fight.

  15. Cows have high cortisol levels due to stress and especially from the removal of their babies. Like any maternal mammal, the hormones and instinct to care for their young is high.

    • Sorry Linda, where did you get that from?

      We are very careful to minimise stress for our cows. First, it makes life unpleasant for both cow and farmer, second, it makes cows more susceptible to illness and, third, it reduces their ability to let their milk down.

      On the few occasions we are unable to avoid stressing a cow – veterinary procedures are a classic example – we do what we can to minimise the stress involved.

    • Dear Linda,

      It is a risky business to think that public desire and opinion is synonymous with what is right and just.

      As a vet student I’ve had the opportunity to visit many dairy farms (which I recommend you do with permission from the relevant farmers), and I am yet to come across a single dairy farmer who is cruel to cows and calves. It is in the best interest of farmers to be kind to their animals, tend to them with a gentle and nurturing hand, and keep them as stress free as possible.

      From a perspective of being humane, in my experience dairy farmers have a strong moral compass and would literally chase someone off their farm who was cruel to their animals (in fact, I’ve seen this actually happen). If it is from a profitability perspective then keeping stress hormones down, such as cortisol and adrenaline, not only reduces the amount of feed needed to produce milk (and thus increases profitability), it also reduces the likelihood of the animals getting sick (and keeps those pesky vets bills off of the fridge). What’s more is that minimising stress allows the cow to relax and ‘let down’ milk more readily at each milking. Happy cows, happy farmers.

      While I can see the angle you are trying to go for, it is not reasonable to compare intensive chicken farming with extensive dairy farming. They are different types of farms (oranges and apples). Furthermore, it may be wise to consider the true impact of cage-free chicken farming before using it as a banner to degrade good people. Consider these facts: Cage-free chickens are subjected to much higher levels of cannibalism (which is natural behavior of chooks – http://ow.ly/HWEUm), parasite loads, predation, infectious disease, and this type of farming has a long way to go before it could be considered fit enough to even tickle the high welfare standards in the dairy industry.

      Put it this way, if I could start life over again and choose between being a dairy cow and a cage-free chook, I’d be a cow every time… Moo. Please objectively critisise your own views, and get your facts straight, before having a go at other people.

      Best,

      Andrew

  16. The tweets by some animal rights protestors / vegans during the #farm365 tweets were something else. Here in Ireland where most people aren’t too far removed from farming, generation wise, we don’t tend to be attacked in such ways as most people tend to know farmers or remember visiting a grandparents farm. One of the reasons we need to be blogging – give farmers a voice and show the truth. Lovely post too πŸ™‚

  17. Great read, however only one side of the story.. I too lived on a dairy farm and I think you forgot to mention a couple of things…

    1. The males calves are picked up by the slaughter man and sent to slaughter within 1-3 days of birth. I would always watch them leave and feel very saddened.

    2. You also forgot to mention how once the calf has been separated from its mother, the mother cow screams and screams for her baby, especially if the milking area is near the calf enclosure which they walk by every morning they cry in agony desperately looking and scanning for their babies… And the baby calls out to her.

    3. A cow will not produce milk unless it is in calf or has given birth to a calf. Dairy farmers are in the business of milk to make money and thus if a cow doesn’t fall pregnant naturally 9/10 she is AI (Artificially inseminated with sperm)

    4. Another thing id like to mention is raw milk is not ‘bad’ for you and should not be illegal. Ask any dairy farmer and I guarantee most drink their own raw milk. I know I did when I was on the dairy and it was the best milk I’d ever had!

    5. I think people should know both sides of the dairy industry so they can make a fair judgement.

    • Hi Chantelle,
      Thanks for your comments. Perhaps a few things have changed since you lived on a dairy farm. I will respond to your points here:

      1. No farmer is allowed to send 1 to 3 day old calves to market. Calves that young would be rejected by the buyers.

      2. The maternal instinct of cows varies dramatically. Every year, a few cows seem to have no maternal instinct at all, abandoning their calves. Others certainly wait for their calves to return for a day. No crying in agony every morning here.

      3. A cow does not produce milk as a result of being in calf, only after calving. We used bulls exclusively for a few years and found the cows actually fell in calf more rapidly than with AI, so it does happen naturally!

      4. Raw milk isn’t bad for you but it is risky, particularly when it has been stored and transported. Our family does not drink raw milk, only pasteurised milk.

