The Real Life of a Dairy Cow

Dixon calf touches noses with Safran steer through a green fence

Dixon touches noses with Safran through a green fence at Farm Sanctuary.

The Real Life of a Dairy Cow

Dixon touches noses with Safran through a green fence at Farm Sanctuary.

Every year in the United States, the $40 billion dairy industry uses over 9 million cows for their milk—and slaughters 3 million more for food.

The only way they can do this is by turning living beings into commodities, like a shaft of wheat or a quart of oil. How does that work? This is the story of the lives that the industry has turned into machines for milk and cheese.

Cow with large udders standing in a dirt pasture at a dairy farm

Due to intensive breeding, milk production per dairy cow has doubled over the past half-century, resulting in higher rates of lameness, painful mastitis, and suffering. Photo Credit: Xpixel /

WARNING: The facts and personal accounts in this story are difficult and disturbing to read.

Animal welfare investigator Pete Paxton has seen calves ripped from their mothers and raised on soy milk, mastitis infections tearing through the milking stalls, and baby cows, umbilical cords still hanging from their bodies, falling down on slaughterhouse loading docks. “I’ve worked at a calf ranch, three dairies, a dairy auction, and a veal slaughterhouse,” says Paxton of his decade undercover in the dairy industry. “I’ve seen how the entire process goes.”

This is a story of that process. Animals born and sold into this life are so effectively commoditized that the vernacular of a modern dairy minimizes the violence of its everyday routines: Tails are “docked.” Calves are “disbudded.” Bulls are “culled.” Cows become “spent” and “downed.” Animals are not sentient beings, they are inanimate objects.

“If you don’t know what goes on in the dairy industry, you don’t know the pervasive and persistent violence that cows experience and calves experience.” This is Kathryn Gillespie, Ph.D., a writer and critical animal studies scholar who turned her dissertation into “The Cow with Ear Tag #1389,” a narrative about what really happens to cows used for dairy. The industry’s success hinges on a series of operational exploitations so cyclical and riddled with cruelty that its very survival relies on the ability to obscure those exploitations.

The bucolic images of grazing cows we all know from milk cartons, the ones burned into the collective unconscious by marketers, help the industry maintain one of its most successful lies: that it’s a closed loop. But anyone who can stomach a visit to a dairy auction will see the truth on display. “The dairy industry and the beef industry are very tight,” says Paxton. “The beef industry is pushing to keep the dairy industry alive because it supplies so much of their meat.”

Throughout the life of a dairy cow, abuse and exploitation unfold across a number of facilities. The idea that they’re raised, milked, and slaughtered is almost quaint. “There are factory farms to serve other factory farms,” says Paxton, referring to things called tie stalls, milking parlors, calf ranches, and auction houses, not to mention transport trucks. And we haven’t even gotten to the slaughterhouse. As Paxton puts it, “There’s an underbelly to the underbelly.”

To understand the journey a cow trapped in the dairy industry endures before her inevitable last ride on the interstate, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

The beef industry is pushing to keep the dairy industry alive because it supplies so much of their meat.

Pete Paxton

Animal welfare investigator

A Cow Is Born

On a hay-strewn cement floor in a metal stall, a dairy cow heaves, breathes, and births a calf. Whether it’s her first or her fourth, what comes next is standard: “They immediately pull the calves away, milk the mother to get her colostrum, and put it in a bottle,” Paxton says. “Then they walk over to the calf and bottle feed it, as opposed to letting the mother nurse her calf.”

The same employee that delivers the calf separates the family at birth. “You would hear the cows bellow for days, and for a while the calves bellowed back,” says Jackie Norman, who spent 18 years working in the New Zealand dairy industry before becoming a vegan activist. “But eventually, the calves stop bellowing back.” The emotional bond between cows and their calves is so strong that both mother and baby will call out for each other for days after being separated. Studies have shown that stress lifts if the pair are reunited. One farmer Gillespie spoke to during her research even recognized the trauma that separation causes the animals. “The farmer himself acknowledged that it’s really sad, and that they remove them right away because if they don’t, it only gets worse. He really had some empathy for that trauma and acknowledged that it’s clear,” she says. “It’s not exaggerated by animal rights activists.”

