Is it OK To Drink Milk & Eat Beef If You Care About The Animals?

Is it OK To Drink Milk & Eat Beef If You Care About The Animals?

(image credit: Kabsik Park)

Is it ok to drink milk and eat beef from an animal welfare perspective? Here’s what I’ll be covering today. Before I get started let me clarify something important:

If you’re uncomfortable with death, or if you disagree with it, then please be a vegetarian and skip this article. Today I’m not going to answer the ethical question of whether animals need to die to become our food. I’ll bypass it and investigate whether animals, cows in particular, are raised and treated well in cattle farms.

There are some people who choose to forego milk and beef because they disagree with raising animals and then killing them for food. Then there are those of us who have come to terms with death but still care about whether animals are treated humanely. This article is about the second type of people.

Also, I’m not going to be discussing the health benefits of milk or beef. I’ll leave that for another article. Today I’ll only be covering how animals are raised and treated.

Sounds good? Let’s go.

Is it OK to drink milk and eat beef? The animal welfare case.

If you’re like most people then I bet you’ve heard horror stories about how poorly cows are treated. I too thought that animals were in trouble. A few years ago I had even become vegetarian to save animals from torture.

Yet as part of the “What We Should Really Be Eating?” series I’ve started to bring all my assumptions under the microscope. Animal welfare is one of them.

So I sat down, and wrote my concerns. I then put in a few days of research into finding the answers. Here are the concerns I’ll be covering:

  • Cows no longer eat natural diets, but instead are artificially fattened and live unhealthy. (sounds plausible but not true)
  • Cows suffer terribly through dehorning and disbudding. (not if done right)
  • Artificial insemination is like raping cows. (that’s a lie)
  • Calves are separated from their moms leading to hard “goodbyes.” (it depends, but calf security comes first)
  • Farmers don’t care about them, their living conditions and hygiene suck. (no because they want to stay in business, and it turns out many of them love their animals)

These are the concerns I’ll be addressing in this article. Let me start out by saying it’s not like that. Cows live much better than what most of us think or have heard through advocacy groups.

“Cows no longer eat natural diets, but instead are artificially fattened and live unhealthy.” Hmm, no.

We’ve all heard that. Cows are made fat so farmers can earn more. Those greedy farmers who make their cows fat! So I got started by researching what do cows eat?

All cows eat grass when they’re little. As they grow their diets may change depending on farming practices and nutritionist recommendations (yes, cows get their own nutritionists!). When you come across a “grass-fed” label this means that at the end of his/her life the cow was eating grass (“grass-finished” is the appropriate term).

For example, here’s what Krista Stauffer from the Farmer’s Wifee told me about their practices:

We have a nutritionist that tests the quality of all our feed and comes up with the best ration for our cows to remain healthy. I think a common misconception is cows are just eating grain on dairy farms.

Our cows are fed alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage (fermented feed), barley, some wheat when available and corn/corn distillers. The best ration for our cows based on breed, size, weight, amount of milk they are averaging is formulated and mixed together. The majority of what they are fed is alfalfa, not corn.

But many of us believe that grass is more natural for cows, right? Is this true?

“Grain is fine as long as there’s plenty of roughage,” said Temple Grandin, an animal welfare expert to the Washington Post. It comes down to the pH in animal’s system that needs balancing.

I talked with Jude Capper, an animal scientist and adjunct professor at the Washington State University about this:

Grain is like candy for cows in that they will almost always choose it over hay or pasture. However, that doesn’t mean it has the nutritional disadvantages that we would associate with a candy-based diet in humans!

“Natural” is such a loaded word, and one that I frankly think has no place in the cattle feed discussion. There is almost nothing that we do as humans that is “natural” (using iPads? Driving cars? Having surgery or medication when sick? Eating cooked fermented food?) and yet the perception that cows should be eating grass simply because it’s “natural” still persists.

Cattle should be fed a balanced diet which fulfils their nutrient requirements and does not cause health problems. Yes, it’s possible to have health issues from a corn-based diet that is not adequately balanced, but the same is possible from a forage or pasture-based diet. There is no ideal cattle feed and cattle do a fabulous job in terms of converting many crops, feeds and by-products from human food and fibre production into milk and meat.

