What’s the deal with dairy?

Dairy Veal / 7th Jul 2015

As a consumer of animal products I’m conscious of what my choices mean for animals, so what’s the deal with dairy? For most consumers, picking up some milk from the supermarket is routine and there’s no further thought about how it got there. But have you ever wondered about the animal that has produced the milk, yoghurt or cheese that you buy?

Obviously, it comes from a cow but in order for the cow to produce milk they must give birth to a calf every year. Most calves are separated from their mother within twelve hours of birth. Have you ever considered what happens to male calves that are basically a by-product of dairying? What are the health and welfare implications for the cow from being pregnant, lactating and milked in a continuous cycle for several years?

In Australia, we’re fortunate we now have many more humane product choices for our most intensively farmed animals – there’s higher welfare options for eggs, pork, chicken and other poultry readily available in both major supermarkets as well as many independents. What about dairy though?

Many dairy farmers care about the welfare of their animals. I know this because the RSPCA regularly speaks with farmers doing great things to improve the welfare of their animals. For many years, Australian retailers and dairy industry bodies have also welcomed the input of the RSPCA – this is important because it means animal welfare is always on the agenda.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. Cows should be free from lameness, be provided with pain relief for painful procedures, not induced and giving birth to premature calves in order to meet milking timeframes, and bobby calves should be treated humanely and with consideration to their age and vulnerability, or even better, the wastage be eliminated.

The RSPCA is always keen to work with farmers in the dairy industry to move towards these outcomes, but ultimately it also comes down to consumers. As consumers, if we want higher welfare, we need to say we want it. We need to support it when it’s done and we need to pay a fair price for it. Better welfare for animals isn’t cheap and we’ve seen time and time again customers have the power to effect change by voting for better welfare with their wallets.

There’s a lot more to be said about dairy. What can be done to improve the care of bobby calves? There’s been talk about intensification of dairy, where cows are housed indoors all year round, so what does this mean for the future of Australian animals? What more can consumers do to encourage better welfare for dairy cows and their offspring? Does Australia need independent accreditation of animal welfare in dairy, such as RSPCA Approved standards for dairy, so it’s easier to make more compassionate dairy choices?

We’d love to hear your voice in this conversation, so post us your thoughts.


  1. Rhonda Coleman says:

    I do not use dairy products because of what happens to bobby calves. I will start using dairy again when they are not killed so we can have milk. I do not eat meat anymore either

    • Look up our Facebook page and consult the files as to how my animals are treated, particularly the male calves. They and their sisters live with their mothers for about 6 months (when both mother and calf are nutritionally independent of each other). There are ways to dairy ethically and I believe I might be the only dairy in Australia (maybe the world) doing what I do.

  2. Jill Bough says:

    Great article Jess! I became aware of this a few years ago and try to mostly avoid dairy because of the cruelty to cows, and especially the inhumane treatment of bobby calves. However I have found a few ethical dairy farmers – in particular B-d Paris Creek Farm in South Australia, who are a bio-dynamic farm producing ethical milk, cheese and butter. They do not impregnate their cows, do not kill their booby calves, in fact the calves stay with their mothers until they naturally separate, and the cows live a natural life. This is the way it should be done!

    • I am involved in a large dairy farm in Victoria and it breaks my heart every week seeing the bobby calves taken to slaughter.
      If only the world would listen to what mother nature intended, as it possible for cows to mother there calves and provide plenty of milk for human use. Given the cow average milk production is 20 – 40 litres per day and a calf only required about 10 litres why are there not more farmers doing this? Are we that stuck in our ways that we cannot think outside the box? Not to mention the labour cost that would be saved in human calf rearing and the losses that would be spared, because no one can rear healthier calves than their mothers. I believe they would be rewarded with a happier healthier cow, and healthy cows produce healthy milk.

      • Thanks Carmel, if this is fact I would hope welfare companies start pushing these facts to the public.
        We would still have milk & cows that keep calves!
        I for one would pay the extra cost to let the mothers and calves live a more natural life.

      • Carmel: Well said and how right you are! We have screwed up the Natural Order of things. Money and greed, I am sure, have a part in this. We need to step back and let Mother Nature just do her thing. (Btw, Australian dairy products taste much better than dairy prods in the States.)

  3. I, personally, was appalled when I became aware of bobby calves and how they’re treated, for the mother cows and how they must grieve for their calves taken away from them a couple of days later, that cows are treated live cans on a factory belt and not breathing, living creatures, and now am equally appalled at the idea that cows would spend all there lives indoors. Since learning of all the facts in relation to the production of milk, I have turned to milk alternatives, and the rare occasions I use milk its from organic diaries which I enquired about beforehand and found they had a higher standard of welfare for the cows one of which does not have :”bobby calves” puts male calves back into the herd. What I don’t understand is if we’re going to take milk that rightfully belongs to calves, cannot it be “shared” with the calf? Can only a percentage of milk be taken from the cow and let the calf have the rest? Is this possible? Or it is all about the dollar and literally “milking:these cows dry ? Also I must comment that I think its disgusting that vets and farmers would induce a cow to have a premature calf just to get the cow back on the “production” line.

