In 2019, I moved from Estonia to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa. I found my first job on a dairy farm as backpackers have to meet regional work requirements in order to extend their stay in the country.

I felt uneasy before starting work on the dairy farm due to my concerns about animal welfare. By that time, I had given up meat, but I believed that dairy production was not that bad. Yet I was not prepared for what I was about to witness on a commercial dairy farm.

Throughout my time on the farm, I realised how animal abuse is an inherent part of dairy farming. On all dairy farms, female animals are impregnated almost yearly. Even though cows can live up to 20 years, most dairy cows are sent to slaughter at around age 6. Young animals are taken away from their mothers as early as right after birth, which causes tremendous distress to the cow as well as the calf. While female calves are reared for future dairy production, male or bobby calves are mostly sent to the slaughterhouse as they are considered a waste product. Besides what is considered normal in dairy production, I witnessed numerous accounts of neglect and abuse–cows physically attacked, inexperienced workers causing animal deaths and disabled animals left to perish.

Sending tens of thousands litres of water down the drain every day, just to clean up the yard after milking, made me realise how harmful the industry is to the environment. Receiving wages below the legal minimum and witnessing how workers’ rights were violated, I learned how animal agriculture not only exploits animals, but oftentimes even people.

While the focus of this project is on animals, I also consider environmental and socioeconomic issues.

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Cow giving birth on a commercial dairy farm

Cow in labour

For milk production, cows first have to give birth. Just like humans, the gestation length for cows is around 9 months. In commercial dairy farming, springers are separated from the rest of the herd about 2 months before the expected due date. A female about to calve seeks out isolation and dry conditions. Like humans and other mammals, labour is often painful. Dairy cattle are especially prone to birth complications due to their larger frames. Calving complications lead to negative effects in health, production and fertility in the mother as well as the calf. It’s necessary that a properly trained worker or a vet checks on an animal in labour.

This image shows a cow with relatively easy calving, the mother was relaxed and the calf was pushed out of the birth canal in less than half an hour. Unfortunately, female animals on our farm had to give birth in a wet and muddy paddock.

Cow licking newborn on a commercial dairy farm

Mother licking her calf

After birth, cows spend several hours licking their newborn calves. Mother’s licking will stimulate the newborn’s bodily functions such as breathing, urinating, and circulation. The taste of birth fluids reinforces cow’s maternal behaviour and bonding with her calf. In this process, the mother also learns to recognize the smell of her newborn.

While most cows are very motherly and often adopt other calves, some animals will reject their offspring. This is more likely with heifers. Cows tend to reject their calves if the birth was traumatic, painful or via C-section, as these can lead to hormonal imbalances. Mothers also tend to react more to active newborns compared to calves who are weak or dead.

Newborn calves being separated from their mothers on a dairy farm

Calves being separated from their mothers

Bonding time between the cow and the calf is cut short, because mother’s milk needs to be gathered for human consumption instead. On most commercial dairy farms, calves are separated from their mothers within hours. The abrupt separation of the pair negatively affects the calf as well as the mother and both can cry up to days. Calves miss out on suckling, which increases the risk of infectious disease and mortality. Furthermore, the calves don’t get the opportunity to learn necessary activities from their mothers, which otherwise would lead to improved milk production and maternal behaviour in the future.

Dead male calf on a commercial dairy farm

Dead calf among male calves

Every two weeks a truck would come to pick up the bobby calves. The animals are sent to slaughter at maximum two weeks of age. Bobby calves are slaughtered because they will not be producing milk and rearing the calves for meat is deemed too expensive. Some dairy farms do the killing themselves, but this farm sold the calves to a contractor for $40 per animal. Some bobby calves might be picked up by a farmer or a hobbyist looking to buy a bull or produce veal, but for most calves, being born as a male is a death sentence in the dairy industry. These newborns end up as the “real veal” in restaurants, dog food, Parmesan cheese, etc.

Bobby calves are also deprived of heavy medication, since their bodies are almost immediately consumed after birth. Hence many of these boys live short and painful lives like the dead calf on this image. About 450,000 bobby calves are slaughtered in Australia each year.

Disabled male calf waiting to be sent to slaughter

Disabled bobby calf

Since most male calves will be consumed shortly after their birth, it is illegal to treat them with medicine. Hence, many bobby calves live short and painful lives.

This bobby calf was disabled–he could not move and the green paint on his head indicates that he could not even drink milk. While good practice would have been to end the suffering of this calf, he was sent off to the slaughterhouse.

Herd of dairy cows on their way to milking

The herd walking to the dairy

Modern dairy farmers commonly use cars, buggies or motorcycles to move the animals between the dairy and pastures.

Dairy calf with a broken leg, before slaughter

Calf with a broken leg

A serious leg injury is a death sentence in the dairy industry. This calf and some of her friends escaped a feedlot through a gate. Unfortunately, the calf lying on the ground managed to break her front leg in this process. She was unable to get up and the herd manager decided to cull her. The calf lay there, shivering, for many hours before being killed, because workers were overwhelmed with other duties.