      5, Yes, that is why I have been very open here about everything from bull calves to euthanasia practices.

  18. This is a great article and from personal experience I know this too be true.The diary cows are very happy and content, so much so, I’ve seen them line up at the diary 1/2 hour before milking. To them I’m sure the diary is like a ‘lolly shop’ with lovely treats inside. Things like oats and molasse blocks, yummy for a cow. I’ve witness a harden farmer cry when his favourite cow at 17 had to be put to sleep. The plight of the babies being cruelly taken from their mothers makes me laugh when I think of cows behaviour and how they treat their calf. Cows leave their calves alone for most of the day to go graze. Often these calves are left in the sun by their mothers, they never move as this is where mum left them. Are the knockers writing articles about the mother cows cruelness. If I left my children in the sun all day they would be taken away from me! I rest my case. Diary farmers are fitter foster carers. Articles slamming farmers need to be factual, not fabricated lies that are written by people who have skewed views.

  19. Marian, at what age was Cheeky Girl weaned from her mum? How did her mum deal with the separation? And how frequently does Cheeky Girl get pregnant? Is it a constant cycle of getting pregnant, giving birth and weaning?

    • Hi Sundeep,

      If you click through the links I’ve provided, you’ll be able to read about how we rear the calves.

      If we leave the cows with bulls, they tend to get pregnant annually naturally. If we use AI, it’s a bit less frequent.

  20. Marian, when you state that cage-free chickens’ natural behaviour is cannibalism, that so-called fact has been lifted straight out of a propaganda piece from an industry-funded chicken-farming organisation. Hardly unbiased, wouldn’t you agree? If you delve a bit deeper, you might discover that these cage-free chickens are kept in such densities (only slightly less than in cages) that they get frustrated and stressed and agitated, which leads to behaviours such as cannibalism. If humans are kept in similar situations, no doubt we would exhibit much worse behaviours. Would this then, be also our natural state? Chickens (hens, roosters etc.) have a well-developed social order and if humans didn’t interfere, live happily in family-units of 1 rooster with a group of hens and chooks. No cannibalism or any other behaviour seen in intensive farms. There is no ethical reason to justify or defend caged or intensive farming of any kind. All the so-called “problems” exhibited by farmed animals are due to either the selective breeding, handling, feeding, housing or animal husbandry practices that we humans follow. Sad to say but true.

    • Hi sundeep. The comment regarding chickens was made by another commentator andrew dallimore. Through reading milkmaidmarians blog it is easy to see that she cares very much about cruelty free farming practices.

    • Dear Sundeep,

      Sorry for my tardy response. I have been painting and moving house in-between working and sleeping.

      Unfortunately, I feel you missed to point of my response to Linda. The comment was intended to stop Linda from degrading dairy farming by using cage-free chickens a banner for higher order animal welfare. It wasn’t defending intensive farming, it was defending the majority of Australian dairy farming, which is extensive. It was also to encourage Linda to more informed before launching a tirade on a kind and well qualified farmer.

      Thank you for your enthusiasm regarding the chickens, yet cannibalism within chickens isn’t propaganda and occurs even when in small free-ranging groups (I can provide no industry references for this is you wish and share personal observations too). The pecking order you mentioned is a precursor to cannibalism. A (small, medium, or large) group of dominant chickens may eventually peck another to death, with a bit of a meal on the way down. Having said that, I agree with you in that at lower densities the behaviour can be reduced.

      It would be great if we all had a few chooks in our backyards to care for and live with synergistically. They have simple needs, and don’t need a huge amount of space to live a good life. Having said that, it would be difficult if we each had a cow.

      Personally, I would much prefer to entrust positive, educated, and caring dairy farmers, like Marian, to expertly raise dairy cows. This way I can continue to enjoy the milk and other dairy products I enjoy without fearing that my neighbours had forgotten to feed their cow. Although it would be amusing to tell my future grandchildren about, I don’t think I’d like to have the beautiful animal coming through my fence for a bit of grass, or scratching its giant rear end on the pointy part of my bicycle. It’s difficult to ride a bike that’s been folded in half.

      Lastly, Marian’s blog isn’t the medium to be discussing chicken welfare and ethics. Please post an email address if you would like to speak about this further.

      Best,

      Andrew

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