Perhaps most troubling, the people overseeing the maternal health of the cows “are not licensed veterinarians, they’re drug company vendors,” says Jim Reynolds, who grew up on a dairy in southern California and became a beef and dairy veterinarian in the 1980s. “Most of the reproductive programs in modern dairies in the United States have been installed by pharmaceutical company people, and veterinarians have not been involved in setting up and managing the program.” (Reynolds now primarily consults on dairies as a healthcare systems analyst and is a professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University of Health Sciences.)

A calf being ripped from her bleating, bellowing mother moments after birth is jarring, but it is a pedestrian part of life on a dairy: In 2020, according to the USDA, over 35 million calves were born on dairy farms in the United States, and as Paxton observed during his time undercover, they don’t stay there long. “It’s rare to have a dairy raise their own calves,” he says, “most go off to the calf ranch. When you see them pulled away from their moms, they’re thrown into another pen simply so they can wait there until someone can come and pick them up.” No matter how many calves a cow has taken away from her, maternal instinct prevails. Gillespie references a cow she encountered in her research that had been purchased by a veterinary school at auction, used as a teaching tool, and ultimately discovered to be pregnant. Though this cow had multiple babies taken from her at birth, when she delivered a stillborn calf at the veterinary hospital and was free to express her maternal instincts, she groomed the calf for hours before he was buried.

The outsourcing of a female calf’s care until she is mature enough to be impregnated and give birth—and, most importantly, produce milk—marks her entrance into a system few cows manage to escape. If she is headed across state lines, before leaving the farm where she was born, she’ll receive the bovine version of an identification card: a pair of plastic tags, punched unceremoniously through each ear. The number on these tags is her Animal Identification Number and, as part of the USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability program, will track this single cow’s movement throughout her lifetime as she moves through different facilities—starting with the calf ranch.

According to the USDA, over 35 million calves were born on dairy farms in the U.S. in 2020.

Milton steer licking Sven steer at Farm Sanctuary

Milton (left) licking Sven at Farm Sanctuary. Cows are sensitive creatures who take care of their peers by grooming and protecting them.

The Calf Ranch

If you want to uncover abuse or violation in the dairy industry, Paxton can tell you exactly which job to apply for, based on the type of facility. “If it’s a calf ranch,” he says, “it’s really going to be anything and everything at the ranch. You have calves that are there that were just born. Some were born that morning. They get taken out and then they’re dumped into calf crates where they have to be in all kinds of weather. Maybe they have some straw thrown in there for them.”

Most calves born in the United States spend the first months of their lives being bottle-fed and living outdoors in something called a hutch, which is a small crate or dome covered on three sides, where the calf can lie down but not stretch or move freely. For luxuries like stretching, there’s an “exercise area,” which is not an exercise area at all but a caged, 4- to 8-foot area in front of the hutch that allows the calf to take a couple of steps and be fed by an employee as they go down the line, feeding hundreds of caged animals soy milk or milk replacer. “We give soy milk to calves, so we can take the cow’s milk and give it to us,” Paxton says. “Bizarre, right?”

While the dairy industry’s party line is that hutches keep calves healthy and safe, calves actually eat more and adapt to change better when they’re housed with even just one playmate. “Calves are social animals. They need to play,” says Lauri Torgerson-White, animal welfare scientist and Research Director at Farm Sanctuary. “Ideally, they would be with their mother, still nursing, but if they’re not, they at least need to be able to play with other calves and have that physical comfort.”

If you’re unlucky enough to be born male in the dairy industry, you have it even worse: Since you can’t be used for milk, you are confined in a crate and tethered to restrict movement entirely while being raised for veal. You survive on a liquid diet until you reach slaughter weight—between 3 and 24 weeks old—when you will be killed on-site or sent to a veal slaughterhouse.

Male calves that can’t be used for breeding or sold for veal won’t even make it out the door—instead, they’ll be killed by gunshot or stunned with a captive bolt gun and bled to death on the farm. “Some calves are bludgeoned to death with hammers on the farm, and no one talks about it,” Torgerson-White says. “I have spoken to folks within the industry about it, and they have not denied it. They don’t want to talk about it because it’s a horrible thing. Who would want folks to know that? No one’s going to buy milk if they think cows are being killed on the farm with hammers.”

