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Factory Farming: Dairy Cows

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Cows- we love them! Those hefty, docile creatures who seem to be perpetually nose-deep in grass. I’ve probably seen thousands of cows in my life, and yet still every time I drive past a field and see a herd of those cute black and white ungulates I reflexively squeal, “Oh my god, COWS!!!” When calves are involved, imagine the squeal as more like a screech, or maybe an awed whisper. I mean, they’re baby cows.

As tender and empathetic humans, we don’t like to imagine cute things in pain. Which is what makes it so difficult and heart-wrenching to tread into this realm, and also why many people consciously turn a blind eye or refuse to hear about what happens behind the scene. I know they say ignorance is bliss, but when the lives of other living creatures are involved, the importance of being informed can’t be stressed enough.

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While there are various methods of dairy farming, I want to focus on large-scale factory farms, which are common in the EU, India, China, Brazil, and right here in the states. In these farms, the goal is to produce as much milk as possible. In order to get milk, the cow must be lactating, which means she must have given birth to a calf. It’s really quite the same process as it is for humans. However, upon further investigation we can see the many disturbing differences between the two.

First, in order to ensure pregnancy, cows are artificially inseminated (AI) using a rod which contains semen. When I first learned this, I just couldn’t get over the seeming violation against nature which is inherent to AI. I’m not about to make this an issue of consent, but rather I want us to think about this in regards to mutual respect for all living things. What gives us the right to sexually violate a harmless animal without regard to their physical and emotional comfort?

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Once the mother has given birth, either naturally or from the farmer inducing it, her calf is often separated from her within 24 hours of birth. Then, the process of retrieving her milk begins. Cows have on average a 305 day lactation period, and over 2,000 gallons of milk can be produced during that time. Once she is “dry,” and once her udder tissue is regenerated, the entire process is repeated. Typically, dairy cows are kept alive until they are seven years old, and then they are sent to slaughter.

So, what happens to her calf? Well, male calves (‘bobby calves’) are usually raised for beef, another massive industry. A small amount are kept for breeding, and the rest are sent to slaughter. Female calves are raised to take the place of the older dairy cows- essentially taking the place of their mothers.

(Check out this article for a scientific look at the consequences of separating dairy cows and their calves: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150428081801.htm)

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We could delve into conditions and overcrowding within dairy farms, as well as the recent outpour of undercover videos that have surfaced which show abuse inside of the farms, but I think we’ve covered the basics, which are enough of a bummer. However, I think it would be good to briefly discuss hormones in milk; estrogen, the female sex hormone, naturally occurs in the milk that cows produce. But bovine somatrotropin (also known as bovine growth hormone, BGH or BST) is a synthetic hormone which was developed by Monsanto. It is injected into dairy cows and as a result, more milk is produced at her peak production time. Interestingly, it is banned from the market in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Argentina, and the EU, but not the US. There is currently no statistically significant data that rules that BGH is unsafe for humans, but there are overwhelming reports that the drug is unsafe for the cows themselves. Even Monsanto-sponsored trials found that to be true! Health issues include mastitis (inflammation of the breast tissue), reduction in fertility, foot problems, and lameness. But hey, since it’s probably not harmful to humans, and since it increases milk output, BGH should stick around, right?

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Let’s move on and take a moment to appreciate all of the marvelous cruelty-free substitutes that are at our green little fingertips (well, I’d like to point out that those of us with access to all of these great substitutes are lucky, seeing as some people aren’t afforded that luxury due to location or economic issues, but that’s a conversation for another time): almond, soy, rice, hemp, coconut, cashew, oat and even quinoa milk are on the market. Most brands offer original, vanilla, and sometimes chocolate flavor variations. And as if those aren’t options, there are usually both sweetened and unsweetened versions of each. Lately, I’ve been going for unsweetened vanilla coconut milk for my smoothies and cereal.

Oh, and don’t forget that the nondairy kingdom doesn’t stop at milk. No, no. Think broader; think ice cream, yogurt, and cheeses (I feel #blessed that I didn’t have to say goodbye to java chip ice cream and quesadillas). We are really quite fortunate to live during such an innovative time where there is such a plethora of delicious options that did not cause harm to any sentient beings. It’s my hope that we can spread the word and come together as compassionate humans and make the slow transition to dairy-free products in order to decrease the demand for cow’s milk and thereby save many, many cows from a painful, controlled, and short life. So, spread the word to your dairy-guzzling friends! Sneak them a sip of chocolate soy milk or vanilla coconut milk yogurt so they can see that hormone-free, cruelty-free dairy subs can also be delicious.

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