Dairy or Beef? Which is worse?

The Canada EarthSaver July/August 2005



It seems obvious enough. If you're concerned about cows, dairy's the

way to go. Nobody gets killed, right? The cows spend pleasant lives

grazing in the fields, coming in for milking every now and then.

Right? Contrast that with the horrors of the slaughterhouse.


Unfortunately, things aren't so simple. The small family farms on

which dairy cattle could roam between milkings are mostly gone now.

Instead, most dairy cattle live out their lives in huge sheds where

they're treated more like machines than animals. Bred to produce

unnatural amounts of milk (annual milk production per cow has more

than doubled since the 1940s), dairy cows are plagued with calcium

deficiencies and painful mastitis. Their natural lives would span

some 25 years, but instead they are routinely sent to slaughter

before their fifth birthday. They become hamburger and "processed"



Like humans, cows have to give birth in order to produce milk. To

keep production high, they are artificially inseminated once a year.

Nine months later, a calf is born. 24 to 48 hours after that, the

calf is taken away. Milk production must be maximized. If the calf is

female, she usually gets to live and follows her mother's path to the

dairy. If the calf is unfortunate enough to be male, however, he is

sent off to the veal farm instead. He might as well be sent to hell.


While his mother languishes, mourning the loss of her calf, he is

chained by the neck inside a tiny crate, just two feet wide. He sees

no daylight and eats no grass. Fed an antibiotic-rich, iron-deficient

gruel so that his meat will be pale, the young calf has no room to

walk or turn. He can't even lie down comfortably. By the time he's

led to slaughter at just 16 weeks of age, chances are good that he

will unable to walk at all. According to the Humane Society of the

USA, this veal industry to which he will succumb is based entirely

upon 'surplus' dairy calves.


Contrast his life to those of beef cattle. At least many of them have

access to range land for part of their lives...until they're sent to

fatten up at the feedlot.


Which brings us to some of the other costs of both beef and dairy.

There are about 10 million cattle in Canada, 5 million of them

adults. Something like 200,000 of these are dairy cows. All except

the veal calves are fed grains and soy beans for a significant part

of their lives. Dairy cattle eat it all their lives. It takes about

10 kg of grain to 'grow' 1 kg of beef and about 15 kg of grain to

produce 30 liters of milk. By the time a dairy cow goes to slaughter,

she'll have consumed some 40 lbs of grain for every lb of hamburger

that she becomes. This is very expensive business. Imagine how much

less farm land we'd need to cultivate if we didn't eat meat or dairy.

Imagine how many more human mouths we could feed.


And cattle don't just eat. They discharge manure and they belch

methane. Pound for pound, their methane warms our planet more than

CO2 does. Their manure contaminates our ground water. With the growth

of factory farming, animals live in close quarters. Their manure is

collected in large "holding ponds' where it sometimes overflows or

otherwise seeps into the ground. Dairy cattle contribute more to this

problem because they usually live their entire lives under these

close quarter conditions.


The fact that cows live in these close quarters has another

consequence for us humans. Because they are packed so closely

together, disease can spread quickly. To prevent this, farmers dose

them up with antibiotics. Among other things, this has the effect of

loading up their meat and milk with antibiotics, too. Pesticides and

other chemicals from the grains they eat accumulate as well.


Not surprisingly, dairy cattle - who frequently suffer from mastitis,

and eat more grain than their 'beef-producing' kin - have the highest

levels of antibiotic and pesticides in their bodies. The US FDA has

found that 60% of the hamburger with chemical residues over allowable

limits comes from dairy cattle.


What can you do about it?


You can mitigate some of the damage by buying organic. At least the

cows see pasture and you won't be loading yourself up with unwanted

chemicals. Remember, though, that even organic dairy calves become

veal, and that an awful lot of grain goes into raising even organic

cattle. The environmental costs of raising any food animal are high.

If you really want to have an effect, cut back your consumption

dramatically or, best of all, avoid meat and dairy altogether.


Which is worse? Dairy or beef? You be the judge.