OVERVIEW: What’s wrong with dairy?

Many people don’t realise that a dairy cow needs to give birth in order to produce milk. What her life is like, plus what happens to her newborn calf, is the dairy industry's darkest secret. But investigations in 2015 and 2016 have exposed many of these issues.

Here is just a brief overview of the problems faced by cows and their calves in the dairy industry. Find out more at each information page.


There are nearly seven million dairy cows in New Zealand (five million milking). Purposely bred to yield unnaturally high volumes of milk, modern dairy cows experience serious stress on their bodies, as well as painful routine manipulations. 

Perhaps the greatest tragedy for cows is that for the purpose of producing milk, they need to be kept continually pregnant and to give birth. Once their calves are born, they are removed from their mothers within hours of birth, with the separation being extremely distressing for both mother and calf.  

Each year, she is traumatically forced to experience this again to enable her continuous milk production. Read more about the life of a dairy cow and about organic and goat's milk.

‘Waste’ Calves

On commercial dairy farms calves are always removed from their mothers so that milk can be taken for human consumption. Some calves are kept by the farmer to replace their mothers and some are raised for veal or beef.

However there is not a high demand for the meat from dairy calves, so many go straight to slaughter: shockingly, around two million vulnerable animals are killed at around four days of age each year. They are known as bobby calves'.

Transport and Slaughter

Bobby calves are viewed as mere waste products with little or no attention paid to their welfare. From as young as four days of age, they are loaded onto trucks and sent to slaughter.

Like all young animals, they are often confused and bewildered and are simply too young to handle the stress, motion and length of transport. Investigations in 2015 and 2016 show how some workers throw these vulnerable animals into the back of trucks.

Bobby calves usually spend their last night in a crowded pen at the slaughterhouse. The 2015 investigation showed the rough handling that calves can experience in their final moments. Footage recorded by hidden cameras reveals inherent cruelty and deliberate, violent abuse of helpless baby calves.

Cow Factory Farming

As the dairy industry moves more towards large-scale factory-style farming, this brings with it a whole new level of cruelty towards the cows involved. The current Dairy Code of Welfare allows permanent confinement of dairy cattle, and there is no sign that the government plans to change it.

Environmental Problems

Cows and calves are not the only casualities of dairy farming. Our environment is severely impacted by dirty dairying through compaction of land, pollution of waterways and greenhouse gas emissions. This is only going to get worse with the government and industry pushing to increase the size of the national dairy herd. For the stability of our economy, as well as the health of our environment, we need to move away from a reliance on the dairy sector.


The dairy industry has done a thorough job of convincing many people that dairy products are necessary for our health. This is definitely not the case. There are many healthy alternative sources of calcium and other nutrients. To make an informed decision it is important to be aware that there are also health concerns related to consumption of dairy products.

With the wide range of dairy substitutes available, you can enjoy your flat white or ice-cream sundae without ignoring the welfare of cows and their calves.