The total number of dairy cattle (cattle raised for milk) in Canada is estimated at 1.4 million animals. There are over 9,000 dairy farms across Canada.
Life of a dairy cow
In order for a cow to produce milk, she must give birth to a calf (calving). At around 15 months of age, she will be impregnated for the first time. She is pregnant for nine months, so she will have her first calf around two years of age. After birth, the calf is fed her colostrum (nutrient-rich milk produced at the beginning of lactation that is important for the calf’s heath). The cow is usually separated from her calf a few hours after birth.
Now that the cow is lactating she will become part of the milking herd where she will produce milk for around 10 months. Two months into milking (after calving) she will be impregnated again. The farmer stops her milk production for a two month dry period before the birth of her next calf. The cycle then repeats.
On average, Canadian dairy cows will give birth to two to four calves. After this – when their milk production starts to decline – dairy cows are slaughtered and their meat is used for beef, usually ground beef or lower quality beef. Canadian dairy cows are sent to slaughter by five to six years of age, which is much younger than their natural life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. Female calves born on the farm are kept and raised to replace the older cows sent to slaughter. Male calves that are born are either raised for veal or beef. A few male calves may be kept for breeding.
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 (traditionally white with black markings), which makes up almost 94 per cent of the Canadian dairy herd.
Get the full story about how dairy cattle are commonly raised in Canada (PDF).
What are the main concerns for dairy cow welfare?
Tie-stall housing, where cattle are tied and contained within individual stalls, are still common in Canada. Cows housed in tie-stalls get very little opportunity to exercise, socialize, groom, graze or perform many other important natural behaviours.
- Cow-calf separation
The separation of the calf and the cow hours after birth can cause distress.
- Painful procedures
Disbudding (horn growth prevention) or dehorning (horn removal) of young dairy calves is routine on Canadian dairy farms. While there are advantages to these procedures (hornless cattle pose a reduced risk of injury to each other and to their caregivers), research has shown that it is painful and stressful to calves. Fortunately, the use of pain control medication is required during these procedures, and has been shown to reduce pain. More information on pain control requirements during these procedures can be found in the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle.
Mastitis is an inflammation of the udder caused by a bacterial infection if proper hygiene and management aren’t followed. Bacteria enter the udder through the teat openings. It can be a very painful infection for dairy cattle to endure, and can cause further issues.
Lameness is a serious animal welfare issue causing pain and distress to dairy cattle. It results in decreased mobility, lower feed intake, decreased milk production, poorer reproductive success and even early culling (slaughter). The environment that a dairy cow lives in is largely to blame for lameness. Risk factors include poorly designed stalls without proper bedding for comfort, having to stand for long periods of time on hard surfaces, and injuries from slipping on wet floors.
Support a better life for dairy cows
By choosing higher-welfare food products, you can help dairy cows lead better lives and support farmers who care for them. Learn more about shopping for higher-welfare dairy products.
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 taking action.
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