What could be more innocent and wholesome than a glassful of creamy, frothy milk? The food of babes, our breakfast staple, the source of so many other good, nutritious things: yoghurt, cheese, cream, butter. And yet, did you know that 700,000 calves per year in Australia are killed at just a few days old in order to produce the milk you put on your muesli or have in your latte each morning? Well, I didn’t, until just recently, and I feel as though the metaphorical rug has been whipped out from under me, leaving me dazed, confused and not a little disgusted. Perhaps I’m supremely naïve to have reached the grand old age of 41 without realising this truth, or perhaps, once again, it’s largely the result of the secrecy that exists around most animal agriculture practices.
In order to produce milk, dairy cows must give birth once a year, and are therefore kept in an almost constant cycle of reproduction. The majority of the female offspring grow up to become dairy cows themselves, but male calves are superfluous to dairy production and, currently, there isn’t much market for the meat of dairy cows as it’s not considered prime beef. With no commercial use to the farmer, these ‘bobby calves’ are taken from their mothers shortly after birth, hand-fed, and, at just five days old, sent to the slaughterhouse. At this age they would normally suckle five to ten times a day and are not up to the rigours of long journeys, yet, amazingly, regulations allow for them to be transported for up to 12 hours and to go without food for up to 30 hours.
I always understood why vegans didn’t consume dairy; any food that is harvested from an animal necessarily involves its subjugation, be it meat or cheese or honey. But aside from having to stand in a stall with clamps on their udders from time to time, I had blithely assumed that the whole process of collecting milk was relatively benign for the cows; after all, they didn’t have to be killed for it. In re-evaluating my food choices this year with regard to meat, I had felt secure in the knowledge that dairy was an ethical source of protein. I had no idea that its production involved the disposal of hundreds of thousands of sentient beings as an unwanted by-product, brought into the world only as a means to an end. I know, of course, that all farmed animals are technically a means to an end, a commodity – and I’m having enough trouble with that concept these days – but something about their very brief lives makes the fate of these bobby calves particularly distasteful to me.*
So, what to do? There are, of course, a variety of milk alternatives made from soy, almonds (and other nuts), rice or oats. I’ve never much liked the taste of soy milk but I’ve had rice milk before as part of a yeast and sugar-free diet and I got used to that. However, I’d rather have my cake and eat it, as with meat consumption, and support those farmers doing the right thing. The Alt.milk directory lists small-scale, family-run dairy farms using ethical and sustainable practices. I know that one brand included here, Country Valley, is sold at two markets close to where I live – Eveleigh Market in Redfern (Saturdays) and Marrickville Market (Sundays) – so that’s a good place to start. There’s no information available on their website about their treatment of bobby calves so I’m going to send them an email to ask. I’ll let you know how I go.
What do you think about this issue? Is it something you were aware of? Have you ever considered giving up dairy because of this? Have you found any good non-animal alternatives? Or any ethically produced dairy products? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.
* As it turns out there are many other welfare problems inherent in dairy production, such as poor health, dehorning and tail-docking, and the live transport of pregnant heifers. You can read more about these issues at the Voiceless and RSPCA links below.
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