By now you have most likely been informed that the average age of a dairy cow in the United States is 5 years old. That doesn’t seem very old for a cow now does it? The average life of a dairy cow “should be” 15-20 years depending on your source. With sources such as PETA, Rolling Stones & the like you are probably concerned about this. They make claims that cows are “burnt out”, “spent”, “worn out”, etc. To be honest, if I wasn’t in this industry, I would be concerned as well. How could you not be? Their claims are very convincing especially to someone who has never stepped foot on a farm.
So let’s talk about the life of a dairy cow.
- A cow gives birth to a calf. It’s a girl also known as a heifer or a boy known as a bull.
- That calf is in fact taken away from its mother within 24 hours.
- The calf is given colostrum & raised on milk to 90 days on our farm. The time on milk varies from farm to farm.
- At 12-15 months the heifer is placed with a bull. Most farms in the U.S. use artificial insemination.
- At about 2 years of age that heifer will give birth to her first calf.
- The heifer is now being milked. She is now on her first lactation.
Animal rights extremist would have you believe that this cow will only stay on the farm until her second or third lactation because of her poor health. This is not true.
Note: When a dairy cow leaves the herd to enter into the beef supply she is sold as a “cull cow”.
There are several different reasons as to why a cow would leave the herd.
- The cow will not breed. A cow has to produce a calf in order to produce milk. The cow could be perfectly healthy & still be infertile.
- The cow does not produce enough milk to cover the cost to feed her. Again, this doesn’t mean the cow is unhealthy. It simply means her milk supply doesn’t cover the cost of her feed intake.
- The cow could have hoof issues. Does this mean the cow is unhealthy? Nope, just means she is needing constant attention. This could include visits from the local hoof trimmer or vet.
- The cow could have issues with mastitis. Each cow is different, as some will never have mastitis, some could have it once in their life & others could have chronic issues with mastitis. There are cases that can be treated successfully. There are cases that will go away & come back. These cows are removed from the herd.
- The cow has undesirable traits. What does that even mean? Well a cow could possibly come from a cow that wasn’t a very good milk cow. The mother could have passed down hoof issues, a not so nice udder, poor milk production, etc.
- Perhaps the most common (in my opinion) is to maintain herd numbers.
Many farms are established with the amount of animals they own & how many animals their facilities will house. All heifers are raised to become milk cows. It doesn’t matter if the farm has 5 cows, 50 cows, 500 cows OR 5,000 cows. If the farm is only set up to milk a set amount of milk cows, they maintain that number by removing cows from the herd. So what does that have to do with the average age of a dairy cow? Well it has everything to do with the average age of a dairy cow. Each year younger animals are entering the herd. To maintain the desired number of milk cows, cows have to leave. So basically, older cows are leaving for any one of the reasons mentioned above while younger cows enter the herd thus lowering the average age of the herd.
Does this mean that there are no cows over the age of 5 still milking? Absolutely not. They could have cows that are 6, 7, 8, 9 or older. We have cows over the age of five!
So you might be thinking, “wow, this is kind of harsh.” Well it does sound like it when you put it down on paper. It really isn’t. Dairy cows do in fact serve two purposes: produce dairy products & beef products. They are not humans and do not have the same rights as humans. They do however have the right to be treated well during their lives. Ask any dairy farmer, they will tell you that well treated animals is what puts a roof over their head. This is in fact a business & we are in the business to cater to cows! Not kidding, that is a true statement.
So there you have it, now you know, the truth behind the average age of dairy cows.
In closing, I want you to meet my girl 657. She was eight years old. She left the farm this past Monday. She had been unable to breed for the past year! It was time for us to say good-bye. She was an amazing milk cow. She was taken to the sale as a “cull cow”. I cried as the trailer left our driveway. This is in fact a business, it has to be treated accordingly but it doesn’t mean that we do not care. We do care, you couldn’t do this job the right way if you didn’t care.