Surprising Facts About the Dairy Industry

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Some of the most common questions I still get about veganism are about dairy – namely, why cut something out of your lifestyle if the animal isn’t killed to make it, like in the case of meat or silk?

The truth is that just because the killing doesn’t happen up front, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen – and often, that prolonged process can mean more suffering and harm in the long run. I would argue that in the scheme of things, the dairy industry is one of the most horrific industries in the world, based on the widespread suffering it causes.

It’s estimated that over 9 million cows are trapped in the cycle of the dairy industry every year, with about 2.5 million of them eventually being slaughtered for meat. Not only is this inherently not vegan, but it is even more distressing given the sweet, gentle nature of dairy cows in general.

Table of ContentsMeet Your MilkThe “Happy Cow” MythVeal: The Dark(er) Side of DairyWhat About Humanely Raised Milk?Humans and Cows’ MilkBut How Am I Supposed to Get Calcium?Let’s Stop For a Happy Moment 🙂Plant-Based AlternativesThe Dairy-Free Life

Meet Your Milk

While dairy cows might be slow-moving, new research shows that they are among the top smartest animals on earth, having high cognitive, executive function, and decision-making abilities.

They have been solving problems for a long, long time and, like us, are capable of thinking critically and making decisions based on prior experiences.

They have great spatial memory and have the ability to recognize faces.

In addition to higher-than-previously-thought intelligence, dairy cows are also extremely sensitive and emotional creatures. Within their herds, they develop strong bonds, and the connection between mother and calf is lifelong.

Mother Cow and Calf

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When they lose another cow with whom they have a close emotional bond, they experience deep grief, often bellowing for hours.

Perhaps it is easier to exploit another sentient creature if one believes they are stupid or slow-witted – maybe if people knew more about the true nature of cows, they wouldn’t be so quick to consume their flesh or secretions.

Though, advertisers are beginning to see that people do care about the treatment and well-being of dairy cows, despite whether or not people believe that they are, emotionally or intellectually, on the same level as the beloved family dog.

The “Happy Cow” Myth

The dairy industry realizes that people are more and more interested in where their food comes from and the treatment of dairy cows, and you can see this understanding in the way dairy companies advertise.

There are always a few constant themes in advertisements for milk and cheese – beautiful blue skies, rolling green pastures, and cows basking in the sunshine.

Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, dairy cows lead short, miserable lives, going through repeated impregnations, being separated from their calves, and often suffering from illness and infection.

Despite having a natural lifespan of nearly 25 years, most dairy cows are sent to slaughter when they are barely five years old, at which point they are “spent”, or unable to continue to produce milk.

In my days as a lactovegetarian, I justified my consumption of milk and dairy products because the cows were not killed for the milk the way meat animals were.

However, it became clear that death was also a link in the chain for dairy, just further down the line – and, as it turned out, for more than just the cow.

Veal: The Dark(er) Side of Dairy

The final straw that got me off dairy was when understood the link between milk products and something I avoided on principle, even in my days as an omnivore – the production of veal.

On the surface, the two industries don’t appear to be linked, but it is in both industries’ best interests to keep that connection quiet. Upon further investigation, though, it becomes clear that the veal industry cannot exist without the dairy industry.

Cows, like people, are mammals – so cows, like people, only create milk when they are feeding their young. Contrary to popular belief, cows don’t continually lactate for their whole lives, putting to bed the myth that humans are somehow doing them a favor by milking them.

Starting when they are just two years old, dairy cows are forcibly impregnated, and milk is collected during the subsequent pregnancy, which puts an incredible amount of strain on her body, which must now nurture the calf and create enough milk for the system.

After nine months, her cow is born, and if she were allowed to raise it naturally, the calf would have access to its mother’s nutritious milk. However, because the milk has been marked for human consumption, the calf is not allowed to drink it. Mother and baby are separated, which causes incredible amounts of distress to both cow and calf.

The cow will be forced to birth more calves, which she will always be separated from, for her entire life until she is slaughtered.