The goal on a calf ranch is to keep the female calves alive until they are old enough to go back to their owners and be impregnated, but unregulated industry conditions mean many don’t survive even that long. “In most calf ranches, you’re going to have tens of thousands of calves. To have between 10,000 and 30,000 calves is not unusual, but when you have that many animals, it’s hard to give a lot of veterinary care,” Paxton says. Infectious illnesses like pneumonia spread quickly through the overcrowded spaces, and in some cases, animals are left in lethal environments. At one Texas calf ranch, Paxton discovered that “cows were kept on wooden slatted floorings that would get so cold at night, it would freeze their hooves and then their hooves would literally fall off and they would die.”

Reynolds, who has been a dairy veterinarian since the 1980s, credits modest improvements in nutrition plus efforts toward better sanitation with a slight decrease in calf mortality. “Until about 10 years ago, the average mortality rate of calves on a dairy was 10%, which is pretty brutal. One out of ten animals died of infectious disease. It was horrifyingly bad,” he says. Even now, the mortality rate for calves in the dairy industry in the United States is between 6% and 8% annually. Pneumonia and diarrhea—which are completely dependent on nutrition and sanitation—are the biggest threats to calves making it off the ranch alive. Since dairy operations are most concerned with their bottom line, some industry literature suggests that treatment should be withheld from calves that become sick more than once.

Some calves are bludgeoned to death with hammers on the farm...I have spoken to folks within the industry about it, and they have not denied it.

Lauri Torgerson-White

Animal welfare scientist, Research Director at Farm Sanctuary

“We give soy milk to calves, so we can take the cow’s milk and give it to us. Bizarre, right?”

Pete Paxton

Animal welfare investigator

Holstein calf in a dairy hutch

A calf outside of a dairy hutch. Photo Credit: Lost_in_the_Midwest / Shutterstock

Mating For Milk

“Reproduction is the main thing that drives the economics for a dairy. You need to get the cow pregnant, so she gives birth and starts over again and then produces more milk,” says Reynolds, who advises dairies of all sizes on health systems, including reproduction programs. “To have efficient or productive or profitable lactations, cows need to give birth as frequently as possible.” Like most processes on the modern dairy, reproduction reflects how willingly the industry perverts the natural course of a cow’s life.

“Pretty much all conventional dairies in North America use hormones,” says Reynolds. “It’s called ‘time breeding’ as a euphemism, but they’re hormone injections.” Cows are given hormone injections to stimulate ovulation. “What almost all veterinarians do in North America is check to see if the cows are pregnant. If they’re not pregnant, they get hormones to get them cycling so that they can get pregnant.”

Banned in the Netherlands and Denmark, electroejaculation is the dairy industry’s go-to technique for sperm collection. Describing this procedure in even the simplest, pared-down terms cannot disguise its inherent abuse: A bull is selected based on the high milk production of his daughters, then tied and restrained while an electric probe is inserted in his anus. The electricity is then turned up until the cow ejaculates. The process is so painful, the bulls often pass out before ejaculating. They are only allowed to recover for 15 minutes before being forced to endure the process again. The alternative to electroejaculation is less painful for bulls, but since it involves inserting a sperm-collecting artificial vagina inside the female cow’s real vagina, this method shifts the torture from one animal to the other. Referred to as a “mount cow” during this process, the female is restrained until the bull ejaculates and the semen can be stolen from the artificial vagina. In some cases, the artificial vagina route gets even weirder. “Using the artificial vagina method, they use steers—castrated males—as what they call ‘teasers,’” Gillespie says. “They get the bull to mount the steers to get them aroused, and then they have them ejaculate into the sleeve they use to replicate a cow’s vagina.” At this point, the female cow has been removed from the process altogether. “And they have the farmer or the human worker in the middle of this process, in the middle of this weird encounter between the bull and the steer.”

The industry chose a mild misnomer—“artificial insemination”—for a process that exploits the reproductive systems of cows and bulls, but they don’t bother calling the violent tools of this exploitation anything but what they are: Cows are artificially inseminated in a narrow holding pen known as a “rape rack,” using a device called an artificial injection gun. In an op-ed in the LA Times, Peter Lovenheim acknowledged the way the dairy industry abuses and exploits female cows as a feminist issue, based on his years spent observing a modern dairy operation as a journalist and writer. When a female of any species is tied into her feed rack with her head locked with a stanchion while a 3-foot metal gun is inserted into her anus and eventually her cervix—along with the arm of the person holding the gun—it is difficult to call it anything other than abuse.

