Ethical Milk: Is it possible and what would it cost?

Ethical Milk: Is it possible and what would it cost?

Published on May 24, 2017
While it’s clear that conventional milk and even organic, free-range “humane” milk are unethical, this doesn’t mean that milk is inherently unethical since it doesn’t inherently require killing (unlike meat).

But what would it take to produce dairy humanely? And how much would it cost?

*Time Codes*
2:05 – No more veal industry
3:57 – High production is stressful
6:58 – Let the calf drink
8:21 – A single lactation cycle
9:46 – Not killing the cow when production drops
12:00 – Cost (Spoiler! It’d be hella expensive)

Ethical Milk: Is it possible and what would it cost?

Hey guys, so I’ve talked about the distinction between use and abuse before; saying and promoting use is abuse means that usually you’re going to be right, but usually does not mean always, there are instances in which animals can be used without exploitation.

I think a really good example would be again a backyard hen, you know having a hen who produces unfertilized eggs and then consuming those eggs. Assuming the hen is well cared for and loved and all of that kind of stuff, what would be the harm? I don’t even think you could argue that well they’re being stolen from the chicken because they’re essentially a waste product, consuming or using you know maybe you’re just taking the eggs and throwing them at a wall, I don’t know they’re a product that is not being used by the animal, has not involved any exploitation of any kind, why would we be against someone doing that and in fact it could again have some good attached to it, actually helping people who need the food or helping the chicken of course, now if the chicken if it’s a rescued chicken has a good life with someone who loves her, that seems like a win-win to me. [1]

And while I don’t believe that killing an animal for taste or convenience is ever justified outside of dire need like survival, something I talked about recently in this video, [2] there could be some argument to be made for vegetarianism like unfertilized eggs from a rescued backyard hen.

But what about dairy? Like eggs it doesn’t inherently require killing, but what would it take to do it humanely and how much would it cost?

To be clear I’m talking about economic practices here, I’m not talking about common practices like tail docking which according to the American Veterinary Medical Association actually serves no purpose and is only harmful to the cow. [3] Farmers keep doing it just because of bullshit anecdotes, what I am talking about are practices like killing cows once production stops, this isn’t done because farmers just get off on killing cows, it’s done because it would be far more expensive to keep them alive.

How much more expensive? I’ll get to that but first:

#1 No more veal industry

Obviously male cows don’t produce milk, so they are typically taken from their mothers quickly and sent into the veal industry, obviously this is in no way humane, luckily there is one pretty easy fix, sexed semen and as beef magazine reports the cost is pretty trivial: [4]

Compared to using conventional semen, McGrann says using sexed semen makes economic sense for beef and dairy producers when the gender value difference is at least 150$.

With sexing semen:

. . .the industry standard is 90% [female]. . .[but the purity] can reach 95%

This means that keeping one non-productive bull for every 19 cows alive and basically in retirement would only increase the price of dairy by 1/19th or 5.26%. That plus 150 dollars for all the dairy the cow produces out of one impregnation which adds up to pennies a gallon at most.

While many people complain about artificial insemination being unethical, from my perspective it seems less cruel than unleashing a horny bull upon gals: [5, 6]

Advantages of using AI include its low cost and ease compared to maintaining a bull, ability to select from a large number of bulls, elimination of diseases in the dairy industry, improved genetics and improved animal welfare [31] Rather than a large bull jumping on a smaller heifer or weaker cow, AI allows the farmer to complete the breeding procedure within 5 minutes with minimum stress placed on the individual female’s body [31]


Better genetic selection can also mean lower risk of disease and injuries to the cows through inbreeding, if it’s done right. Semen can easily be shipped around the world for genetic diversity and of course for cow welfare, which is what we’re talking about here, this would also mean breeding for health and well-being rather than milk production.

Which brings me to my second point:

#2. High production is stressful

Cows have been bred for absurdly high milk output, this drastically increases the risk for mastitis, along with other problems due to the selective breeding.


Clinical mastitis is the most commonly reported health problem in the U.S. dairy industry, responsible for 16.5% of recorded deaths. [114] The trauma caused by milking machines to teat tissues [115] and genetic selection for extremely high milk yields [116, 117] have been identified as predisposing factors for this painful swelling of the cows’ mammary glands. [118]

We can see the increase in milk production over time in charts like these:


From around 4,000 to 16,000 pounds per cow, per year. At about two pounds a litre, that’s from about 2000 litres to buy now, over 8,000 litres, top breeds are reported to produce about 10,000 liters per cow per year, which seems to be a commonly reported number today.

