Photo: Pia Sarker
"4-5 year old, spent dairy cows, arrive at a Toronto slaughter facility.”
Quebec and Ontario have a combined total of 70% of all dairy cows in Canada. In 2021 there were 1.4 million dairy cows in production in Canada. Every year, 30-40% of the total dairy cow population are culled. That equals about 500,000 dairy cows that are slaughtered annually. These cows are usually transported to auction, where they are bought and then further transported to slaughter. Some cows are even sent to multiple auctions before finally being shipped to slaughter. The time from farm to slaughter can be 7-10 days. Because cull cows often have underlying health conditions or injuries, they have an increased risk of deteriorating on the long journey to slaughter. Meat from dairy cows is used for ground beef or lower quality cuts.
In Canada the huge majority of dairy cows spend their lives on factory farms. Cows are crowded and confined mostly indoors, in conditions intended to maximize production, at minimal cost. Some of these farms are family owned, but many are owned by large corporations with hundreds of animals. Factory farms are not defined by size, but by the systems used to confine and raise animals.
Like humans, a cow only produces milk when she has given birth. Starting at 15 months of age, dairy cows are artificially inseminated. After nine months, they give birth. The calf is permanently removed from the mother, within a few hours of birth. The cows will be milked for 10 months. Two months after giving birth, they are inseminated again and the cycle is repeated. This takes such a toll on their bodies that they wear out and are often infertile after 3 births. On average, dairy cows give birth to two to four calves before they are worn out. Dairy cows are usually sent to slaughter by 4-5 years of age, which is much younger than their natural life expectancy of 20-25 years. Female calves are kept and raised to replace those that are sent to slaughter. Male calves are either killed a few hours after birth or fattened up and sent to slaughter as veal.
The main concerns for dairy cow welfare are:
Cow-calf separation within hours of birth causes great distress for the mother and calf.
Tie-stalls where cows are kept in individual stalls, with minimal opportunity to exercise, socialize, groom or engage in other important natural behaviours.
Tie-stall electric shock trainers are used in Canada, but some European countries have banned them.
Mastitis is inflammation of the udder caused by bacterial infection when proper hygiene and management aren’t followed. It is very painful and can cause further issues.
Lameness is caused by lack of proper bedding for comfort, standing for long periods of time on hard surfaces and injuries from slipping on wet floors. These result in decreased mobility, lower feed intake, decreased milk production, poorer reproductive success and early slaughter.
Antibiotics are approved for use in Canadian dairy cows. 85% of Canadian dairy farms use them to treat mastitis, respiratory and diarrheal diseases. Drug resistant microbes generated in dairy cows, can be transferred to humans, contributing to increased drug resistance.
In 2019, the Canada’s Food Guide removed dairy as a food group. Dairy is now included with other proteins. Consuming dairy is linked to a range of health problems, the most common being lactose intolerance, which affects over 7 million Canadians. Dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in our diet, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer. Dairy is also linked to an increased risk of numerous cancers.
Number of farms, dairy cows and dairy heifers – agriculture.canada.ca
Cows, calves, and ending factory farming | World Animal Protection
Dairy cattle production in Canada (spca.bc.ca)
Is the profitability of Canadian tiestall farms associated with their performance on an animal welfare assessment? – ScienceDirect
Cull dairy cows face a long, arduous journey to slaughter | World Animal Protection
Antibiotic Use in Livestock – Alberta Farm Animal Care Association (afac.ab.ca)
Antibiotic resistance in farm animals a growing concern for scientists – Healthy Debate
Lactose Intolerance – Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (cdhf.ca)
Front-of-package nutrition labelling – Canada.ca