Notice how cows prefer grain over grass (I had no idea, and was surprised to discover that!). Also, notice the word she used: “balanced” diet. It’s not like one diet is better than the other. It’s that cows need balance. Just like us 🙂

But what about hormones that “artificially” fatten cows? Isn’t this a very unnatural thing to do?

First, let’s discuss what these hormones are. RPCA, an independent, non-government community dedicated to animal care states:

The human body naturally produces steroid sex hormones to regulate reproduction and growth. The same occurs in cattle. Oestrogenic hormones are produced in females and androgenic hormones in males, but there is some production of oestrogens in males and androgenic hormones in females as well. Naturally-occurring steroid hormones are also found in foods, including eggs, cabbages, milk and safflower oil.

In cattle, natural and synthetic hormones may be implanted under the skin in the middle third of the back of the animal’s ear to improve daily weight gain, feed conversion and carcass quality.

These technologies are benefiting animal production as well as the environment. In particular, according to animal scientist Jude Capper, if we removed implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:

  • More water, equivalent to supplying 4.5 million U.S. households annually (457 billion gallons)
  • More land, equivalent to the area of South Carolina (31.6 thousand sq-miles)
  • More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 45 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,703 billion BTU)

But what about how the cows feel? We’re not sure how these hormones impact how cows feel, or their stress level. Unlike health measures, stress is hard to measure and the cow cannot exactly talk. Hormones may be interfering with other hormones, but again we’re not sure what’s going on.

Still there’s a lot of negative publicity and political pressure. In fact, the animal-advocacy group RPCA states:

The European Union banned the use of HGP in meat production in 1988 due to concerns about the possible link between cancer and HGP residues in meat for human consumption. There was political pressure within the EU to impose a ban despite the actual risks to human health being difficult to quantify and needing further research. In 1998, the World Trade Organization found that the ban was not supported by science and was inconsistent with the EU’s WTO obligations. Nonetheless, the EU ban remains in place.

So yes, further research is needed, but don’t fall for the horrifying arguments made against implants. Always ask – are those arguments supported by solid science or are they told just because they sound plausible?

“Dehorning is extremely traumatic and should be banned.” No, it shouldn’t.

Did you know most cattle breeds grow horns naturally? The reason you seldom see them is that those horns are removed usually very early in a calf’s life.

But why would we do that? Well, it’s mostly for safety. Reducing the risk of injuries both for other cows and towards farm workers, horses, and dogs.

I’ve actually come to see dehorning as similar to removing wisdom teeth in humans. Most dentists recommend removing our wisdom teeth for “safety” as well. And many of us have heeded the advice.

And yes, to an extent animal advocates are right. Dehorning can be painful procedure, if not done right.

I mean imagine removing your wisdom teeth without painkillers or anesthesia. That’d be torture. That’d be wisdom teeth removal not done right. Same is true for dehorning. So if you ever see this happening without painkillers and a local anesthetic, or without anti-inflammatory drugs given later, report it (scroll down for more resources on that)!

The latest tech advancement is disbudding. This includes applying a dehorning paste on a young heifer’s head. This paste does not let the horns grow. As simple as that!

Another way to work with that is to use hornless or “polled” cattle who don’t grow horns to start with!

“Artificial Insemination is like raping cows.” Oh, please, give me a break.

Let’s take it from Dairy Carrie:

A cow cycles about every 21 days. These “episodes” feature her “riding” other cows and allowing cows to ride her. When a cow is in heat they don’t care if the animal they are jumping on or being ridden by is devoid of the correct plumbing.

I mean think about what happens to your knee when your dog is “in heat.” Now imagine what happens when a cow that is multiple times bigger than a dog is in heat! It’s when the cow is in heat that the artificial insemination procedure happens.

But make no mistake: Artificial Insemination is no fun (for the technician). It’s gross. Super-gross. I cannot speak for all technicians, but I saw the procedure on video and that’s how I felt!