The Holstein Friesian is the main breed of dairy cow in Australia and said to have the world’s highest productivity at 10,000 litres of milk per year. The average for a single dairy cow in the U.S. in 2007 was 9163.4 kg [or 20,204 pounds per year].

To be fair there’s no reason we should need to go back to pre 1950s levels of production. Some of that increase is due to improvements in milking and even improved health and nutrition, looking at the graph we can see two rapid increases with a bit of a plateau between them in the 70s, where it reaches around 10,000 pounds, this seems to be around the time intensive breeding efforts got underway to maximize milk output for industrial production.

There was apparently a pretty dramatic shift in cow breeding, being generous to the dairy industry we can estimate that the most harmful increase was the doubling of milk production during that second spike, the FAO backs us up: [10]

Milk yield per cow has more than doubled in the previous 40 years and many cows now produce more than 20,000 kg of milk per lactation. The increase in production should be viewed with concern because: i) the increase in milk yield has been accompanied by declining fertility, increasing leg and metabolic problems and declining longevity; ii) there are unfavourable genetic correlations between milk yield and fertility, mastitis and other production diseases, indicating that deterioration infertility and health is largely a consequence of selection for increased milk yield; and iii) high disease incidence, reduced fertility, decreased longevity and modification of normal behaviour are indicative of substantial decline in cow welfare. Improving welfare is important as good welfare is regarded by the public as indicative of sustainable systems and good product quality and may also be economically beneficial. Expansion of the Profitable Lifetime Index used in the UK to include mastitis resistance and fertility could increase economic response to selection by up to 80%, compared with selection for milk production alone. In the last 10 years, several breeding organisations in Europe and North America followed the example of Nordic Countries and have included improving fertility and reducing incidence of mastitis in their breeding objectives, but these efforts are still timid. A multi-trait selection programme in which improving health, fertility and other welfare traits are included in the breeding objective, and appropriately weighted relative to production traits, should be adopted by all breeding organisations motivated in their goal of improving welfare.

So returning to earlier breeds of cows and breeding for welfare would likely see milk production cut in half to about 5,000 liters per cow per year, this alone would pretty much double the price of milk.

So about $6/gallon instead of $3/gallon

#3. Let the calf drink

While female calves are given some milk, their consumption is typically restricted, this has serious ethical ramifications for both mother and child, since in order to restrict feeding they are separated. As expected appropriate access to milk for the calf significantly reduces the amount available for humans:

So not 1,000 out of 10,000 liters/cow/year

But 2,500 out of 5,000 liters/cow/year

Out of ten thousand litres a year average it’s a small chunk and even smaller due to the restricted access of only being allowed 1000 liters, but out of the more humane 5000 litres a year average and allowing the calves to feed freely until weaning, this means that they can take about half of the milk produced, up to around 12 litres a day.

Research shows that calves that get free access to milk through buckets or large bottles fitted with nipples drink about eight to ten liters per day. Calves that are allowed to suckle drink as much as 12 litres of milk per day at an age of two weeks.

That’s potentially the difference between 2,500 litres and 9000 litres to reach market so the reduction in milk adds up to 3.6 times the price rather than 2 times the price, about $10.80/gallon vs $3/gallon.

To be fair there could be some benefits to milk production as well:

Several studies have shown that calves that drink as much as they wish are healthier, require fewer visits from vets, produce 10% more milk as adults and show more rapid growth than calves forced to follow the recommended feeding regimen.

So we could add 10% percent on to that but:

#4. A single lactation cycle

Once we are using sexed sperm, using healthy and likely older genetically diverse breeds and treating the cows with adequate care rather than culling them as soon as they pose an inconvenience or expense, it won’t be possible to keep getting them pregnant to maximize milk production as is now done.

Only 1/20 cows will need to give birth a second time to maintain the herd size and anything else would result in an unsustainable exponential growth of the population and there are a number of costs to that.

Mature cows produce about 25% more milk than 2-year-old heifers. Increased body weight accounts for about 1/5 of this increase. The remaining 4/5 results from increased udder development during recurring pregnancies.

