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Animals in Aotearoa

New Zealand’s Dairy Industry

New Zealand’s dairy industry is responsible for extraordinary suffering.

Mother cows are being pushed to their limits and every year, as many as two million calves are killed within their first week of life. Intensive dairying is also devastating our waterways, our climate and the integrity of our land.  

For the sake of our environment, our future, and for the millions of cows suffering at the hands of this industry, it’s time to address the true impacts of dairy production.  

Image: Taranaki Animal Save

Bobby calves

Many of the animals killed by New Zealand’s dairy industry are only days old.

Some female calves born into the dairy industry are raised to one day replace their mothers in the milking shed, but as many as two million calves (also known as ‘bobby calves’) are killed within their first week of life every year.

Because most bobby calves are male and can’t be used for milking, the industry has little economic incentive to raise them. Male calves are regarded as ‘byproducts’ of dairy production, rather than the living, breathing, sentient beings they are.

Mother cows

Cows must give birth to produce milk and like humans, a mother cow will carry her pregnancy for nine months. However, she is never given the chance to nurse, nurture, or protect her calf as she naturally would. Every year in Aotearoa, millions of mother cows watch as their newborns are taken away from them so that her milk can be collected and sold.

The exploitation of female animals is built into dairy farming. Five million mother cows in Aotearoa bear the brunt of dairy cruelty, spending the duration of their adult lives in a cycle of pregnancy, birth, separation and milking. A mother cow endures an average of four to five pregnancies before she is considered “spent” and is sent to slaughter.

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Image: Taranaki Animal Save

FAQs about New Zealand's dairy industry

Short answer: yes. 

Before 2023, newborn male calves were either killed on-farm within 24 hours of life or sent to slaughterhouses after a few days. Of the 2 million bobby calves born in 2020, around 1.7 million were sent to meat processing plants at around four days old, and around 245,000 were killed and discarded on-farm shortly after birth. 

Fonterra announced in January 2023 that they would no longer allow their suppliers to kill bobby calves on-farm, requiring that all calves enter a “value-stream”. This means that from 1 June 2023, more calves will be raised into the beef industry, or killed at four days old and used for veal or pet food. Exceptions could still be made for on-farm euthanasia at the discretion of farmers.  

However, farmers have already raised concerns about their capacity to manage surplus calves. Some farms may have to unprofitably raise calves to higher weights and because newborn calves require a high level of care, it may be more difficult for farmers to adhere to animal welfare best practice.  

Fonterra’s announcement tells us that the social license of the dairy industry is strained; they are aware that New Zealanders do not support the routine killing of bobby calves. SAFE believes that raising more animals into meat production is not the right forward for the industry. Instead, Government should be creating pathways for farmers to transition out of the sector and investing in Aotearoa’s burgeoning plant-based sector.  

Like humans, cows must give birth to produce milk. On commercial dairy farms, cows are artificially inseminated from 13-15 months of age. After giving birth, calves would naturally suckle for up to a year, and form strong bonds that can last well into adulthood. But on dairy farms, calves are typically removed from their mothers within hours of birth which is an extremely distressing experience for the animals. Mother cows are known to bellow for days in search of their calf.  

Due to selective breeding, milk production per cow has more than doubled in the last 40 years, pushing animals to their limits and requiring large amounts of antibiotics. Producing high volumes of milk puts cows at a greater risk of suffering from mastitis – painful inflammation of the mammary gland.  

Mother cows in the dairy industry endure a lifelong cycle of pregnancy, birth, separation and intensive milking until they no longer produce enough milk to be profitable. After an average of four to five pregnancies, mother cows will be killed and used for beef. 

Many of us grew up believing that dairy was essential for strong bones and healthy teeth. However, there is a growing body of evidence linking dairy consumption to many chronic health issues including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. According to Dr Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, taking dairy off your plate can cut the chances of being diagnosed with certain cancers by more than 70%. 

Research fails to show a link between dairy consumption and bone health. In fact, countries that consume lower amounts of dairy have been shown to have lower rates of osteoporosis. But the good news is – it’s easy to nourish your body with plants once you know how. Eating a range of fruits, leafy green vegetables, beans and legumes provide all the calcium, magnesium and vitamins needed for healthy bones (alongside exercise and vitamin D from the sun). 

If you’re thinking of going dairy-free, we have all the tools you need to get started.  

Animals aren’t the only casualties of the dairy industry. The pollution caused by industrial dairy farming is severely impacting our environment. The dairy industry is New Zealand biggest climate polluter, generating more greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector combined. Per capita, Aotearoa is one of the highest methane emitters in the world.  

The dairy industry is also the largest source of water pollution and a major stressor on biodiversity and soil health. Run-off from dairy farms and the high use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is poisoning our rivers, lakes and even our drinking water. As a result, 82% of waterways in farming areas are unfit for swimming, up to 800,000 kiwis may be at a greater risk of bowel cancer due to nitrates in water, and 76% of our native freshwater fish are threatened or at risk of extinction.  

It’s only a manner of time before New Zealand can no longer sustain the devastating impacts of dairy farming. SAFE will be calling on Government to diversify New Zealand’s export market away from its dependence on animal agriculture and implement a just transition for Kiwi farmers.   

The good news is, there are exciting cruelty-free technologies on the horizon that could replace the need for animal-based dairy products. Dairy proteins produced through precision fermentation have the potential to disrupt the market for animal-based dairy and New Zealand should be preparing for this shift before we get left behind. Learn more about a Kiwi startup using precision fermentation technology here.  

As individuals, the best thing we can do to help cows is to remove dairy from our plates. We are spoiled for choice when it comes to dairy-free milks, cheeses, chocolate, ice cream and more – there has never been a better time to ditch dairy.  

Sign up to the dairy free challenge.  

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