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Who is the dairy cow?

Dairy cows are shy, gentle, intelligent animals that are highly social and like to have a strong network of companions. They have an average lifespan of 20 years, however, in commercial production are slaughtered at around 5.5 years old after just two to three calvings.

Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk. They are required to give birth to one calf annually to produce milk for 10 months of the year. They are usually artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth.

Who is the dairy calf?

Dairy calves are shy and playful animals that love to socialise with other calves. They can live on average 20 years but are often slaughtered around six months of age in commercial veal production.

Most female calves will be reared to join the milking herd, but as male calves cannot produce milk, they are considered surplus to the dairy industry. Male calves will either be shot after birth (in countries where veal is not consumed, like the UK) or sold to be reared for veal or beef.

Read below to discover how to provide dairy cows and calves with a better quality of life.

Providing dairy cows with a better quality of life

Top 10

Easy access to water and a good fibrous diet
illustration cow dancing
Sufficient space to socialize and exercise
illustration cow reading
Comfortable places to rest and ruminate
Illustration cow in bed
Good bedding and non-slippery floors
illustration cow with broken chain
No tethering or confinement
illustration cow eating grass
Opportunities to graze outdoors
illustration cow under rain shelter
Shade and shelter for protection outdoors and airy indoor buildings with no draughts
Illustration cow holding hands with another cow
Opportunities to create social bonds
illustration mother and calf standing side by side
Ability to nurture their young
Illustration cow getting back scratched
Enrichments like brushes to keep their coat in good condition

Providing dairy calves with a better quality of life

Illustration baby calf with bottle milk within first six hours
Good quality colostrum just after birth
Illustration calf at dinner table
Appropriate diet/ad-libitum source of fibre
Illustration calf under shelter from weather
Housed in airy buildings with no draughts
Illustration calf sleeping on straw bed
Comfortable straw bedding for warmth
Illustration group of calves together
Group housing with other calves
Illustration calf with broken chain on its neck
No tethering or confinement
Illustration Calf eating grass
Opportunities to graze outdoors
Illustration calf under shelter from sun
Shade and shelter for protection
Illustration calf suckling on udders
Ability to suckle from their mum
Illustration calf playing with hoop
Space to exercise and play

Commercial milk production

There are a wide variety of dairy production systems in the EU, ranging from permanently housed to extensive outdoor grazing systems. One of the most common systems in the EU is seasonal grazing with winter housing. Cow accommodation is typically in cubicle systems or straw yards, although tethering is still permitted and common in some countries.

There is no specific EU Directive setting out minimum conditions for the protection of dairy cows, while minimum conditions for the protection of dairy calves are set out in Council Directive 2008/119/EC, stating in particular that calves must not be reared in individual pens after eight weeks of age.

Intensive Dairy Farming

Intensive dairy farming results in an increasing number of welfare problems for dairy cows, including breeding for high milk yield, lameness and mastitis, and calves, which include poor diets and individual housing.

Read on to find out more.

Dairy Cows - Key Issues

The Holstein-Friesian, which is the most common type of dairy cow in the UK, Europe and the USA, has been bred to produce very high yields of milk.

During peak lactation, a high-yielding cow may produce as much as 60 litres per day and up to 12,000 litres over her whole lactation. This has led to a higher occurrence of health and welfare problems including lameness, mastitis and metabolic disorders, as well as infertility resulting in a higher culling rate.

High-yielding dairy cows will typically be slaughtered after three or four lactations because their milk production drops and/or they are chronically lame or infertile.

This is a painful and significant welfare problem for dairy cows worldwide.

Cows may go lame due to various conditions associated with bacterial infection, such as hoof lesions, sole ulcers, laminitis and digital dermatitis.

These conditions can be caused by poor quality floors, ineffective foot trimming, poor nutrition, and prolonged standing on concrete floors.

This is an inflammation of the udder which is the painful result of bacterial infection that is prevalent among dairy cows.

A cow’s udder can become infected with mastitis-causing bacteria due to contamination of milking equipment or bedding.

Cows that are housed for long periods of time are more likely to develop mastitis than those kept at pasture, who are exposed to less environmental pathogens.

This is a major productivity problem for farmers with high-yielding dairy cows.

It can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, stress and poor body condition and is therefore often a sign of poor welfare.

Some cows are still kept in tie-stalls which involves severe confinement; each cow is tethered by either a chain, stanchion (metal bars) or a rope around the neck, for up to 24 hours a day during the winter season (while they go out on pasture in the summer) or even throughout life.

Tie-stalls severely restrict every aspect of cow behaviour; they are unable to socialise, exercise and may even be unable to turn around and scratch themselves.

Cows may be permanently housed or only have access to pasture during limited periods (e.g. in the dry period, when the cow is not producing milk).

Cows are most commonly housed in free stall barns, but they are not always provided with sufficient lying space or bedding, which impacts their comfort during resting and can lead to skin lesions and injuries.

Dairy calves - key issues

Dairy calves have limited market value as a beef breed due to their poor body conformation and, as a result, will generally either be shot shortly after birth (in countries where veal is not consumed, like the UK) or reared for veal, often in intensive systems.

New-born calves have poorly developed immune systems and rely on colostrum (nutritious first milk from their mother) for passive immunity before their immunity develops.

However, as calves are commonly taken away from their dams shortly after birth, their colostrum intake can be insufficient or inappropriate, leading to poor immune status, making them more vulnerable to disease and infection.

Male calves reared for white veal are fed a liquid milk diet, with insufficient fibre provision. As a result, they suffer from iron deficiency, anaemia, and enteric disease.

