The Future

What is the True Cost of Milk Production?

Milk has been harvested for more than 11,000 years, when shepherds in the Middle East started to process milk from their cow herds. But today, dairy production has vastly changed and faces criticisms from consumers who are increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical concerns surrounding its production practices. So what is the true cost of milk production?

What is needed to produce milk today?

In modern dairy production, many cows are selectively bred for higher milk production. Cows are ranked for their ‘genetic score’, and those with higher milk secretion are chosen for reproduction. Their score is determined by their milk yield, milk’s fat content and number of fertile years. Cows with a high score can make several hundred thousand euros at auctions.2 

The Breeding Process

The auctioned cows are bought to produce eggs and are often given hormones to release even more. ‘Top bulls’ are bred specifically to provide their semen to special semen banks, which will then be used to artificially inseminate female cows. Embryos are then flushed out, inspected, and implanted into a second group of cows, bred specifically to carry the calves.3

Is the modern milk yield natural?

With this selective breeding process, we’ve seen milk yield per cow more than double in many European countries within the last 40 years.1 While a cow in 1950s Germany produced 2,500 liters of milk per year, today this number is more than 8,000 liters.4 

Modern cows produce six to ten times the amount of milk that they would naturally produce for a calf, and this increases their demand for energy. The amount of energy to produce 30 liters of milk (the daily average consumption in Germany) would be comparable to us running three marathons a day.4 These more ‘efficient’ cows also need a lot of fuel: to produce one liter of milk, a modern dairy cow needs to drink 2-3 liters of water, and eat 700 grams of food. 

Impact of milking on cow health

The milk production process also has negative effects on cow health, leading to higher instances of metabolic diseases and stress, causing a weaker immune system and a declining ability to naturally reproduce. Excessive demand to produce milk also leads to health issues like an increased risk of mastitis, ovarian cysts in the subsequent lactation (often due to the genetic selection of animals with larger udders), an increased incidence of lameness, and an overall decline in longevity.5 

What does the dairy industry do with calves? 

Another problem with commercial dairy farms is that calves are often weaned within hours of birth and taken away from their mothers, condemning them to start their lives with a weakened immune system.8 The ‘colostrum’, which is the first milk produced by the cow for their calves after giving birth, is high in nutrients and antibodies. The calves can only absorb these immune-boosting antibodies in their intestines within the first 24 hours. After that, their digestive tract doesn’t allow them to uptake antibodies directly into the blood.9 When calves are taken away from their mothers right after birth, or if the colostrum is poor in quality or contaminated, this can lead to decreased immunity and in turn, reliance on more fortified foods and medication later on in the cows’ lives.10 

For male calves, the picture does not get much better. Half of the newborn calves are male, so they are unable to produce milk. As bull calves, their breed also often makes them unsuitable for meat production, so it is regarded to be cheaper to “get rid” of a male calf than to sell it on for beef or veal. Two years ago, a Guardian analysis showed that in the UK, it can cost a farmer up to 33 EUR to sell a calf, while early disposal costs around 10 EUR. Reports from Canada stated that an average of 19% of the male dairy calves were disposed of shortly after being born.6 And, a 2019 report from Germany estimated that every year, up to 200,000 calves die or are killed in the first three months after being born – a violation of the local law.7 While obligatory earmarks need to be attached within seven days after the calf is born in many European countries, the time length also leaves a gap in which the calf could be disposed of without anyone noticing.

What about the environmental cost of milk production?

This intensification of milk production has gone hand in hand with land use change: land is extensively cleared to make way for cattle pasture land, leading to a slew of effects on the environment. 