A technician inserts his arm in a cows rectum while injecting the bull’s sperm in her vagina. The rectum part is the gross thing. I mean have you ever seen a cow poo?

If you haven’t I recommend you don’t look it up unless you’re a special type of weirdo (and if you are, please stay away).

Ok, back to artificial insemination and the rape claim.

Opponents claim that the cow is raped. Would you like to have an arm in your, hmmm, rectum, they’ll ask?

A fair question that pushes quite a few emotional buttons.

But let’s clarify. There’s no sexual component in artificial insemination. It’s not like the technician performs the procedure for his/her arousal.

So, by definition, it can’t be rape. But what about torture? It could be torture right?

Yes, it could be, if the cow were in pain through the procedure.

I have no experience with cows so I set out to find out, as best as I could since cows can’t actually speak, how does a cow perceive the whole process?

My question was: Is a cow uncomfortable or is she in actual pain?

I watched AI vids and the cows seemed surprised at first, but they didn’t care one bit later. Dairy Carrie confirmed my observation:

“I’ve had cows who would stand completely unrestrained for breeding. If it caused much discomfort they wouldn’t do that.”

So yes, even as a woman, going for a PAP test is not super comfortable, it’s a medical procedure after all. But it’s not painful. I suspect it must be similar for cows and artificial insemination.

“Painful Separation from Mom?” Possible.

The Pioneer Woman said that calves born in Spring stay by their mothers’ sides until about eight months of age. This is actually quite common, however separation can happen at earlier ages too. According to RPCA, the animal advocacy group:

The least stressful method [of separation] is ‘yard weaning’ where calves are given good-quality feed in a yard, while their mothers graze in an adjoining paddock and, a few days later, are moved further away. It is labour intensive but calves benefit by getting used to yards, people, handling and group socialisation. In addition, being in yards makes it easy to do health checks, vaccinations and parasite control.

When a calf is separated from his/her mom depends quite bit on when it’s born and on the farm setup. For example, here’s what Krista said:

During the winter months we remove the calf immediately. Our calving area is in a covered barn but it is not enclosed. Our winters can be pretty harsh and protecting that calf is our number one priority. The cow is milked, the first couple milkings, is colostrum and we feed the calf with a bottle all the colostrum the cow provides. For the first month of life, the calf is in our calf barn where it has its own pen.

We use shavings for bedding and the calves are fed twice a day. It is important for us to have the calves in our barn for us to monitor to make sure it is healthy. After the first month it is transitioned to group housing that has an indoor/outdoor area.

Calf protection comes first! It’s very painful for farmers to lose calves. “Cow and calf losses are the hardest part of our business, not just because it hurts financially, but because it takes an emotional toll as well”, writes the Pioneer Woman.

But what about Veal Farms?

I’m actually impressed with the technology used to keep calves happy and healthy. Temperature control, tags that measure whether each calf drinks enough milk. Watch this video of calves arriving at a farm and getting set up at their new environment. Not bad, huh?

Exhausted, injured cows arrive at the slaughterhouse…Please spare me the made-up drama.

I read all sorts of claims. Injured cows that have collapsed from heat during transport arrive at the slaughterhouse, blah blah.

If this happens, then it’s definitely bad practice and deserves to be reported. But this is not the norm. So I looked up how exactly cattle slaughtering takes place. I was surprised at how instant death is. Check  this video out:

Don’t let the body trembling fool you. This is normal. The cow is dead after the hit, yet the body is jerking. It happens (and if you’ve ever seen a headless chicken run then you definitely know what I’m talking about).

Here’s the thing. We’ll all gonna die some day. Many of us will not pass as instantly as these cows. Many of us will be bedridden. Others may suffer terrible accidents and suffer for days before we leave this world.

Not the case for cows. One hit with the bolt gun in the forehead at the right place, and bam, it’s over. Just like that. I believe the only better way to die might be in your sleep. Yet, I can only assume that, it’s not as if I have direct experience (still alive, not writing this from the Other Side).

Farmers don’t just care about their “girls,” they also have a financial incentive to do so.

