When it comes to the life of a dairy cow, how much do Canadians really know? It might shock people to learn that most cows in Canada are kept indoors, confined to stalls and tethered at the neck. When their milk production declines, or they get ill or injured, dairy cows are sent to slaughter. Not surprising, since retiring Canada’s 1.4 million dairy cows to pasture is not a viable option.
But the sad fate of these “cull” (end-of-life) dairy cows may be the industry’s best-kept secret. Cull dairy cows are vulnerable beings — worn out after about six years from multiple pregnancies, calving and intense milk production, they frequently experience painful ailments, like lameness, digestive disorders and mastitis (infection of the udder).
Most cows will end up being transported on a long journey to slaughter, often in a compromised state, with many deteriorating on the way. Some will be in transit for several days — sent to auctions, bought and sold and sent to slaughter plants across the country or in the United States. Recent research from the University of British Columbia found, on average, cows spent 82 hours — about 3.5 days — in the system before being slaughtered.
Experts have identified the fate of cull dairy cows as a major welfare issue. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association “opposes prolonged transport of compromised cull dairy cows because they have an increased likelihood of suffering when exposed to transport-related stressors.”
While not all cows leave the farm in poor condition, many are weak or frail, making the long journey arduous and increasing the likelihood they will deteriorate and suffer. A 2018 University of Guelph study found cows were being transported and sold at Ontario auctions in “less than optimal condition” — 40 per cent were thin or emaciated, 72 per cent had difficulty walking and 27 per cent had severe hock injuries. Inspection reports from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2018 and 2019 reveal similar infractions, with 24 per cent of vehicles containing cull dairy cows with welfare concerns, including those that are “down” (too sick or injured to stand), lame and emaciated.
In response, the dairy industry has stepped up its education efforts and strengthened the requirements in its code of practice around “fitness for transport” but these need to be accompanied by accountability and disincentive measures, and they alone are not enough to mitigate other causes of cull dairy cow suffering. Most cows are sold through auctions or sales barns, where they might languish for days.
Animals may be roughly handled, and food and water are scarce. Lactating cows are not milked, a necessity for preventing engorged, painful udders. And, except for Ontario, inspections at auctions are lacking. These animals are considered so fragile that an animal advocacy group in Europe is calling on the government to ban cull dairy cows from being sold through auctions.
The most humane option for these animals would be on-farm/mobile slaughter, local slaughter or, in some cases, euthanasia. These alternatives, however, are unpopular or unavailable. Canada’s centralized slaughter system for beef, which is monopolized by two companies — Cargill and JBS — means limited options for farmers and longer journeys for animals. There are so few plants in Canada that accept cull dairy cows, that many are sent to one of 18 slaughter plants in the U.S., including those owned by Cargill and JBS.
In fact, the structure of Canada’s meat processing sector has been identified as a threat to food sovereignty and security and its vulnerability was exposed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of these plants. Some parliamentarians and farmers’ groups are calling for an increase in local slaughter capacity to protect small-scale farmers. This would benefit the rural economy and animal welfare.
Today is World Milk Day, created by the #UnitedNations to recognize milk as a global food. We must reduce animal-sourced foods with more plant-based ones, including milk replacements, writes Lynn Kavanagh @salandsimone @MoveTheWorld #protectanimals
The problems facing the welfare of cull dairy cows speak to a larger problem with our global food system — one that prioritizes maximum profit and big business interests— and animals suffer as a result.
Today is World Milk Day, created by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2001 to recognize the importance of milk as a global food. This may be true in parts of the world where food choices are limited and arable land is scarce.
In Canada, the current level of animal food consumption is unsustainable, which is driving the industrial scale of the food system that harms animals, our health and the planet. Reducing the consumption of animal-sourced foods in favour of more plant-based ones, including milk replacements, is a necessary step in the transition to a more sustainable food system.
Lynn Kavanagh is the farming campaign manager at World Animal Protection Canada. She received a MSc in animal behaviour and welfare from the University of Guelph.