    • I am involved in a large dairy farm in Victoria and I have seen the advantages and disadvantage of indoor housing. There are times when the cows will benefit from being indoors. For example on days that are 35 degrees plus. Cows are better suited to cold climate than hot. Also in very wet conditions. So the best solution that I have seen farmers use is open shed housing that allows the cow to come and go from shed to paddock as she pleases. This is ideal as animals left to their own devices would not always sit in open paddocks.
      As for the rest of your comments I agree with.
      It is possible for the cow to rear her calf and still provide milk for human consumption. The human race needs to stop being so greedy and consider treating animals as equals.

  4. Thanks Jess. I must admit I’m surprised by the fact you haven’t told people that they have a choice not to consume dairy … that there is a very real alternative available right now if they find everything you’ve comprehensively outlined here to be unpalatable. What you’ve written is an excellent overview but why haven’t you mentioned dairy alternatives – they are everywhere, you can even get dairy-free cheese and yoghurt in Coles. Surely the strongest incentive for industries to change is when they fear losing customers. The RSPCA can talk to the dairy industry til the cows come home (pardon the pun) but if they read what you wrote here I reckon they’d be breathing a sigh of relief. At the end of the day, consuming dairy is a choice as is not consuming dairy. If you were being balanced and honest you would have put both those options on the table.

    • Jess @ RSPCA says:

      Thanks for your comment Justin – you raise a good point. Dairy free alternatives are available and there’s certainly the option for consumers not to consume dairy products. I’m very conscious of my purchasing power – I think all consumers should be – and I feel that the strongest message that I can send is by choosing a product that comes from a higher welfare system. By doing this I’m telling that brand that I support their efforts to treat animals humanely and if we all do it, we’re telling the market that this is what customers want.

      • I agree with Justin on this. Human breast milk is vital for the development of human babies, but eventually children pass the stage where it is needed for growth. Humans continue to consume dairy products after this growth stage because of taste preferences – it is not a necessity for human survival.

        And with all the alternatives that are available, why would you if you really, deeply care about animal welfare? People are so readily able to turn a blind eye when confronted with a tasty bit of cheese or a chocolate bar. Forget about the suffering of the poor animal that had to contribute to its production. Too unpleasant!

        High demand for dairy products means that producers will look for the fastest (because we all want things right here right now) and cheapest methods make products, and this means there will inevitably be cruelty and “waste” (bobby calves). Being ethical often means higher costs, which of course, most consumers don’t want to pay. So factory farming continues.

        Unless human appetite for dairy products (and other animals products) reduces drastically, or disappears altogether, animals will always be exploited for financial gain. The dairy industry, even those so-called “ethical” producers, only exist to make money. It’s not a warm and fuzzy, charitable bunch of people. And it never will be.

  5. Heather Lord says:

    Thank you for this article. Until recently I wasn’t aware of this issue. I switched to almond milk several months ago. I’m now looking out for non-dairy yoghurt. I would like to see vegetarian cheese more widely available (and publicised!).

    • Zoe Polacik says:

      Try Alpine coconut yogurt! It should be available from most Coles and Woolworths – and it’s amazing! You will wonder why you ever enjoyed dairy yogurt.

      I think if people realised there were milk alternatives other than soy milk (I don’t mind soy, but a lot of dairy drinkers would think it’s gross), they would be pleasantly surprised! Coconut milk is amazing, almond milk is amazing… after a while the thought (and taste if you accidentally get it in your coffee) of dairy milk becomes quite disgusting and fatty.

      I think more emphasis should be put onto these alternative milks, and NOT just for people that are necessarily lactose intolerant or vegan. I stopped drinking dairy milk years ago because I became lactose intolerant, but these days i have more reasons than this to not drink it, and i’m so happy i discovered the alternatives!

  6. Fiona Baker says:

    I definately agree yhat more has to be done to make consumers aware of what actually happens in the Dairy Industry to put the public off consuming Dairy… most people are still completely unaware that in order to produce milk the Cows are inseminated and alot are induced with hormones to give birth prematurely and the male calves are classed as wastage…. the RSPCA needs to get the messages out their clearly to the public on advertising boards as Animal Australia have done but obvously these campaigns all cost but are very successful in getting the message out there! Is it for Political reasons that you are tied to closely as an organisation to the Govmt to have a widespread campaign like this as I think we should have signs and pictures up where you buy milk and cheese to help consumers make an informed choice before they buy.

