A young dairy calf with ID ear tags peers through the bars of a sale yard enclosure.

4 things the dairy industry would prefer you didn’t share.

Milk and dairy products are commonly found items on many grocery lists. What isn’t common is the knowledge of what happened before they landed on supermarket shelves...

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated May 23, 2024

The 1st of June is ‘World Milk Day’ – but across the globe, there are cows and calves paying the ultimate price for humans to consume milk and other dairy products every day.

Here are four things many people are surprised to learn about the dairy industry:

1. Milk comes from a mother cow, who made it for her calf.

Cows need to have a calf to produce milk – but they almost never get to ‘be a mother’. To commercially supply dairy products like milk and cheese, cows are kept almost constantly pregnant… So where are all the babies?

On most farms across Australia and the world, each time a cow used for dairy gives birth, her calf is taken from her on the first day of his or her life.

A male calf is often sent to slaughter, considered a ‘waste product’ by the industry as he will never produce milk.  A female calf may be raised to join the milking herd – forced to endure the repeated pregnancies and calf separation that her mother endured.

When cows and calves are left together, free to live out their natural lives, they can form strong bonds that last a lifetime.

WARNING: This video contains footage which some viewers may find distressing. A calf’s natural instinct, like that of most babies, is to drink their mother’s milk and remain close by their side. Born into an industry that deems them worthless, many thousands of male ‘bobby’ calves are taken and sent to slaughter every year.

2. Some Australian dairy farms have begun shifting towards factory farming.

Dairy production is resource-intensive. As shown in the documentary MILKED, it’s not just cows who are suffering for dairy – the environment is suffering too. It takes more land and water to produce one litre of dairy milk than animal-friendly alternatives like almond, oat, or soy.

Frighteningly, some dairy farms are choosing to factory farm cows, confining cows in barns to reduce resources and maximise ‘output’. Like pigs confined in barren crates and hens trapped in battery cages, holding cows in crowded indoor barns ignores the holistic needs of these thinking, feeling animals. As with any factory farm, this cruel system denies cows the things that make life worth living.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A close up of a cow peering through bars in a dairy barn.
The reality for cows in the dairy industry is often far from what is conveyed in the marketing messages pushed out by this multi-billion-dollar industry.
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

3. Cows are individuals who have best friends.

Most people see herds of cows in fenced-off paddocks, and few are lucky enough to spend quality time with them. It might surprise you to learn that cows each have unique personalities and intricate social lives, just like the companion animals we share our homes with. Not only do cows form friendships and have besties, but research also shows they can become stressed when separated from them.

Beyond the mother-calf bond, cows will also form cooperative grooming partnerships with other members of their group, indicating they have favoured friends.

Sadly, when the milk production of a cow slows or she fails to become pregnant, she is often considered ‘spent’ by the dairy industry and sent to a slaughterhouse – her natural lifespan cut short, and the strong bonds she shares with others, broken.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Four brown and white cows together on the grass - one is sitting down with their face nuzzled between two others.
Just like the dogs and cats we share our homes with, cows form friendships, have likes and dislikes, and are capable of feeling joy and fear.

4. Cows have been modified by the industry to produce much more milk than their ancestors.

Over just 40 years, humans have selectively bred the cows used for dairy in Australia to (on average) double the milk they produce each year – from 2,848 litres per year in 1980, to 6,170 litres in 2019–20.  

To maximise profits, the dairy industry not only continuously impregnates cows and takes away their babies, but also seeks ways to manipulate their bodies and provide supplementary high protein feeding to make more and more milk. Such extreme milk production forced on them by selective breeding leaves cows vulnerable to suffering a painful udder infection called mastitis.

The current food system only values animals in terms of what they produce for us, and it is a system we inherited from those who came before us. The good news is we have the power to change it…

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Cows with milking machinery attached to their udders.
Cows, and other farmed animals of today, have been ‘modified’ by humans, for humans – and they are different to their ancestors who walked Earth not too long ago.

It’s simple to swap out dairy for kinder alternatives

As consumer demand perpetuates the dairy industry and its cruel practices, our individual actions are powerful. With almost effortless changes to the way we eat, we can create a more compassionate world where cows and calves are seen for who they are, instead of what they produce 

In almost any recipe – from beverages to creamy sauces and cakes – dairy products can be swapped for a delicious, animal-friendly alternative. And when it comes to calcium, several plant-based sources tick this nutrient box – so you can be sure that while eating kindly for animals, you are also looking after your health! 

Pledge to enjoy dairy-free food and drinks today, and help change the future for these sensitive, social animals. 


This image contains content which some may find confronting

Calf Little Flower is drinking her mother's milk, in a grassy field at a sanctuary.

Safe from the dairy industry at last, rescued cow Petal is finally free to bond and care for one of her calves – as all mother cows should be. Head here to see Petal’s story, and the moving video of her new life at an animal sanctuary.