When allowed to live naturally, it isn’t particularly hard for cows to get pregnant. “Cows’ reproductive cycles are the same as women’s,” Reynolds says. “They’re not seasonal, there are no behavioral influences. They just come into estrus or heat every 21 days.” A cow in heat attracts a bull, they mate, she carries her baby for about 40 weeks, and after delivery, the cow produces milk to feed her baby. The dairy industry has distorted the cow’s natural reproductive cycle, literally inserting humans and machines into each step, and into cows’ bodies. The facts of life are now riddled with abuse, filled with racks, sperm guns, and anal massage, and set to a cacophonous sound of bellows and cries. When a dairy cow gives birth for the first time, her life changes forever. She’s now a mother, but she’s also a milker.

Reproduction is the main thing that drives the economics for a dairy. You need to get the cow pregnant, so she gives birth and starts over again and then produces more milk.

Jim Reynolds

Professor at Western University of Health Sciences

Cows on rotating milking parlor machine

This rotating platform is designed for milking a large number of cows successively and largely automatically. Photo Credit: DedMityay / Shutterstock

Getting Milked

According to USDA statistics, the annual per-cow milk yield has more than quadrupled over the past 70 years, skyrocketing from 5,314 pounds in 1950 to 23,391 pounds in 2019. These massive quantities are difficult to picture for anyone not used to thinking in liquid milk-pounds, but perhaps easier to envision en route: In 1950, the average dairy cow produced enough milk every year to send one single milk transport truck sloshing down the highway to the processing plant. Today, the average dairy cow makes enough milk each year to fill four of those trucks—but getting there took a whole lot of high-powered cow sperm.

“The increase in milk production comes from the male side,” says Reynolds, who served as Chief of Clinical Services for Production Medicine at UC Davis for 12 years. “We breed the cows with semen from bulls whose daughters have given more milk.” Many farms choose to not raise any male calves into bulls at all, since purchasing sperm from a dealer in the highly lucrative semen market is easier and more cost effective. Those that do raise bulls do not require many. Selective breeding means male calves that cannot be sold for veal based on breed, market demand, or farm economics are euthanized within days. Female calves with the wrong lineage face the same fate. But selective breeding also has repercussions for the female calves that survive, and even future generations of the herd.

According to an American Dairy Science Association study, as milk production rates in dairy cows have increased over the past 70 years, reproductive efficiency and fertility rates have decreased. When a cow’s fertility decreases and she can’t be artificially impregnated as often or as easily, she’s considered spent and is culled—an industry term that technically means removed but often means killed—from the herd. Once spent, a cow will be sold to the beef industry to be fattened for slaughter on a feedlot.

A lactating dairy cow makes enough milk to head to the stall two to three times a day, where she’s either hooked up to a machine or milked by hand. Her body gets a respite from milking during the “drying off” period—50-ish days when the dairy lets her stop lactating so she’ll be easier to impregnate again. Because it’s easier to control a lactating cow’s diet by feeding her in a stall than letting her graze on pasture, many cows have zero access to the outdoors, despite proof that cows allowed to graze are less likely to develop lameness and mastitis.

In 1950, the annual per-cow milk yield was 5,314 pounds. In 2019, it was 23,391 pounds.

Mastitis is the common cold (or perhaps the strep throat, given that some strains are caused by streptococcus bacteria) of the milking stalls. Incredibly painful, very contagious, and present in one in four dairy cows, this infectious disease inflames the cow’s mammary glands, causing lesions, fever, depression, and sometimes death. Caused by pathogens like streptococcus, E. coli, and coliforms, mastitis spreads like spilled milk once it hits the stalls. Signs of infection show up in the cow’s milk as irregularities like clots, clumps, flakes, and even blood. While the USDA requires milk from a cow with mastitis to be discarded, less severe cases known as subclinical mastitis don’t always express themselves right away, meaning a cow can be milked for days before she’s diagnosed, her milk flowing into the dairy’s bulk tank.