Dairy cow drinking water

Cow having a drink

While animal exploitation is one of the biggest issues of dairy farming, the industry also has a detrimental effect on the environment. The general consensus is that it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of cow milk. A lactating dairy cow drinks between 136-227 litres of water each day. The amount depends on the animal’s size, type of food consumed and outside temperatures. Our farm had about 2,000 cows and half of them would always be lactating. This means that at least 190,000 litres of water was solely needed for drinking.

Furthermore, a lot of water is sent down the drain because of cleaning. An industrial hose is running for at least 12 hours during shifts each day, all year round. After the shift is finished, the milking cups, the milking platform and the yards have to be cleaned from a layer of faeces–sending tens of thousands of litres of waste water down the drain.

Dairy calf with pink eye on a commercial farm

Calf with pink eye

This calf was left on her own in a tiny yard, with no ability to see as both of her eyes were patched up to cure pink eye. No one brought her food or water on a regular basis. She spent a few weeks like this until the patches were removed and she was released back into her herd.

Spotted harrier perished in fencing

Spotted harrier or smoke hawk caught up in a fence

Besides being one of the major causes for global warming, animal agriculture causes a myriad of issues which all lead to biodiversity loss. Mismanaged land, soil depletion and fencing increase habitat and migration issues for wildlife. Such transformations can eliminate 30-90% of biodiversity, depending on the local ecosystem and intensity of destruction.

Rivers and lakes are sucked dry of water for animal farms and fertilizer or manure runoff poisons groundwater. Oftentimes, native wildlife is killed on farmland, because they are perceived as a threat to resources or they are killing livestock. Humanity has wiped out 68% of animal populations since the 1970s. 96% of terrestrial mammals in biomass are humans and farm animals, while only 4% is wildlife.

Dairy farm worker among cows

Backpacker overseeing animals during sunrise

Working on a dairy farm is rough. A milker has to wake up in the middle of the night for morning shifts. They’re constantly covered in faeces or smell like it. Putting on cups fast and standing for hours gives an aching back. Nobody knows how long the shift will be. Might be 7, might be 15 hours. A milker might have to work an evening shift, followed by a morning shift, which means 3 hours of sleep. Illegally low wages? That is quite common as people who end up working on farms do not have other options.

Backpackers are especially exploited because many do not know the laws in Australia or are desperate to get their visa requirements signed off. The latter means that working holiday makers will endure illegal working conditions for a period of time, so they could receive a second year visa. Many employers treat backpackers as a cheap and easily replaceable workforce.

Water towers and church in a rural town

Water tower and church

Most rural communities in Australia depend on agriculture, but recent years haven’t been kind to the industry. 20 years ago, Australia was the third biggest dairy producer in the world. In 1980, there were 22 000 dairy farmers in Australia, now there are less than 6000. Continuing drought, skyrocketing water prices and low milk prices have taken their toll on communities, which rely on dairy farming. Farmers have to buy extra hay and grain to compensate dry pastures. Meanwhile, the lack of water has driven up its price, which consequently increases the cost of extra feed. At the same time, the price of milk has remained more or less the same or supermarkets don’t pass on the extra cost of the product to the farmer. This also means that small dairy farms are more likely to be affected, as factory farms are able to diversify their businesses and produce at lower costs.

Injured dairy cow lying at a commercial dairy farm

1802 lying on a laneway

1802 had a very complicated labour. She couldn’t push the calf out on her own, hence she was assisted by three workers, without success. Eventually, the legs of the calf were attached to a buggie with a rope and pulled out. The due date for 1802 was missed, because a worker had accidentally marked it down incorrectly. 1802’s labour didn’t start naturally at the appropriate time, so the calf got too big and died inside her mother.

1802 also suffered serious internal injuries from the difficult labour. 1802 lost her ability to get up on her own due to nerve damage. On this image, the animal is lying on a laneway after slipping in faeces. 1802 was put into the sick herd.

While serious mobility issues are a death sentence in animal agriculture, 1802 died on the farm on her own a few days later, most likely from internal complications from the labour.

Dead dairy calf on a commercial farm

Dead calf of 1802

Stabbing wound on dairy cow

Stabbing wound on 1802

After labour, 1802 started to get a fast buildup of gas inside her, which, if left untreated, is deadly. She was stabbed in the rumen, to release the gas.

Mass grave for animals on a commercial dairy farm

Dead animals

Once female animals stop producing enough milk for the farmer, are unable to calve, or are injured beyond healing, they are sent to the slaughterhouse. Others end up in this mass grave as they have died on the farm or have had to be put down immediately.

Ear tags of dead dairy cows

Found ear tags

These are the ear tags of long-dead animals found on the farm. This is what is left of them, besides an old file on the computer. These tags represent only a small fraction of animals who had suffered on this farm.

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