Working towards a more compassionate world through education and advocacy

Cows  |  Pigs  |  Chickens  |  Sheep


Where do cattle come from?

Cattle were domesticated as long ago as the Neolithic age and have been kept as livestock ever since for their meat, milk and hides.

Historically there was less distinction between dairy cattle and beef cattle, with the same breeds used for both milk and meat. However, in the developed world today farmers generally keep either beef or dairy cattle. Through generations of selection, dairy breeds, such as the Holstein, are bred specifically to produce very high volumes of milk.


The calves of dairy and beef cows are likely to have very different lives. Beef calves are generally slaughtered for beef after one to two years. Female dairy calves are usually reared on for milk production. Dairy cows produce some male calves which are generally less suitable for beef production. Sadly, in the UK some of these are either shot at birth or could be exported to low welfare veal farms outside the UK. Fortunately the number of calves being exported from England, Scotland and Wales is low currently, but several thousand animals are exported to the continent each year from Northern Ireland.

Due to co-operation between Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the industry through the Calf Stakeholder Forum, more male dairy calves are now reared humanely for beef and the number of calves being shot at birth has greatly decreased. There is more work to do - around 100,000 or so are still shot every year.


Beef cattle are often reared outdoors on grass, although many are brought indoors or crowded into feedlots for fattening before slaughter. Even though many cattle in the UK, Ireland and Northern France are fattened on grass, many cattle are fattened indoors across most of Europe. In indoor systems, beef cattle are commonly housed on slatted floors in crowded conditions, which increases aggression and can lead to severe injuries and lameness.

Pasture raised cows

Factory farmed cows

Dairy Cows

Dairy farming has been part of agriculture for thousands of years. Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk.

Dairy cows are required to give birth to one calf per year to continue producing milk. They are usually artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth. These high milk producing cows are only productive for an average of 3 years, after which they are culled and the meat is normally used for beef.


We take her milk with a sense of entitlement – and discard her calf...


But now, Consumer Power can influence supermarkets to change the fate of boy calves... In South Africa, some 600 000 dairy cows produce around 3-billion litres of milk for our consumption annually.

Cows come into milk only when they have given birth and if the calf is a boy (who will never produce milk and who won’t grow fast like a beef calf does), he is regarded as having little or no value.


200 000 boy calves are born into the SA dairy industry each year and too many land up in impoverished settlements to be reared by people who are not equipped with the specialist knowledge required for calf rearing.

The Department of Agriculture confirms that there are cases where some 70% of these calves die of dehydration, malnutrition and disease.

But now, at last, Compassion in World Farming (South Africa) has found a helping hand in dairy veterinarian Dr Nico Schutte.


In a meeting with Compassion on 5 February 2012, Dr Schutte , as representative for the Milk Producers’ Organistion (MPO), agreed that the fate of boy calves needs urgent attention. He explained that calves are born without any antibodies at all which means they have no resistance to disease. “That is why it is crucial that the calves receive 2 litres of colostrum within the first six hours of life. Collecting colostrum from the older cows in the herd, provides the best antibodies for the calves because older cows will have been exposed to more diseases than younger cows and therefore have more antibodies to pass on to the calves through colostrum.”


Said Dr Schutte: “A fault in the system is that calves can fall into the hands of people who know too little about calf rearing.  The MPO, together with the Institute for Dairy Technology could expand courses in calf-rearing. This would mean that people intending to buy calves would first have to present certified proof that they have attended a calf-rearing course. I am willing to take this further and slowly, slowly let’s make it happen.”



Global milk production

There are around 250 million cows producing milk across the world. The European Union is the largest milk producer and has about 23 million dairy cows. This compares with 10 million in North America and over 6 million in Australia and New Zealand. Milk production is also on the increase in South-East Asia, including countries not traditionally noted for their milk consumption, such as China, which now has over 12 million cows producing milk.


Higher milk yield

Over the last fifty years, dairy farming has become more intensive to increase the amount of milk produced by each cow. The Holstein-Friesian, the type of dairy cow most common in the UK, Europe and the USA has been bred to produce very high yields of milk. Around 22 litres per day is typical in the UK. The average yield in the US is even higher at over 30 litres per day. Milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past 40 years. If they were producing just enough to feed their calves, as nature intended, this would be about 3 or 4 litres a day.


Grazing and housing

In the UK most dairy cows still have access to grazing on pasture for part of the day in summer, but more cows are being kept indoors for longer, or even all year round. This is known as ‘zero grazing’, and is increasingly used in North America and parts of the UK for large and high yielding herds.

Where they do not have access to pasture, cows are often housed in sheds. Some sheds have outdoor yards.


Veal production is closely linked to the dairy industry, as male calves can’t be used for milk production.



The calves need Consumer Help to get this proposed certification course in calf-rearing underway as a matter of urgency!

Please write to your supermarkets and ask for confirmation that the calves that supply their milk, cheese, yoghurts, ice-cream and butter products, are properly cared for. If the supermarket cannot give this confirmation, please ask that it contacts Mr Jas Wasserman at the Milk Producers Organisation  to pledge support for the expansion of the calf-rearing certification course to prospective buyers in informal settlements. 


Mr Wasserman’s email address is:


Here are the Customer Care email addresses of the supermarkets:



Discarded boy calves