The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted over 9.1 million dairy cows used for milk production in 2010. Although all cows are grazing animals, inclined to live together in herds and range grasslands, dairy cows today are kept in confined animal feeding operations (often referred to as “factory farms”), in open barns or tied in place to individual stalls. Movement, socialization, and access to the outdoors is limited or denied.
Today’s dairy cow has been genetically selected to produce up to 12 times the amount of milk needed to feed her calf. Producers have maximized productivity, but the cows unquestionably suffer poor welfare as a result. Producing such vast quantities of milk in one lactation cycle is so taxing and stressful that dairy cows are typically kept only for three or four years (or three cycles of pregnancy, birth and lactation) before they are slaughtered.
In traditional pastoral conditions, before industrial farming, cows could live up to 25 years, but today most cows suffer from lameness and other painful conditions that are consequences of poor-welfare breeding practices in industrial systems.
High-welfare, pasture-based dairy farming represents a significant improvement for cow welfare.