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Dairy farming in Canada

There are 12.5 million cattle raised for milk and meat in Canada every year (source: 2016 census).

In the dairy industry, a dairy cow produces an average of 30 litres of milk per day. The most common dairy breed is the Holstein (white with black markings), which makes up almost 94% of the Canadian dairy herd.

In order for a cow to continue to produce milk, she has to give birth to a calf. When she is 15 months of age, she will be bred for the first time. Her gestation period is 9 months, so she will have her first calf around 2 years of age. She will be rebred each time she has a calf so she continues to produce milk from then on.

On average, Canadian dairy cows are sent to slaughter by 5-6 years of age, which is much younger than their natural life span.

What are the main concerns for dairy cow welfare?

  1. Tie stalls:
    Although not a common practice in B.C., tie-stall housing (i.e. the tying of cows to their stalls) is still common in other parts of Canada. Nearly 75% of Canadian dairy farms use tie-stall housing. Cows housed in tie-stalls get very little ability to exercise, socialize, groom, graze, or perform many other important natural behaviours.
  2. Lameness (inability to walk properly):
    A dairy cow will get up and lay down an average of 14 times a day. Because they are so large (~ 1,200 lbs) they can easily get sore feet or leg injuries from standing or slipping on wet concrete floors, or from constantly lying on hard surfaces. Lameness is painful and it affects a huge number of animals. Although is varies from farm to farm, research suggests that, on average, over 25% of high-producing dairy cows in B.C. are clinically lame.
  3. Painful practices:
    Disbudding (horn growth prevention) or dehorning (horn removal) of young dairy calves is routine on Canadian dairy farms. While there are certain advantages to these procedures (e.g. hornless cattle pose a reduced risk of injury to each other and to their handlers), research has shown that they are painful and stressful to calves. Fortunately, the use of pain control medication during these procedures, which is required by the Canadian dairy industry, has been shown to reduce pain.

Get the full story about how dairy cattle are commonly raised in Canada (PDF).

Support a better life for dairy cows

SPCA Certified farmers prove that it’s possible to meet the needs of these complex animals on farms. SPCA Certified standards include stringent requirements, such as:

  • Tie stalls are strictly prohibited
  • All cattle receive bedding for comfort, warmth, and to promote good foot and leg health
  • Use of pain medication when performing painful practices, and some practices are expressly prohibited

SPCA Certified logoFarmers who successfully meet SPCA Certified standards are able to sell their foods with the program’s stamp of approval – the little red barn label. If you or someone you know eats dairy products, you can help dairy cows lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them by finding a SPCA Certified retailer near you.

Understand your food labels

When shopping for humane dairy products, pay careful attention to the labels. Here are a few quick tips for finding the right dairy products:

  1. Green light: best choices for welfare.
    Certifications like SPCA Certified, Certified Organic, and Animal Welfare Approved are your best options for supporting high animal welfare farming practices. These farms have been regularly audited to strict requirements for animal care and welfare.
  2. Yellow light: next best choice.
    Milk or dairy products from grass-fed and pasture-raised cattle suggests that the cows were raised on pasture.
  3. Red light:
    Regular fluid milk is pooled and can come from any farm supplying milk to the brand you purchase. Without a certification or meaningful description of animal care, these labels may not provide better treatment for the animals.

Get the full story on ethical food labels.

Take action for all farm animals

We are always working to build a better future for farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for animals by participating in any of our farm animal welfare campaigns.

You can also learn where we stand on some of the key issues and subscribe to our quarterly FarmSense e-newsletter to stay up-to-date on our initiatives.