Every tank of milk undergoes a count for somatic cells, which fight infection in cows with mastitis. The higher the somatic cell count, the more mastitis-infected cows are in the herd and contributing milk to the tank. According to the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, to be sold as Grade A milk, a bulk tank must have a somatic cell count of 750,000 or less (the standard is lower for Grade B milk, which can be used for cheese, butter, and nonfluid dairy products), but a bulk tank somatic cell count of over just 200,000 indicates subclinical mastitis in the herd. That somatic cell count gap of 500,000 means a carton of Grade A could contain milk from a herd where many cows are infected.

Mastitis can spread quickly in unsanitary environments—flies flitting from udder to udder is one way mastitis is transmitted—but the disease is often present even on farms with pristine stalls and sanitation routines. If a dairy cow doesn’t end up spent from producing babies, getting milked, and enduring mastitis, she’s often crippled by brutal living conditions.

Cows in a free stall dairy barn with cement floors

Mastitis can spread quickly in unsanitary environments, but the disease is often present even on farms with pristine stalls and sanitation routines. Photo Credit: Vinai Suwanidcharoen / Shutterstock

Stalled Out

Each year, between 2 and 4 million young cows deemed spent are cast out of the dairy industry to be slaughtered for meat. If this description, of cows being both young and spent, seems like an oxymoron, that’s because, in the natural world, it is. Given the opportunity to age as nature intended, the average cow will live to be between 20 and 25 years old. But on an industrial dairy farm, a cow is usually considered spent around 5 years old.

The average cow used for dairy is destined for an early grave only by aggressive industry standards for milk production. “Most of the cows I worked with were definitely older than five,” says Norman. “Five was a good age for a cow. It wasn’t a spent age, at 5 years old a cow is in its prime, really. A lot of cows I worked with were over 10 years old,” she says. “It was really prestigious for a farmer to be able to say ‘look how awesome these cows are, they’re still churning out production, they’re still looking good, they’re still having babies.” To call a cow spent while she’s still capable of reproducing and giving milk highlights the industry’s deeply rooted culture of commoditization: A cow is spent once she has literally been milked for all she’s worth.

“Besides the fact that they milk a lot, dairy cows are in these corrals where they’re living in their own waste,” Paxton says. Every aspect of life becomes a compounding factor in premature physical breakdown. “Everything about the facility is hard on them, even the way that they eat. In nature, when a cow wants to eat, she’ll take a step with her front hoof, and then her head goes off 45 degrees to the left and she takes a bite of grass. Then the left hoof goes forward, and her head goes off 45 degrees to the right for another bite. That’s how a cow eats.” But for all its advances in milk production, the dairy industry has overlooked the cow’s structural mechanics. “At dairies and feedlots, there’s a trough, and the cow has to go directly in front of it. Both of her hooves have to go down at the same level, and when she puts her head down to go in between them to eat, it puts pressure on the outsides of her front ankles. That starts to tear apart their ankles and hooves.”

Paxton has seen firsthand how the poor ergonomics of the feed trough are felt in the milking stalls. “When cows have these injuries, they’ll collapse going into the milking stall, or they’ll fall and collapse in the stall after standing on the concrete and being milked for so long. They can’t get out, and then people resort to beating them.” When the conditions of a cow’s environs wear her body down to where she can no longer walk to the milk stalls or stand while she’s being artificially inseminated, she’s referred to as a downed cow, or a downer.

...they’ll fall and collapse in the stall after standing on the concrete and being milked for so long. They can’t get out, and then people resort to beating them.

Pete Paxton

Animal welfare investigator

Holstein cows eating in a free livestock stall

The poor ergonomics of dairy facilities are a compounding factor in the premature physical breakdown of cows. Photo Credit: Vladimir Mulder / Shutterstock

Downed And Out

“Downed” is a term as vaguely defined as it is commonly used in animal agriculture. A downed animal is non-ambulatory; but a non-ambulatory cow is not necessarily lame—though many lame cows will become downed. Difficulty during the birthing process can lead to a cow becoming downed, especially if a veterinarian isn’t called to help (and usually, they aren’t), but cows that deliver calves without issue also risk health problems once they start producing milk. “There are only a few places where high production actually impacts the health and welfare of a dairy cow,” Reynolds says, “but they are significant.”

“The most significant problem is energy deficiency, because they cannot physically eat enough to keep up with the maintenance requirements for their body and with the milk production,” he says. “Often cows become hypercalcemic because they can’t get enough calcium out of their bones fast enough for the milk they are producing,” Reynolds says. “Then they start losing body mass to make energy to stay alive.” When a cow can’t keep weight on, one health issue leads to another.

