NYT Asks: Is Dairy Farming Cruel to Cows? We’ve Known the Answer for Years.
Last October, we released a heartbreaking undercover investigation exposing horrific abuses of mother cows and their calves. Recently, The New York Times published an article highlighting our investigation, asking: “Is Dairy Farming Cruel to Cows?”
Our answer: Unequivocally, yes. But Big Dairy’s PR machine spun the story, putting small, “family” farms in the spotlight to dupe consumers into believing they represent the dairy industry–or that they’re not just as cruel to animals as the big factory farms.
The article rightly notes that some animal advocates’ claims are beyond dispute:
- Dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated by artificial insemination and have their newborns taken away at birth.
- Female calves are confined to individual pens and have their horn buds burned off, often with no pain relief, when they are about eight weeks old.
- Soon after birth, the males are trucked off to veal farms or cattle ranches where they end up as hamburger meat. Or left to die in the hot sun.
Still, The New York Times took the bait. But Animal Outlook has seen this story time and time again, and we’re on to Big Ag’s tricks. Here’s how the cruel industry gets away with murder under the guise of feeding America:
Happy Cows and the “Humane” Myth
Though cruelties like painful dehorning and blatant abuse may seem like the exception, even small “family farms” kill and abuse cows in these ways. Dairy is fundamentally cruel, even when facilities tout their so-called “humane” methods. At any dairy facility, female cows are impregnated over and over again, with each of their babies taken from them soon after birth so that the milk meant for them can instead be harvested for humans. Female calves will end up in the same cruel and exhausting cycle, while male calves will be slaughtered for veal or beef.
A cow’s natural lifespan is 15-20 years, but most dairy cows are considered “spent” and sent to slaughter around five years old to become fast food or dog food.
But because of Big Dairy’s enormous advertising budget, most people have no idea that these cruelties are happening. Instead, we’re sold images of happy cows in rolling pastures and led to believe that all dairy products are wholesome products of family farms. In fact, dairy’s lies are so pervasive, many people don’t even know that a cow must be impregnated and give birth in order to produce milk. This is dairy’s deceptive way to distract us from the reality of babies being ripped from their mother’s side and sold for meat.
The dairy industry has participated in a century-long deception convincing consumers that milk is ethical and necessary. But the jig is up on false “happy cow” advertising and government deals that paint dairy as part of American life.
Government Deals and Subsidies
As dairy consumption continues to decline in the United States, the government is increasingly bailing out dairy producers, despite their inability to make a profit. Every year, the U.S. government pours billions of dollars into this failing industry in the form of subsidies and sales to federal programs. In 2019, dairy insider and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue funneled dairy products into public schools, rolling back Obama-era nutrition standards in order to support Big Dairy.
As of June 2018, overproduction of dairy has resulted in a cheese stockpile of 1.3 billion pounds. And instead of decreasing production or switching to more lucrative vegan products, dairy producers are bailed out by the USDA, which purchases the excess product. Instead of pivoting toward a more marketable, sustainable product that consumers want, the industry can just rely on government bailouts to stay afloat.
Without government life support, the dairy industry would be long dead. But Big Ag’s supporters won’t cut the cord, and instead let the industry run rampant despite shocking losses.
People have this image of Old MacDonald’s farm, with happy cows living on green pastures, but that’s just so far from reality. Some farms might be less cruel than others, but there is no such thing as cruelty-free milk.
Self-Regulation and Secrecy
Of course, the industry has a vested interest in consumers not knowing what really happens behind closed doors. Nathan Chittenden of Dutch Hollow Farm, one of the two farms profiled in the New York Times piece, is the chairperson of FARM’s Farmer Advisory Council, which “serves as a unified voice of the dairy producer community by aiding in providing assurances to that community that the FARM program standards are established with the best interest of the dairy community in mind…as well as inspiring confidence in dairy customer and consumers of dairy farm practices.”
It’s clear that this council puts the good of the dairy industry – and its ability to turn a profit – above the good of the cows it exploits or the consumers who buy their milk. In fact, numerous farms that have participated in the FARM program, including Dick Van Dam, Martin Farms, Burnham Dairy, Larson Farms and Cactus Acre Holsteins have been the subject of past undercover investigations that revealed substantial abuse.
Without investigative organizations like Animal Outlook, many people would be unaware of the cruelties that Big Dairy lets go unpunished. But even our work is limited, as farmers and their allies lobby for “ag-gag” laws that penalize whistleblowers for investigating and recording what happens at factory farms. Though many of these laws have been declared unconstitutional, they still persist in multiple states.
If the dairy industry is wholesome and humane like advertising claims it is, why work so hard to keep it shrouded in secrecy?
In truth, the two facilities featured in the article represent a tiny fraction of the mammoth industrial factory farming industry – a mere one percent. According to 2019 USDA data, 99 percent of all animal products in the U.S. come from factory farms. There can be no comparison between the exceedingly rare small dairies that may not overtly abuse their animals (but still kill them) and the multi-billion dollar dairy factory farming industry.
While we’re disappointed that the New York Times reporter didn’t visit a factory farm that represents the true state of the dairy industry, we understand why: They’d never let him inside. That’s why investigators like ours spend grueling months behind the closed doors of these places – to expose the truth and let people know what’s really going on behind the locked doors and misleading labels of happy cows in lush green pastures.
The story also suggests that our work is pushing the dairy industry to reconsider many welfare concerns, and that dairy consumption has declined by 30 percent since 1975 and 20,000 dairy farms have gone out of business in the last decade.
But make no mistake: Our position remains clear: There is no such thing as cruelty-free milk.
Dick Van Dam is not the only dairy facility we’ve investigated; at Martin Farms, a self-proclaimed “family farm,” we documented senseless and violent abuse of mother cows and their defenseless calves — some of the worst abuse we’ve ever seen — yet it shows practices representative of life for animals at a typical dairy facility. The egregious cruelty and abuse documented in every single one of our more than thirty investigations over the past two decades are the rule in animal agriculture, not the exception, despite what the industry wants you to think.
Of course, dairy isn’t the only industry committing atrocities against animals behind closed doors. In 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic reduced demand for pork products, farmers responded by “depopulating” farms, a euphemism for mass-killing pigs by baking them alive with ventilation shutdowns or suffocating them with water-based foam. Animal Outlook immediately joined a coalition to file an emergency petition to the USDA to end these barbaric methods, but this case illustrates the rampant cruelty in factory farming that is accepted as “normal” — and allowed by the USDA.
The dairy industry needs consumers. Consumers don’t need the dairy industry. Why support the relentless torture and abuse of cows when there are so many plant-based options readily available? Don’t fall for Big Dairy’s tricks. It’s time to think for ourselves and make choices that are better for the planet, better for our health and better for the cows.
Erin recently retired from the field after two years undercover. Now, as Animal Outlook’s Deputy Director of Investigations, she assists with the overall management of investigations and is primarily responsible for conducting research related to investigations and standard practices in the animal agriculture industry. This information is used both by Animal Outlook for various programs and initiatives as well as by investigators in the field.
While undercover, Erin conducted the first-ever investigation of a U.S. fish farming facility, exposing the ugly truth about aquaculture. Her footage from a Virginia factory farm supplying Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest chicken producer, revealed shocking abuse of birds, and she documented senseless, violent abuse of mother cows and their defenseless calves at a Pennsylvania dairy factory farm – much as she did at her final investigation at another dairy factory farm in California.