The dairy farmers lose that 20% gain from the second or third cycle, with an average of three cycles per cow, we’d be looking at about 88% of average production due to fewer cycles. [[[[[[[[]]]]]]]]]]

Let’s say 90% to over-estimate the contribution of that one extra pregnancy in twenty, so an additional 10% loss would give us 2,000 vs 9,000 for 4.5 times the cost. But if the benefits to milk production of increasing the calf’s milk access are true, then these may ultimately almost cancel out and it is possible that an increase of milk for that reason is due to overall size and health so it may not come with the same risks associated with increased production from selective breeding.

#5. Not killing the cow when production drops

Dairy cows are typically considered spent and sent to slaughter at around five years of age after around three cycles of calving and milk production. Yet cows can live 15-20 years and the oldest cow on record lived to 48. If those years are unproductive, that’s three times longer life span, at face value and assuming we see the same loss of production in older cows who aren’t dried out each year and only had one calf, this would triple the price of milk.


But we’re also only dealing with one production cycle, if standard practices were used because milk production drops off after a few months, one cycle of calving would need substantially less milk. At the extreme end, if we assume the industry standard of drying a cow after 305 days to stop milk production, we’d be looking at 2,500 liters instead of 27,000 liters or even 28,500 liters since male calves aren’t fed any milk.

That would multiply the price of dairy by an additional factor of 13.5 over those five years for a total increase in price of 40.5 times higher for only making the cow have one calf and letting her live out her life. [14]

Luckily for any potentially more ethical dairy industry, it’s a myth that cows have to be kept pregnant to produce milk, but it’s not a myth that they have to be kept pregnant to produce an economically viable amount.

Production drops massively giving a poor return on feed, so much so that I couldn’t actually find an example of this being done. In the dairy industry it seems to be unheard of and only the case when somebody is like keeping a family cow for personal use.

Based on a crude extrapolation from the production curves available and other scant information like this international collaboration, where it was reported that dairy farmers in India get one to two gallons daily, which is improved by a third for better feed and care, it looks like production from cows who are milked longer is about twenty to thirty percent.

Being generous let’s say 30% increase in production for cows who are milked longer, which means an increase in cost by a factor of 3.33 for the years after calving.

I couldn’t find any evidence that cows stopped producing milk at a particular age, the record holder for longevity at 48 years old had 39 calves.

So what’s the damage?

Cost (Spoiler! It’d be hella expensive)

The first two years are growth and that’s the same for any cow, once they calve they’re producing about 5,000 liters 1st 10 months, half of which is consumed by the calf given unrestricted access, leaving 2,500 litres, 10 months is typically when calves wean on their own, after that we get 30% of 10,000 litres or 1,500 every 10 months, 300 to finish off the first year then 1,500 a year potentially over the next 12 years in optimal conditions, that is a lifetime production of 24,000 liters per cow for these more humanely treated cows over 15 years compared to 28,500 liters per cow over five years. That’s 85.6% of the milk with triple the cost for feed and care or about 3.5 times the price per gallon.

It would probably be higher since calves receive significantly less input and older cows are going to need more care, but again I’m being generous.

None of this takes into account the treatment of the cows aside from not having their babies taken away, having lower milk production to reduce some of the more severe health risks and not being killed for low production.

If we multiplied it by $3 gallon milk, roughly the price of milk now, then we’re talking about 15 years of cows living in factory farmed conditions instead of 5 years in factory farmed conditions, with the calf joining the mother in the cage. Is that really an improvement?

There are farms that have otherwise more decent welfare standards like allowing cows to roam freely, the milk from these farms tends to be closer to $6 dollars a gallon so 3.5 times $6 a gallon would give us $21 per gallon over 7 times the current price of most milk.

Ahimsa dairy a no-kill dairy, sells milk at $10 a gallon, so this is probably getting closer to what we would expect, but it’s unclear what corners they are cutting to get the cost even that low, they are probably still using cows with very high, double healthy levels of production, which would explain why it’s half the price and basically turning out the males and older cows with very little care when they don’t produce or are too old to work. And to be clear they do work the bulls, they say they provide hospice, but it’s not clear what that means, it looks like they’re relying on donations to fund cow retirement and so this isn’t really part of their business plan, so probably not sustainable.