“Lameness continues to be a serious problem on dairies because as cows give so much milk and lose body mass and body fat, they’re losing body fat in their feet.” Reynolds has seen these injuries throughout his years of experience in animal medicine. “The fat pads in their feet cushion them when they walk around, and they lose that.” But that’s not the only issue that causes cows to lose mobility. “Lameness becomes a really big problem because of the production facilities, the housing, and the stocking densities. We know what makes these problems happen and how to prevent them, so at this stage, dairies choose to have these problems or not.” Overcrowding and lack of proper bedding prevents cows from laying down; slatted, concrete, and cement floors wear down their bodies and make it easier for crowded cows to slip; and untreated infectious and metabolic diseases make cows so sick they can no longer stand. If a lame or non-ambulatory cow isn’t treated as an emergency and given proper care, according to Reynolds, “They can become lame enough to where they don’t want to get up. So then they’re downed animals.”

Once a cow is downed, she’s useless to the dairy, since legally, she can’t be sold for meat. “There are some state laws about animal welfare and farms, but they’re pretty minimal, there aren’t very many, and they’re very difficult to enforce,” Reynolds says. “Downed cows are not allowed to be sent to slaughter, but it’s not because of welfare, it’s because of mad cow disease.” In 2001, Farm Sanctuary brought a lawsuit against the USDA, citing animal welfare concerns and human health risks as evidence that slaughtering downed cows should be prohibited. After two years of fighting the lawsuit and denying the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (more commonly known as mad cow disease) in the United States, in 2004 the UDSA finally issued a regulation prohibiting downed cows from being sold to the beef industry. But it took the discovery of mad cow disease in a downed cow in Washington State—and the resulting consumer fear—to prompt this decision.

Since it’s illegal to sell a downed cow for meat, they are often killed on the farm by a dairy employee. Based on American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, the acceptable method of on-farm euthanasia for cows is barbiturate injection. But barbiturates can be costly, considering the number of cows killed on dairy farms every year, so many facilities kill cows by shooting them in the head with a bullet or by using a captive bolt gun, which shoots a metal rod into the cow’s brain tissue, and then pulls it back out. Sometimes the captive bolt gun only stuns the cow or causes her to lose consciousness, and when she is added to the “dead pile” on the dairy floor, she’ll wake up and die slowly atop the murdered cows she once lived with.

Many facilities kill downed cows by shooting them in the head with a bullet or by using a captive bolt gun.

There are some state laws about animal welfare and farms, but they’re pretty minimal, there aren’t very many, and they’re very difficult to enforce.

Jim Reynolds

Professor at Western University of Health Sciences

Pietro calf heals at Farm Sanctuary

Pietro, born on a large dairy, had suffered a broken leg. He would’ve been killed for his injury had a kind rescuer not stepped in to save his life.

Highway Robbery

Being moved from one dairy facility to another is the most stressful time in a cow’s life, and the conditions exacerbate the traumatic ride. Packed into a tractor-trailer so tightly they can’t lie down to rest, cows in every condition—sick, pregnant, lame, newborn—can go the entire journey without fresh water. In North America, a cow used for dairy will be transported at least once and up to five or more times in her lifetime. She’ll face hunger, discomfort, and extreme temperatures as she moves between the calf ranch, the feedlot, the finishing lot, and eventually the auction or slaughterhouse, where her owners will profit from her body one last time.

One-fifth of the culled cows in a 2018 study became lame or more lame during transport to the slaughterhouse—meaning some cows that managed to stand and walk on the truck during loading deteriorated during the ride (the study also observed an increase in milk leakage and wounds). In policy recommendations for humane transport prepared for the Canadian government, Mercy for Animals recommended that animals be transported for no longer than 8 hours if food and water, controlled temperatures, and room to move freely (among other recommendations) could not be provided. Unfortunately, in the United States, animals don’t have these protections.

