Five key welfare issues in intensive dairy systems

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Friday, 24 April 2015, 4:20 pm

Dairy production in Australia is mostly pasture-based, enabling cows to have access to open ranges, to naturally feed on grass and the ability to exhibit their natural behaviours.

Constant pressure to produce more milk means Australian dairy cows are increasingly being factory farmed on Chinese and US-style dairy feedlot systems. This process moves dairy cows from pasture to sheds where they live on hard floors and are fed unnatural, grain-based diets.

In 2010, it was estimated that 2% of Australian dairies are total mixed ration (TMR) or feedlot-style systems.1 Since that time, there has been significant growth in the intensive dairy industry with new proposals for large intensive systems across Australian dairy regions.

While conventional dairy farming poses serious welfare concerns for cows, intensification and larger herd sizes are set to make the life of Australian dairy cows even worse.  

Five key welfare issues in intensive dairy systems
1. Permanent confinement

Cows are one of the few remaining farmed animals that are still able to live predominantly outdoors. Intensive dairying forces dairy cows into large sheds with hard flooring and significantly reduced space. Many of these systems introduce a stall-style system where cows live separately and are given barely enough room to stretch their legs or move around. This restricted space can deeply affect cows who are naturally motivated to exercise,2 and can result in cows exhibiting abnormal behaviours, such as tongue-rolling or excessive licking and grooming.3

2. Unnatural diets

Cows who live on pasture naturally eat mostly grass. Intensive dairy cows who have no access to pasture are fed ‘TMR’ diets, a high energy blend of feedstuffs. It is common for cows consuming large amounts of high energy feed to develop digestive issues like acidosis, which can cause anorexia, diarrhoea, lameness and can lead to premature death if left untreated.4

TMR diets are used to maximise milk production in cows, with industry indications showing that cows are being pushed to produce over 60 litres of milk per day. The average rate of production is now over twice the rate of a typical dairy cow 50 years ago. Producing that much milk is hard work and unnatural, and leaves dairy cows susceptible to a host of painful conditions and diseases.5

3. Selective breeding

Modern dairy cows are selectively bred for higher milk production. When this is combined with the unnatural TMR diets used on intensive dairy farms, cows can develop oversized and swollen udders. It has been reported anecdotally by individuals in the dairy industry that some modern Australian dairy cows’ udders can become so enlarged that the supporting udder ligaments weaken and may even tear, often resulting in the cow being sent to an early slaughter.6

4. Lameness

Intensive systems customarily use hard flooring. Such surfaces can cause problems for cows as it is hard, abrasive, and slippery when slicked with urine. For cows who naturally roam on soft pasture, a life spent indoors on hard floors can cause hoof lesions and lameness.7

Lameness is an extremely painful condition which limits a cow’s movement, and if left untreated, may result in cows being prematurely slaughtered. Cattle expert Dr Clive Philips has noted that lameness is probably the most serious disease affecting the welfare of dairy cows in intensive systems.8

5. Environment

While not strictly related to cow welfare, intensive dairy farming is under increasing pressure because of its negative impact on the environment. In New Zealand, the run off of nutrient-rich cow excrement has begun to severely damage rivers and ecosystems. Intensive dairy farming also causes damage to the environment through environmental acidification, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, high water usage, and the huge quantities of waste it creates.9

Thankfully in Australia intensive dairy farming is not yet the norm. Australians now have the unique opportunity to avoid the kind of intensification that is common in the US and China.

You can take action to protect dairy cows by:
  • Learning more – To find out more about the Australian dairy industry, read our Dairy Cows issues page.
  • Making humane choices – Switch to dairy-free alternatives like soy, rice, oat or nut milk. Encourage retailers and supermarkets to offer more cruelty free products.
  • Contacting your MP – Tell your local MP that you want stronger legal protections for dairy cows, including a prohibition on the factory farming of dairy cows.
  • Donating to Voiceless – Help us continue to provide a voice for dairy cows by donating today.


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