    • Great comments.
      Consumer awareness is key. Most people are horrified when they hear what really happens in all farmed animal industries.
      Like Beatles singer Paul McCartney said, If abattoirs had glass wall no one would eat meat.

  7. Really important issue. Does RSPCA have approved milk, as you do for other farmed animal products. How can I tell what milk to buy in South Australia?

    • Jess @ RSPCA says:

      Great comment Jim – the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme currently doesn’t have standards for dairy but would be interested to hear if this is something that consumers would like. In the meantime contact the makers of the dairy products that you buy and ask them about the standards of care for their cows and calves.

  8. Gail Dalby says:

    I believe there needs to be more education/publicity regarding mass production of milk . I only became aware of bobby calves and cows being pregnant for milk production 3 years ago, mainly because I just did not think about it or was not aware. Unfortunately people say – don’t tell me I don’t want to know, but if they did we could surely make the dairy farmers treat the bobby calves and cows more humanely. It is always about the almighty dollar, and people have become complacent and selfish and uncaring. We need to support our local farmers more too.

  9. Jane Mowbray says:

    I would love to see accuracy in labelling. From talking to people and searching the internet I have found some ethical dairies like Elgaars in Tasmania and Paris Creek in S.A. It would be wonderful if the RSPCA had a logo or label for humanely produced dairy food. Our food labels are so confusing. Organic implies care for animals as well as methods of production but these days can we assume the label organic specifically means that calves have not been badly treated, that cows get the appropriate care?

  10. Gayle Meredith says:

    There are great dairy products available that do not abuse these beautiful souls. Just do a little research – there are alternatives. Consumers need to support the abolishment of this abuse by choosing cruelty free. It’s not difficult and it is the right thing to do.

  11. Belinda Hatzievangelou says:

    I would welcome the RSPCA input as to which dairy products are approved cruelty free or high welfare. Is anything available currently? I currently use organic but fear this too has unsatisfactory methods of production. As mentioned above, does Paris Farm offer a solution? I’ve heard Barambah are good too.

  12. Jane Stephens says:

    I became a vegetarian four years ago after Animals Australia exposed the horrific live export trade and Indonesian abattoir atrocities. Once I found out about bobby calves I gave up milk, yoghurt and butter but still find it difficult to give up cheese. I tend to go for sheep’s milk or goat’s milk cheese as there is less industrialisation in those products as opposed to cow’s milk cheese. My mother has chooks so I can eat those eggs without problem and I am now having 5/7 vegan days a week. Kind of like the 5/2 diet idea. I agree with all the above comments, most particularly regarding human’s greed and exploitation of the animal kingdom (and plants too, don’t forget GMO). It is basically ruining the planet, which is where we live. We simply are the most stupid beings on earth as the only ones who soil our own back yard.

    • let us not forget that when we change to sheep or goats milk products the same things happen to the male babies. Also the cruel practice of cutting off horns and shortening cows tails is barbaric and unnecessary . It may be a little more convenient for the farmer but not for the cow. All farms need to be controlled to a point where all farming practices are reviewed and brought to an acceptable level of compassion for their animals for food production.

  13. Cheryl Cooper says:

    If consumers want to support ethical animal husbandry, it is essential they be able to easily identify which products to purchase. Having an independent accreditation system would be a step in the right direction.

  14. The agri-business/factory farm model has only existed since the end of WW2. Prior to that everyone ate what was available in their local area and meat and dairy were luxury items. We need to recalibrate our expectations on food costs and availability. Cheap & plentiful food will only ever result in someone getting screwed down the line: be that the animals or the workers. Think before you eat!

  15. Have the Politicians given any thought to the potential for extreme suffering when other countries are allowed to buy farms here. They do not have the same level of compassion for animals in their own countries as we do . Who will enforce it if our Pollies are not inclined to change any thing now with our “moderate by comparison treatment” .

    Should more be directed at the Nutritionists and Dieticians to advise us that we do not need to eat huge quantities of animal product to be healthy. After all the largest animals on earth are Vegetarian! Could the producers of the plethora of cooking shows that we have to sit through set an example by setting Vegetarian or Vegan meals for the contestants to prepare. Could they promote that when ,meat is used that it is RSPCA approved. Just a small way to subtly keep getting the message across to the public. .

  16. Dorthe Jantzen says:

    The large supermarket chains have a lot to answer for. Pushing the price to $2.00 per litre is not helping the farmers do the right thing. Many farmers are in the mercy of the supermarkets’ buying “techniques” and to stay in business they are forced to do what they do. This is in no way an excuse or me condoning the horrible practice, but only to highlight that money drives this and nothing else. Shareholders are not going to bring about change – it has to be done as a joint force between consumer power and legislation.

  17. We are the only mammal that continues to drink milk after we are weaned. We do not need to steal the milk that was produced for calf’s and 75% of the human race cannot digest the lactose in cows milk which means there is no need for this continued cruelty.