I get that if you’ve previously heard a lot of horror stories you may find it hard to believe that farmers actually care and love their cows. But it’s easy to understand that farmers have a financial incentive to keep their cows happy.

For example, mastitis has a huge impact on both cow longevity and productivity, and costs the US dairy industry $1.7-2.0 billion per year. Cows getting sick from lack of hygiene cost farmers, as they need to spend money on antibiotics, and since antibiotic residue is not allowed in milk this by default means a cow’s milk will be thrown away.

So the farmer won’t just have to bear the cost of antibiotics, vet visits, etc, but will also lose money by losing profit.

Not to mention that stressed cows produce less milk. As Krista, the Farmer’s Wifee said:

From an economic standpoint when talking about dairy cows. They HAVE to be comfortable and be in a stress-free environment to produce milk. If a cow is sick or stressed it affects her milk production. If a cow gets sick and she has to be treated with antibiotics, which is milk down the drain. We have slim margins and every drop counts. It makes no sense for a farmer to abuse a dairy cow.

But do all farms follow regulations? Here’s where inspections fit in.

State inspection, federal inspection, National Dairy FARM inspection, inspections for nutrient management – yup they’re quite a lot. An inspector may drop by, at any farm, without notice, and uninvited. They’ll check for cleanliness of facility, milking equipment, medicines, antibiotics, they’ll even look for cobwebs.

“It is important to note that at any point an inspector can fail you, which means no shipping milk, which means dumping your milk down the drain. If you fail a federal inspection, it will downgrade not just your farm but your neighbors,” says Krista from The Farmer’s Wifee.

But don’t let the government do all the work. You can help too!

Sure cruel practices like branding have been abandoned. But you never know when you’ll discover something that needs to be reported. Krista, gives us advice:

I honestly do not know how a farmer could abuse their animals. How can parents abuse their children? These are questions I myself ask. It is infuriating. From what I have observed from abuse videos that have been released by animal rights groups. When abuse is actually happening, it tends to be an employee. Not saying that farmers never abuse or that a farmer has never done this. This is just something I have observed.

This is one of the reasons I am happy to see new programs like the “National Dairy FARM Program” and the “See it. Stop it.” Program. The NDFP is going through the entire operation. It is ensuring that there are Standard Operating Procedures for things like newborn calf care, milking procedures, animal handling, etc. Even more so, it is providing the resources farmers might need to get these into place.

The “See it. Stop it” is basically an agreement between the farmer and the employee. It is the farmer saying that if you see abuse you need to report it immediately. It is both parties saying that abuse will not be tolerated on the farm. It is opening up the line of communication, providing employees with the information for the proper authorities to report concerns and letting the employees know that abuse is not okay and you will not be penalized by reporting.

Should you trust animal welfare labels?

I started out assuming that animal welfare labels must indeed ensure that animals have better treatment. I even briefly mentioned it in the Organic Milk vs. Regular Milk article. However, for the purpose of this article I actually picked a label and read their guidelines. In particular, I read through the Animal Welfare Approved guidelines.

And I found that their recommendations are not science-based. They’re based on what they “think” should be done. So it’s opinion-based, not fact-based.

For example, one of the guidelines is to avoid GMO food. Even though the science behind GMOs is solid, GMOs are safe, and no incidents have been caused by genetically engineered feed, they suggest avoiding GMO feed as an “animal welfare” practice.

Well, that just killed their credibility. Totally.

Now maybe there are other animal welfare labels that actually follow science. I only looked into one, so if you have a recommendation, then please leave a comment and let everyone know.

Is it OK To Drink Milk & Eat Beef If You Care About Animals? The Verdict.

My answer is hands-down yes. Can we do better? Yes by conducting more research and understanding the welfare implications of multiple practices including transport, hormones, etc. Still, I’d say we’re already doing pretty well, don’t you think? At least I feel I can now enjoy my milk or yoghurt without having second “guilty conscience” thoughts about how the animals were treated.

So now it’s your turn. Leave a comment and let me know: Do you have second thoughts about drinking milk or eating beef? Or do you have a “good conscience” while doing so?