If her calf is female, she will be introduced into the cycle of the dairy industry, sharing the same inevitable fate as her mother. The only worse possible fate will occur if the calf is born a male.

In the dairy industry, males are considered “useless” – unable to produce milk, their bodies have little to offer the business model. A select few will be kept for breeding, but on the whole, male calves of dairy cows are destined to become veal.

Veal Crates

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The life of a veal calf consists of 16 weeks of misery and suffering. Chained by their necks to restrict movement, they spend 24 hours per day in a wooden crate so small that they cannot turn around.

The crates are designed to keep the male calves immobile, to create the “luxurious” texture that is characteristic of veal.

In addition to nearly 100% immobility, the calves are fed an unnatural, extremely low-iron diet that causes malnutrition and gastric distress.

After months in these conditions, the calves are crowded onto trucks and transported to slaughterhouses. What amounts to a few moments of gustatory pleasure for humans is a lifetime in hell for these babies, and every dollar spent on dairy products indirectly supports this industry of torture.

What About Humanely Raised Milk?

When I first learned about the horrors of the dairy industry, it floored me – I felt cheated and lied to. How had I gone an entire lifetime unknowingly contributing to something I openly decried?

I felt that this couldn’t be universal – there had to be some gentler option for dairy products. I spent weeks searching for a humane alternative to factory-farmed milk.

My findings pointed toward a single conclusion: there is no such thing as humane milk.

Despite any and all attempts to raise dairy cows in “humane” conditions (which doesn’t often happen, as this cuts into profits), the fact remains that cow’s milk cannot be available for human consumption without the introduction of a calf.

Even in the best, most humane conditions possible, the strong, naturally lifelong bond between cow and calf will be severed so that her milk can be sold to humans instead of being used to nourish her baby.

This all indirectly brings about suffering – for the cow, who endures separation after separation from her children, painful infections, and a life hooked up to a machine, and for her calf, who is either forced into the same fate or will lead a short, hellish life as a veal calf.

It is because of these factors, the unavoidable consequences of dairy, that make plant-based milk the only kind of humane milk.

Humans and Cows’ Milk

The nature of veganism is to avoid not only animal flesh and secretions but also to put an end to animal exploitation, which is the use of animals for the benefit of humans. It is for this reason that, in addition to abstaining from meat, leather, and the circus, vegans by definition do not consume dairy products.

Human beings have no right to cows’ milk, as cows make milk to feed their calves, not people. The cow’s milk, especially the super-nutritious colostrum that is produced immediately after birth, is nature’s formula for nourishing baby cows – they need it as their primary source of nutrition to build healthy cow bodies.

On the flip side, humans do not need milk – especially that of another species – to survive into adulthood.  In fact, some 30 to 50 million Americans cannot digest the sugars in milk in the first place, with 75 percent of African Americans and 90 percent of Asian-Americans being lactose intolerant.

Depriving calves of essential nutrition and a bond (or any contact) with their mothers so we can enjoy a few minutes’ taste of dairy products is the ultimate exploitation of animals, and entitlement to their bodies.

Humans simply don’t need – and are, from a health perspective, better off without, dairy products, on top of the fact that there are just so many plant-based, cruelty-free alternatives available in stores today.

But How Am I Supposed to Get Calcium?

Maybe you don’t consume dairy strictly for the taste – it is also touted as a good source of calcium. The dairy industry would have you believe that cow’s milk has the monopoly on calcium and that without it, you’re risking brittle bones and osteoporosis.

However, the cows aren’t just magically making calcium on their own – they’re consuming it through plants!

Vegans who want to make sure they’re getting their recommended daily amount of calcium can cut out the “middle man” by eating plants, just like the cow herself.

And if you’re eating a varied diet rich in vegetables and whole grains, chances are, you’re already meeting your daily calcium goals.

Foods like tofu, Chinese cabbage, and broccoli are all great sources of plant-based calcium, and they are absorbed just as effectively as calcium from milk and cheese. 