Intense land use

When dairy production becomes more intensive, this often means it also becomes more uniform and less dispersed. In many European regions, alpine pastures and open grasslands, where livestock traditionally roam-free, are often lost to land clearings - leaving these precious habitats as scrubs and woodland, which lead to a reduction in biodiversity.14

More intensification also means more fertilizers, and more fertilizers can often lead to pollution. Elevated levels of nitrogen nutrients from fertilizers can seep into the groundwater, causing an increase in invasive herbs, loss of grassland diversity and eutrophication of nearby waterways. Soil suffers as well: fertilisers and manures are often overused beyond levels that the crop needs, to the point where soil is unable to retain the excess nutrients.14

Water use 

Looking at water consumption in dairy production, the story doesn’t get much better - one third of the global water footprint is related to animal agriculture, and 19% of that is related to dairy cattle. In total, 630 liters of water is needed to produce just one liter of milk.17

Greenhouse gas emissions

Moreover, producing one liter of cow milk releases more CO2 and requires up to nine times the amount of land than any plant-based alternative.11 In fact, over 71% of all the EU agricultural land is dedicated to feeding livestock.12 On top of this, cows account for around 20% of the global methane production. Methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2, and its concentration in the atmosphere has doubled since the early 1900s. 13,14

However, the emission figures are not simply black and white: over the last 30 years, the European agriculture sector has actually managed to reduce its emissions by 23% overall. Unfortunately, this would still not be enough to reach the EU’s goals to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2030. To make this goal more feasible, the EU would need to halve consumption of meat, dairy and eggs, which could impact production supply and help cut EU agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by a further 25-40%.15 The UN even concluded that the potential to reduce emissions through changes in consumption is higher than measures like improving cropland or livestock management. Bearing all this in mind, we should also consider that out of all the livestock sectors in the EU, the dairy sector has the highest greenhouse gas emissions.16

Read more on the environmental footprint of plant-based milk alternatives

Are there any solutions to these environmental and animal welfare issues?

Environmental improvements 

In terms of environmental issues, experts have promising solutions: when cows were fed a special type of seaweed, their methane emission decreased by 80% without impacting feed intake or milk yield. But how does this work? The algae disrupts the methane production through microbes in the cows’ digestive system.21 However, it’s unclear whether this could be a long-term solution. Another approach comes from the British start-up Zelp, who produces special masks for the cows, which filter and transform the methane the cows exhale.22 

Fun Fact: 90-95% of the methane is released through cattle’s nostrils and mouth and not through their flatulence as commonly believed.22

Improving animal welfare

In terms of welfare, cows living in pasture rather than housing systems are generally considered to have higher welfare. It can also be helpful if the two systems were combined - but only if there is good farm management.8

Dairy produced under the EU’s organic certification, encourages the natural immunological defence of animals (instead of antibiotics), and makes it obligatory for providing natural, preferably maternal, milk for calves.23 Some countries have also attempted to introduce stricter bans on getting rid of male calves. 

Reducing dairy intake

It seems like the overall problem, however, could only be solved by a reduction of dairy consumption. Decreasing production directly lowers the environmental impact, leaving the possibility open for small-scale and less intense agriculture systems and a higher focus on animal welfare. 

And for those who do want to keep consuming dairy and beef? Researchers see the willingness to pay a higher price for those products as the key factor to the spread of more animal-friendly management practices by farmers, who will expect to be compensated. If we pay more as consumers, we would be paying for better husbandry systems that enable animals to behave more closely to their natural states.24

How do you feel about the sustainability of modern milk production? Let us know in the comments below!

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  4. The Guardian. “Dairy’s “dirty secret””. Accessed 11th November 2020
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  7. University of Nebraska. “The Importance of Colostrum”. Accessed 11th November 2020
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  15. Poore, J., Nemecek, T. (2018). “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” Accessed 11th November 2020 (additional calculations for plant milks, milk chocolate, and pasta received personally by the author on 14th August 2019)
  16. Mekonnen, M.M., Hoekstra, A.Y. (2012). “A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products”. Accessed 11th November 2020
  17. European Commission. “Welfare of Cattle on Dairy Farms”. Accessed 11th November 2020
  18. Amey, G. (1987). “Dairy Farming in Europe”. Accessed 11th November 2020
  19. Penn State. “Seaweed feed additive cuts livestock methane but poses questions”. Accessed 11th November 2020
  20. https://www.zelp.co/
  21. European Commission. “Organic production and products”. Accessed 11th November 2020
  22. Placzek, M. et al (2020). “Public attitude towards cow-calf separation and other common practices of calf rearing in dairy farming—a review”. Accessed 11th November 2020
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