“There are two federal laws pertaining to livestock welfare, and one is the 28-hour rule, which states that cattle and livestock have to be offloaded at 28 hours of travel and rested, fed, and watered for 5 hours,” Reynolds says, “and that law is from 1906.” Cows that are sick, pregnant, and so lame employees use electric prods to force them to stagger into the trailer often arrive even sicker, unable to stand, with a baby born on the journey, or dead. “28 hours is how long it took a train to get halfway across the United States at that time—it had nothing to do with animal welfare.” In theory, the USDA enforces the 28-hour rule. But because drivers aren’t required to provide documentation for the duration, mileage, or stops on their trips and USDA personnel have a murky understanding of their role in enforcement, the law is rarely enforced. In practice, it’s “not important at all,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot of animals being transported much longer than 28 hours now.”

Working in an industry based on the commoditization of animals takes a toll on its employees too. Norman still gets emotional thinking about calves being loaded onto the transport truck. “I didn’t want them to go where they were going, for a start,” Norman says, “but also, the truck companies are not allowed to throw the calves on the truck. They have to put them on nicely. But I could see them throwing the calves on the truck, because the drivers have been around the whole area, they’ve picked up hundreds and hundreds of calves, and they just want to get the job done. They’ve gotten completely disconnected.” The animals Norman saw thrown around were male and female calves sent to slaughter after birth—often called bobby calves. “To see these beautiful animals that I just fed, that were so perfect and so innocent and didn’t deserve to die, just sent flying into a truck––it was absolutely heartbreaking.”

In a 2018 study, one-fifth of the culled cows became lame or more lame during transport to the slaughterhouse.

People beat the living hell out of these little baby calves to get them to stand.

Pete Paxton

Animal welfare investigator

Calves are more sensitive to low temperatures during transport, and being forced up and down ramps sized for adult cows creates issues as they are forced on and off trucks. “At a veal slaughterhouse, calves come in and might be a few days old, or as I saw happen, literally born that morning,” Paxton says. “They have bloody umbilical cords still hanging down, so they can’t walk. If they can’t walk and there’s a USDA inspector there, they’ll say, ‘I can’t let it go in. What if that’s some kind of a disease?’”

“So people beat the living hell out of these little baby calves to get them to stand. And if they just won’t, they get frustrated, they’ve got a lot of work to do. Boom. They bolt them with a captive bolt gun real quick. And if they don’t do it right, that calf will slowly die with a wound in their brain that kills them.”

At auction, cows of all ages will be unloaded when they arrive, only to be reloaded on their new owner’s trailer after they’re purchased. When Gillespie was researching dairy auctions for “The Cow with Ear Tag #1389,” she saw auction employees and owners moving cows onto trailers. “The loading process was just so violent,” she says. “I saw the electric prod being used a lot during the loading process, but I never saw an electric prod used in the public-facing auction ring. The more animals resisted, the more they got shocked with the prod.” Auction employees, like all dairy industry workers, face enormous stress, and abuse shouldn’t be assumed or generalized, but what Gillespie witnessed is not uncommon. “I saw so many of the auction employees just get really frustrated, swearing at the animals when they weren’t going in, or shocking them an extra couple of times once they were in, because it was this hard, stressful thing for the employees.”

Suspended between caregivers, owners, and often life and death, any ride down the highway is incredibly stressful for a cow. But for an animal headed to auction, this stuffy, overpacked truck may be where she’ll spend the last hours of her life.

Paula cow at Farm Sanctuary

Paula, a dairy industry survivor, stands in a sunny Sanctuary pasture.

Auctioned Off

The auctioneer does a different kind of selling than the cow-dappled pastures depicted on the milk carton, intended for a different type of audience. “In the dairy market sale, the cows are usually in pretty good condition physically. The auction narrative uses a very visual, aesthetic language around the cows,” Gillespie says. “It’s very, ‘oh, she’s a looker, look at those udders,’ and ‘she’s had one calf, so you know she’s a sure thing.’” The dairy auction audience, made up of families who are there to eat burgers in the on-site restaurant and buy cows to add to their milking herds, shares the auctioneer’s lighthearted bravado.

The mood at the cull market is different. Spent and injured cows are sold to new owners who will often transport them to a feedlot, feed them for a month, and sell their larger bodies for a larger price. “It’s mercenary, almost,” says Gillespie. “It’s a fast process, less than a minute for each animal. The meat buyers already know who they’re going to buy, and they’re going for quantity.” If the cows in the dairy auction look healthy, “in the cull market space the animals are in terrible, terrible condition.” Cows that barely made it into the trailer for transport are weaker by the time they make it to the cull market. “I saw a number of cows collapse and not be able to make it through the ring, or even to the ring. Behind the auction yard, there were cows collapsed in the pens and unable to get up.”

