Everyone knows dairy cows make milk, but have you ever wondered what happens to them when they get old? Some parts of the dairy industry can be quite cruel, and unfortunately, this aspect of dairy farming is one such part.
Dairy cows must be kept perpetually pregnant for them to produce milk all year round. When dairy cows become too old to get pregnant or when their milk production starts to dwindle, they are often sold to be slaughtered and used for ground meat.
Although this aspect of dairy farming is quite cruel, I still think it’s important to know where our food comes from. In this article, we’ll look at what happens to dairy cows once they are no longer useful for milk production.
What Happens to Dairy Cows as they Age?
As with all animals, a cow’s fertility decreases as they age. As a cow’s age increases, fertility and milk production decrease, and propensity for injury increases.
Let’s take a look at exactly what happens to dairy cows as they age, and how it affects the farmers:
1. Older Dairy Cows Produce Less Milk
As cows age, they produce less milk. When milk production begins to slow down, farmers have to make a decision about the profitability of each cow.
According to a 2020 paper in the scientific journal ‘Animal’, dairy calves had an average lifespan of only 35 months, much shorter than the 20 year lifespan a cow could expect in the wild.
2.Older Dairy Cows Become Less Fertile
As dairy cows age, they become less fertile. On average, dairy cows in the US go through two or three lactation cycles (pregnancies) before they are sold.
A report in 2004, published in the Livestock Production Science Journal looked at the correlation between high yielding dairy cows and fertility.
It was found that an increase in milk yields was inversely correlated with fertility. Essentially what this means is that cows who produce more milk are more likely to have fertility or reproductive problems.
This is a growing problem for modern dairy farmers, since the dairy cows of today have been highly selected for milk production, often producing up to 28 litres (over 6 gallons) of milk every day.
Since dairy cows must be pregnant in order for them to produce milk, when a cow can no longer become pregnant the farmer can no longer profit from her.
Read More: When Can Dairy Cows No Longer Get Pregnant?
3. Older Dairy Cows are More Likely to Suffer Injuries
Older cattle are more likely to suffer from injuries. The two most common injuries for dairy cattle are hoof injuries such as laminitis or footrot, and udder injuries like mastitis.
Both foot injuries and udder injuries make it difficult and painful for the cow to move, and legally prevent the farmer from selling milk from the afflicted cow, so as not to infect the food supply with bacteria.
Unfortunately, once a cow becomes lame or unable to produce milk it’s often not economically viable for a farmer to nurse her back to health.
What do Farmers Do To Old Dairy Cows?
It would be nice to think that cows who reach an age where they are no longer profitable are allowed to live out the rest of their lives on the farm in peace, but unfortunately it’s not the case.
Farms exist solely to create food and earn a profit, and once a cow’s dairy production starts to dwindle, the farmer preemptively sells them off for meat. This process is known as salvage, and is a way for the farmer to maximize the profit for each cow by minimizing losses and maximizing the total value of the cow over the course of their life.
In some situations where a cow becomes unable to produce milk due to injury or infection, the cow can not be sold for meat because there are very strict regulations preventing diseased or injured animals from entering the human food supply.
Since dairy meat is usually worth less than meat raised for beef, cows who suffer injuries and are unable to produce milk are sometimes culled instead.
Do People Eat Old Dairy Cows?
Farmers usually sell old dairy cows for meat, although the meat is of lower quality than meat specifically raised for beef.
This is because dairy cattle breeds tend to be leaner than beef breeds, and dairy cows tend to be older when they are slaughtered, which further degrades the quality of the meat.
Dairy meat tends to be used for secondary meat products such as ground beef, burgers, hotdogs, and dog food rather than prime cuts of beef you might get from a beef cow.
Read More: Can You Eat Dairy Cows?
To sum up, dairy cows experience a number of changes as they age, including lower fertility, a decrease in milk production, and an increased likelihood of suffering an injury.
Each of these changes negatively impact the bottom line of a farmer and mean that dairy cows often become an economic liability as they age.
Dairy cows tend to be sold on for meat at only 35 months of age, much sooner than they would live in the wild, and several years before they stop being fertile altogether.
This process of selling dairy cows as soon as their production starts to dwindle is known as salvage, and is a way for the farmer to minimize the risk of the cow becoming completely worthless due to injury, and maximize their profits by getting a higher price for the cow’s meat, in exchange for a few fewer years of dairy production.
Since beef from dairy cows tends to be lower quality than beef breeds, their meat is often used to produce burgers, minced beef and sausages, and not steaks or other prime cuts.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.