Let’s Stop For a Happy Moment 🙂

Plant-Based Alternatives

So you’ve decided to stop contributing to the veal industry, and you understand that your stir-fried broccoli will help you reach your daily calcium goals.

But what about the practical applications – what will you pour over your vegan cereal? How will you lighten your coffee? For the love of god, what about ice cream?

The great part about being vegan in today’s society is that there are more plant-based alternatives to dairy products available than one person can try.

It’s not just limited to milk either – vegans can enjoy wedges of cheese, luxurious whipped cream, and French vanilla coffee creamer, all without even the mere mention of a cow.

Basic Plant-Based Milk

Gone are the days of being limited to plain, beany soy milk – now there are entire refrigerated sections dedicated only to non-dairy milk.

Non Dairy Milks

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The milk alternative market is booming, with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 13.3%.

Whether for health, ethical, or environmental reasons, people can’t get enough of plant-based milk, and producers are starting to take notice.

In addition to the original soy, you can find non-dairy milk made from almond, coconut, cashew, rice, oat, hemp, and flax, to name just a few options.

Many of these brands come in fun flavors like vanilla and dark chocolate in addition to plain, and offer unsweetened varieties so you can control how much sugar you’re consuming.

You can use plant-based milk cup-for-cup in baking, and they are delicious poured over cereal or used in smoothies.

Coffee Creamer

Thick, creamy, luscious vanilla coffee creamer was one of my favorite luxuries before going vegan. One of the best parts of my plant-based lifestyle is not having to give any of that up!

While you can pour some plain plant-based milk into your morning Joe, companies like nutPods  and So Delicious offer cartons of thick coffee creamer in flavors like vanilla and hazelnut.

Related Article: Top 4 Vegan Coffee Creamer Alternatives

Ice Cream

Life is too short to live without ice cream, and thanks to all the great non-dairy options out there, you don’t have to go without just because you want to eliminate suffering in the world.

You can find storebought vegan ice cream in just about every flavor, made with just about every possible plant out there, from cashews to coconuts.

Even the ice cream giant Ben and Jerry’s has released four completely vegan flavors made from almond milk, so you don’t have to miss out when the family goes out for a summertime cone.

The Coffee Caramel Fudge flavor is dense, creamy, and my personal favorite.


For some people, cheese is the final hurdle that makes them hesitant to go vegan.

Luckily, Daiya makes delicious cheese shreds and slices that are perfect for topping pizza, sandwiches, and tacos – or just for snacking straight out of the bag.

Daiya’s shreds melt beautifully, just like dairy cheese, and comes in tasty flavors like cheddar and mozzarella.


I love to bake, and while you can sub out butter for oil or pureed soft fruit, sometimes you want that texture and mouthfeel that comes from butter.

Earth Balance butter is soft, spreadable, and nearly identical to butter, and tastes great in baked goods or on top of toast and baked potatoes. Earth Balance comes in a few varieties, including organic and soy-free.

The Dairy-Free Life

The truth about dairy can be a lot to stomach and, coupled with the difficulty of cutting it completely out of your diet; it can make going vegan a lot more intimidating than it needs to be.

I remember that when I first found out the facts about the dairy industry, even though I felt good about cutting it out of my life, I felt sad that I had contributed to it for so long, never knowing what I was supporting.

It’s important to remember that, ultimately, knowledge empowers us to vote with our dollars, and speak for what is right with the choices we make in our purchases.

By choosing dairy-free versions of your grocery staples, you are taking a stand for cows and calves, and showing the industry that their practices are not acceptable.

To make this process easier, there are so many products and recipes available that don’t require a single drop of dairy to enjoy.

From cheese to whipped cream to ice cream, it’s simple and convenient to replace your dairy staples with versions that are kind to animals, and to the planet.

The best part of veganism is that your values and your lifestyle align, and you can still enjoy all the small pleasures of life while still allowing the animals to enjoy theirs.

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