  18. I support good farm practice and animal welfare, but I do not support RSPCA approvals for farms, not even slightly. The RSPCA standards are not well considered, don’t take into account current research or current products but focus on perceived ideals rather than practical solutions. Plus they act as yet another food mafia along with making RSPCA stakeholders ( read conflict of interest) in the farming game. The money spinner of RSPCA approvals means RSPCA is or can easily be perceived to be towards their standards being followed , over and above animal welfare. The approval system should be free for farmers, approval fees nil , inspection fees nil, if it is to be seen as objective and not a money maker for RSPCA. Does RSPCA assist farmers financially to upgrade or downgrade equipment to suit their standards dictates, no, because RSPCA doesn’t care. I personally will not support RSPCA financially while RSPCA has a business model driving up costs to farmers whilst simultaneously making it more difficult for them to earn money, all for outdated ideas and whimsical notions on what is ‘natural’. Shame on RSPCA. If consumer power will see change occur why do we need RSPCA being market players in the industries they seek to change, Let consumers decide not lobby groups like RSPCA. RSPCA is a business and people need to realize that , It is a business based on poor information or RSPCA selected propaganda leading to consumer emotion and basically extortion of both producer and seller of goods. RSPCA’s name is mud and stands for vindictive , biased , bullying behavior all while grasping at the citizens purses to fund the fancy buildings and travel expenses and salaries of the few at the top.

    • Jess @ RSPCA says:

      Thanks for your comment David. The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme is not-for-profit, funded by those who participate in it. Visiting all farms that produce RSPCA Approved product (up to four times a year) as well as maintaining a robust assessment process is a costly exercise. It’s important to note that donations received by the RSPCA don’t go towards the implementation of the scheme.

      Regarding the development of the RSPCA’s Standards – these have been developed based on the best available science, current Australian and overseas practices and includes consultation with farmers and industry. This is to make sure that the RSPCA’s Standards are both commercially viable and improve the welfare for as many animals as possible. These standards are publicly available here.

      Choosing RSPCA Approved means consumers can be confident that they are buying a product that is focused on improving the welfare of farm animals.

  19. Christina Morton says:

    I think ALL people should be told the truth about farming etc..(even when they’re young) ..,eg. where meat comes from and how (including viewing) the same goes for all products we eat.. (and wear) …… the alternatives should be more forthright, and honestly discussed. Milk products, dairy , everything ‘consumer’ … I know if I had been told ‘THE TRUTH’ .. earlier in my life I would definitely chosen NOT to eat meat …
    One thing made me change my mind on sticking up for cattle ‘Farmers” … was when the live export issues were prevalent and in the news … these so called “caring” farmers knew ‘exactly’ how their beautiful cattle were being treated on their arrival to these ‘countries’ …. but they still keep sending them ! .. That did it for me …now I don’t give a damn about any of them …. Sorry , but that’s the truth … (how dare they ‘pretend’, to care about their ‘live export’) … YES, it’s all about the $ … so for me it’s all about the cruelty ! … I am happy to remain vegetarian … there’s plenty of alternatives out there…. and I’m healthier for it ! : )

  20. Michelle Walker says:

    The dairy industry is cruel, anyone who can justify a baby cow being taken of her mother cow to sell the baby’s milk is just wrong! I find this sick, there are plant based alternatives that are less damaging to the environment

  21. Martin Phillipson says:

    I love dairy – butter, milk, ice cream, and then the beef that comes with it. But I have been alarmed to read lately that one of the biggest causes of climate change is beef. Also I have been very distressed to see the treatment of cattle
    – but how can we overcome this?

  22. Silvia Ford says:

    There is only one way to stop the cruelty to animals, to fish and to birds and that is to stop eating them. The word ‘Humane’ is a marketing tool to fool people into thinking that the creature they’re eating has been well cared for whilst it was living and whilst it was in the slaughter house, but there is no humane way to kill any living creature that doesn’t want to be killed.
    Animal agriculture is the number one cause of global climate change and we will eventually be forced to cease breeding animals as food due to our lack of water. One cow needs to drink a bathful of water a day to survive and scientists have been telling us for many years that global starvation could be stopped if we fed the starving people with the grain we feed to cattlle.
    It all comes down to a lack of compassion and to greed. The RSPCA should lead by example, stop offering ‘sausage sizzles’ at events, selling animals that have been killed and cooked as food in order to raise money to help living animals is hypocritical. Stop telling the public that certain meat has been killed humanely. Be truthful and be the wonderful society that you could be, Or stop saying that “The RSPCAI is For All Creatures Great and Small”

  23. I have just discovered the brand “HowNow”, available in Melbourne and Sydney. They only produce female calves and don’t separate them from their mothers, either. Ditching dairy might be the ultimate solution but in the meantime – this is probably as humane as it gets.

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