At a dairy auction in Texas, animals arrived so ill they couldn’t walk, says Paxton of one of his undercover cases. “Erath County Dairy Sales would buy the cows from dairies all over and outside of Texas, and some would show up dead on arrival, and some would be lying down. People would beat the hell out of them to try and get them up, and if they couldn’t get up, they’d be shot.” This is the condition of many spent cows used for dairy and then sold for meat: sick, lame, and just out of a trailer with dead cows inside.

During the same investigation, Paxton witnessed something unusual even by dairy auction standards. “While they were coming out of the trailer, I saw a whole bunch of cows start shaking, frothing at the mouth, then fall over and die for reasons unknown.” The USDA doesn’t care to regulate transport conditions, but they do require animals crossing state lines to be tracked in case of a zoonotic disease outbreak—exactly what Animal Disease Tracking tags are for. “These are dairy cows that are coming in, mixing with the populations and all other pens. The auction would buy a certain amount of their own cows and remove all of their ear tags, including federal ear tags called ADT tags.” To this auction enterprise, changing a cow’s identity was no different than switching the stickers on two pieces of fruit. “These people would remove the ADT tags and put stickers on the cows to make the cows appear as though they were organic, so they could sell them to California for triple the price.”

“I think a lot about commodification and what it means to buy and sell a life,” says Gillespie, “which is really the framework for thinking about the way we use, exchange, and eat farmed animals. They’re fundamentally commodities as living beings, and then when they are slaughtered, or milked, or have their eggs taken, those are other kinds of food commodities. And the auction is a very clear place to see that, and to see the consequences of that.”

I saw a number of cows collapse and not be able to make it through the ring, or even to the ring. Behind the auction yard, there were cows collapsed in the pens and unable to get up.

Kathryn Gillespie Ph.D.

Writer, critical animal studies scholar

Honey cow stands in the snow at Sanctuary

Honey stands outside of her barn at Farm Sanctuary.

Exit Strategy

Few of the more than 9 million cows being used for dairy in the United States—along with many others worldwide—will find sanctuary in their lifetimes. Farm Sanctuary and other animal welfare and advocacy organizations provide safety from exploitation for farmed animals as often and amply as possible. Everyday, animal activists use their talents and skills to promote welfare and provide healthcare to farmed animals, expose abuse and illegal activity in the dairy industry, and share their lived experiences to change people’s hearts and minds.

Capitalism doesn’t let commodities rest at the end of their lives, and the insatiable hunger for profit rarely grants freedom to those who have served it. But empowering consumers with the truth about the dairy industry gives them the critical information they deserve, and that truth isn’t something the industry is likely to give out willingly.

  • Jackie Norman shares her firsthand account of life in the dairy industry so people that hear it understand the truth from someone who lived it—even though the truth is still painful for her to recount.
  • Pete Paxton (not his real name) puts himself in situations where he sees things he can never unsee and most people can’t imagine to capture stories, images, and videos that expose the dairy industry’s ethical and legal violations—even though he can’t tell his friends what he really does for a living.
  • Kathryn Gillespie turned her dissertation into a book that gives a wider audience access to research in an area long ignored by both academia and the mainstream media—even though doing so took years of gut-wrenching on-the-ground research.
  • Lauri Torgerson-White tirelessly researches animal sentience and welfare, so farmed animals have an advocate pushing for their agency and protection—even though small wins can take years of work.
  • Jim Reynolds says it best himself: “I’ve become that dairy cow veterinarian who agrees with the activists. It’s been difficult from a career standpoint, but what else would I do?”

We know we can’t rescue every animal currently in the dairy industry, but compassionately educating others about the immense suffering it causes—and meeting them where they are—is something we can all do.

Want to do more?

Safran cow stands in a pasture

Safran at Farm Sanctuary

Farm animals are among the most abused creatures on earth. Pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep, and others suffer by the billions, locked away in places that echo with cries of terror and pain, places that reek of cruelty, dark places with unspeakable horrors. You are one of the special people who know that farm animals are individuals who deserve our compassion.

Consider donating, symbolically adopting a farm animal, and, most importantly, leaving animals and their byproducts off your plate. Get our guide to plant-based eating.

Connie sheep at Farm Sanctuary

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