Many dairy calves are removed from their mother and housed in single huts soon after birth. This isolation prevents them from forming any social bonds or contact, reducing their social skills and increasing their fearfulness.

In Europe, veal calves are typically housed individually in narrow, fully slatted pens without bedding, for up to eight weeks of age (and even longer outside Europe where there are no legislative minimal requirements related to the group housing of calves).

Transport is extremely stressful for young calves as they are poorly adapted, with underdeveloped immune and stress responses, which leads to high rates of mortality.

Calves are susceptible to heat and cold stress, leg bruising and often succumb to disease during transport.

Minimal transport time is encouraged and should be limited to a maximum of eight hours (inclusive of loading and unloading).

Some calves outside of Europe (where the practice has been forbidden since 2007) may still be kept in veal crates and/or tethered which involves severe confinement.

Read more about the welfare issues for dairy cows and for dairy calves.

Higher Welfare for Dairy Cows

For the best welfare potential, dairy cows should have access to pasture all year round, with the freedom to choose when they go outside or stay indoors.

Housing should be well designed to provide cows with enough space for social interaction and there should be plenty of bedding such as straw so that cows have access to comfortable, clean spaces to rest.

Diets should include plenty of fibre, and the use of robust breeds should be encouraged. Breeding programs should not focus purely on high yields but instead incorporate health and welfare traits.

Click on the boxes below to find out more

Good housing

Good housing

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Dairy cows can have a longer productive life and a better quality of life in well managed systems based on pasture access in the grass growing season. This is important for their physical and mental well-being, and their ability to perform natural behaviours. Good housing design and management are essential for good welfare as crowded conditions, poor ventilation and high humidity can increase injury and disease.

Rest is very important to cows, especially during lactation, so they need somewhere comfortable to lie down. Clean, thickly bedded straw yards are the most comfortable. Where cubicles are used, ensure that they are the correct size to prevent hock burns/lying in faeces, allow lateral lying and space to stand up within the stall, provide clean and comfortable bedding (well-maintained deep bedding such as straw, sand or dried compost; if mattress/rubber mats are used, they should be topped up with bedding too)), provide more cubicles than cows (minimum 5%, ideally 20%). Maintain hygiene levels (both in parlour and housing environment eg. Clean lying areas)

Hard flooring is more painful for lame cows to stand and walk on, and cows may slip and injure themselves if floors are wet from excrement, so it is important that they are provided with well drained non-slip, non-slatted floors (eg. rubber matting) with no protrusions.

Read more of our dairy resources.

Better Welfare

Better Welfare

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Grazing policy:

  • Cattle must not be housed permanently indoors during the grazing season
  • A written grazing policy must be in place (for a minimum of 120 days access to pasture)
  • No milk to be sourced from large scale dairy farms where access to adequate grazing is prohibited or limited due to the size of the operation

No tethering is permitted

Comfort around resting

  • At least one cubicle per cow (or 11 m2/cow in open yards)
  • Provision of comfortable bedding


Welfare outcomes must include:

  • Lameness (measure of gait score)
  • Culling rate (expressed as a culling %)
  • Longevity (average age of cows in the herd or average number of lactations)
  • Mastitis (no. of clinical cases per year in relation to herd size)
  • Cow condition (measure of body condition score)

Human-animal relationship (measure of the flight distance)


  • All calves must be reared in higher welfare systems that include group housing from birth, provision of adequate bedding, appropriate diet and a fibre source ad-libitum
  • Good quality colostrum must be provided within the first 6 hours after birth
  • Transport time must be limited to a maximum of 8 hours (inclusive of loading and unloading); minimal transport time is encouraged and live exports from the UK is not permitted
Supporting better dairy

Supporting better dairy

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To help drive the market forwards for improved dairy, companies should ensure that:

  • No milk is sourced from large scale dairy farms where access to adequate grazing is prohibited or limited due to the size of the operation
  • Dairy cows have comfortable bedding when resting and ruminating and no tethering is permitted
  • All calves are reared in higher welfare systems that include: good quality colostrum provided within the first 6 hours; group housing from birth; provision of adequate bedding, appropriate diet and a fibre source ad-libitum; and transport times must be limited to a maximum of 8 hours (inclusive of loading and unloading); and live export from the UK is not permitted
  • Develop a strong roadmap to phase-in higher welfare systems and report year-on-year progress against targets
  • Support producers by offering longer supplier contracts, for stability and to encourage investment in higher welfare production
  • Consider dedicated supply chain to have greater control/influence over the higher welfare standards adopted
  • Apply the principles of regenerative agriculture
  • Empower consumers to easily choose higher welfare dairy products by adopting labelling to help differentiate your products (e.g. Pasture-Promise)

Resources and Awards

If you want to know more about how to improve the welfare of dairy cows and calves, we have developed a range of resources to help you.

And if you have made a commitment to move to higher welfare dairy production systems you may be eligible for an award.

Check out our Resources, or apply for a Good Dairy Award below.


Explore our range of practical guidelines, videos, and case studies to help you improve the welfare of dairy cattle in your supply chain.

Read more
1. Resources

Apply for a Good Dairy Award

Since 2011, the Good Dairy Award has recognised companies that use or have committed to use (within five years) higher welfare systems for dairy cows and calves.


Apply here
2. Apply for a Good Dairy Award


Compassion will continue to work with industry to improve the welfare of dairy cows and calves through the introduction of higher welfare, pasture-based systems.

Increasingly, we support the development of regenerative farm systems that are not only better for farm animal welfare but are better for the environment too.

If you want more help or information, please contact the Food Business team.


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