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How Dairy Cows Are Treated on Factory Farms

cow in a barn


Although we may like to imagine dairy cows grazing on rolling green pastures, most of the nine million dairy cows in the United States typically are confined either indoors or in dirt feedlots without a blade of grass. And all too often, they endure cruel and unnecessary mistreatment.

One lesser-known abuse in the dairy industry is tail docking—a routine practice that the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes. Tail docking is the partial amputation of up to two-thirds of the tail, typically performed without any painkiller whatsoever. It's not only painful for the cow, but it renders her much more defenseless against flies, which can be a problem on factory farms, especially in summer months.

In addition to breeding dairy cows for astronomical milk production rates, producers often inject them with hormones to further increase their yield. Dairy cows are milked for ten months a year (including seven of their nine months of pregnancy) until their they're considered "spent," at which point they're slaughtered, often around four years of age.


Like humans and all other mammals, cows produce milk for their offspring when they've given birth. The dairy industry must keep cows in a state of nearly constant pregnancy, and half the calves are male, meaning they're of little economic value. Male calves are often separated from their mothers within their first day, and many of them are then shipped to a veal producer where they spend their entire four- to five-month lives chained or tethered by the neck in individual crates so small they can't even turn around. 

Here's a quick look at some of our work to reduce suffering of dairy cows and calves.

State Laws

In 2009, The HSUS worked successfully to pass a law in California—the top dairy-producing state—banning tail docking. The HSUS has also helped pass laws to ban veal crates in several states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Michigan.


HSUS investigations have revealed "downed" dairy cows—those too sick or injured to walk—who endure terrible abuses at auction yards and during slaughter. Our 2008 Hallmark slaughter plant investigation led to the largest meat recall ever, criminal convictions for animal cruelty, and a new federal regulation banning the slaughter of adult downed cows.

Our undercover investigation of a dairy calf ("bob veal") slaughter plant shined a bright light onto the abuses that male dairy calves can endure.


After working with The HSUS, retailers such as Wolfgang Puck no longer serve veal from calves confined in crates. Strauss Veal, the largest U.S. veal producer, and Marcho Farms have converted their veal operations to crate-free housing, a step in the right direction.


The HSUS offers materials that make it easier for consumers to avoid supporting veal crates, as well as make more informed dietary choices.  Some include our guide to meat and dairy labels, our list of dairy-free products, and dozens of delicious, humane recipes.

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