Myth busting- cow lifespan.

Time for some myth busting, or as I like to call it ‘British Dairy Isn’t Scary ‘. This has been prompted by the run up to world plant based juice or nut juice or ‘fake milk’ week. Don’t get me wrong, if you like drinking Soy or Oat or Almond then that’s fine, its up to you what you choose to consume. But when there are blatant lies and mistruths being used to slander the Dairy Farmers of Britain, then I find it really tricky to sit by and ignore them.
Myth 1: Dairy Cows only live until they are 4. Living on a farm prevents them from fulfilling their natural lifespan of 15 years.

Truth: Bubble bursting as it may be, alot of dairy cows in UK herds are older than 4 years old.

Bit of background cow biology- A cow is ready to reproduce from around 15 months of age, although their is plenty of variation.( Note: I’ll deal with reproduction in another post, this blog is just about lifespan but I need to ‘set the scene’.) Normally a cow will have her first calf at around 2 years of age. As she matures and has more calves, her ability to produce milk will increase. On average 5th or 6th lactation will be a dairy cow’s best- i.e when they are 7 or 8 years old.  Dairy farmers put a lot of time, effort and money into making sure that their cows stay in the herd to reach this point.

As farmers, we want our cows to live long and healthy lives. We employ veterinarians, cow nutritionists and specialist foot trimmers (essentially they give cows expensive mani/pedis) to make sure that they are in the best of health. We pay agronomists to check the crops we grow will provide the cows with excellent quality food. We make sure that we check the quality of the water they drink. We buy expensive equipment such as robotic milking parlours, foot baths, air matresses for the cows to sleep on (this really is true) just to make sure they are happy and healthy.  This costs alot- for example a single vet visit could be around £50 before they do any treatment or give any medication.  We spend hours reading and researching, keeping on top of the latest advancements in Dairy science to make sure our cows get the best we can give them.

The arbitrary ‘cow lifespan’ of 15 years bandied about by the anti dairy brigade on the internet  doesn’t come from Zoologists, it doesn’t come from Agriculturalists or even Biologist. It has apparently been plucked from thin air to try and paint UK Dairy Farmers in a bad light. Silly thing is it doesn’t really pan out in favour of the anti dairy propaganda.

Dairy cow specialists spend a lot of time and money figuring out the genetics behind longevity. Long lived cows, and the potential for their offspring to be long lived, are coveted by farmers. The Dairy industry itself keeps transparent and official records of what are called Key Performance Indicators associated with Dairy Cows. One such KPI is the age at which a cow dies. In 2016 the median age of leaving the herd on 500 dairy farms was 6.1 years. As this is a median age, it means there were 250 farms that had older cows leaving the herd.  The reason why a cow dies isn’t documented, and could be anything from chronic illness, to accidental injury or occasionally even being struck by lightening.

Anti dairyists suggest cows would live longer if left to their own devices. Again there is little to suggest this would happen. It is more likely that lack of food sources, medication and prompt veterinary treament, unregulated interbreeding, death during calving, , uncontrolled infectious diseases, parasites (to name a few; gastrointestinal worms, liver fluke, lungworm and maggots- a ‘lovely’ way to die) would all mean life spans would realistically be much shorter than those of cows on modern UK Dairy farms.

Hopefully this short blog has shown how the dairy industry does make sure cows have long happy lives. It is in the farmers (& obviously the cows) interests to keep his or her cows as healthy as possible, so they can stay in the milking herd, alongside their daughters and granddaughters for many years. There is definitely an element of pride associated too- At the end of the day, good farmers will keep healthy cows. Healthy cows will live longer.


Lady Hermione the 4th, 15/04/02-20/08/17, photo courtesy of @JRStrickley