And we haven’t even talked about climate change, the environmental consequences of this kind of milk production are even worse than factory farming. 3.5 times the number of cows for the same amount of milk production, that’s a lot of enteric fermentation.

So what would the carbon offset for something like that look like, well I’ve been careful to use largely industry and NGO sources for all of this instead of pro-vegan sources and I won’t use the vegan source here either, I’ll take it straight from an industry propaganda site.

With folks being more mindful about what they eat and how that impacts the environment, we know some may wonder what is the carbon footprint of milk? We are happy we can help; a gallon of milk produced in the U.S. has a carbon footprint of 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to research conducted by the University of Arkansas.

So 17.6 lb * 3.5 = 61.6 lb (0.0279 tons)

At $120 per ton a commonly cited speculative price for many technologies, that adds another three dollars and thirty five cents to the total bringing the grand total for what we can calculate to a little over twenty four dollars per gallon.

Plus another $1.28 for bull care? It’s not clear how much bulls really cost since their retirement would probably be lower maintenance than active milking.

I can buy a half gallon of silk soy milk for 3 dollars and 29 cents or $6.58 cents a gallon at just a regular grocery store, just sayin’.

And then there are the costs that are less easy to account for, like antibiotic-resistant superbugs and the human lives those cost, I talked about this a lot in this video.

I guess you’ll just have to decide what that’s worth to you, since it’s really stretching the limits of how much research I can do in one video, it’s fair to say that antibiotic use would be less with healthier cows, but it could still be an issue. So all that said, it seems like more ethical dairy could be possible, it really depends on how much you’re willing to pay to reduce and offset most of the harms inherent in the industry, but if you see a price tag under $24 per gallon be sceptical, be very sceptical.



1. Animal Use vs Exploitation

2. Mayim Bialik: The good old days of animal cruelty?

3. AVMA on tail docking

Anecdotal reports of the benefits of tail docking are not currently supported by data in the scientific literature. Tail injury from trampling can be minimized by maintaining a lower stocking density and providing solid flooring and/or bedding for cattle. Tail docking has been experimentally shown to cause minimal adverse physiologic effects; however, fly avoidance behaviors are more frequent in docked cattle, suggesting potential long-term adverse behavioral effects. Increased temperature sensitivity and the presence of neuromas suggest that chronic pain may be associated with the procedure.

3b. Cow Culling

Controlling production costs while maximising income is a priority for dairy farmers. Maintaining herd size is a major driver for turnover, yet the cost of rearing replacements is not well enough managed by the majority of farmers.

4. Sexed semen

Compared to using conventional semen, McGrann says using sexed semen makes economic sense for beef and dairy producers when the gender value difference is at least $150. That’s without considering genetic progress and other indirect values producers may attach to having more calves of one gender than another. Plus, McGrann emphasizes semen costs represent a small percentage of the total breeding cost. If you’re unfamiliar with it, sexed semen is purchased based on the concentration of sperm cells it contains for a particular gender. For example, 90% heifer semen means it contains at least that percentage of heifer sperm cells, meaning you’ve got at least a 90% chance of getting a heifer. Semen that is 75% heifer semen means you’ve got at least a 75% chance and so on. Incidentally, producers who want semen sexed from their own bulls can choose the gender concentration. The more concentrated, the more it costs.



7. Mastitis

8. Indiana milk production graph


10. FAO on milk production and cow welfare

11. Calves are not being given enough milk

12. Other Factors Affecting Milk Yield and Composition

13. How many calves does a cow have in a lifetime?

14. Milk Production and Biosynthesis

15. Discovering mutual challenges and goals among dairy farmers in Northern India & Northern California

16. Slaughter-Free Milk Is Great for Cows, But Not the Environment

17. Carbon footprint


UV showing the math:

Three Cycles is a guess between the 2-4 referenced in industry sources. I can’t find recent information on actual averages in the dairy industry. One from 2013 says 2.4, but other sources in the UK listed over 3.

0(1st) + 25(2nd?) + 25(3rd) / 3 = 16.666%*
16.666%* 4/5ths = 13.333%

*close to 17% actually
**Actually 88.6666% (I rounded down earlier, which was more generous to “humane” dairy)

2000 / 9000 = 4.5


1st two years = 0 liters

*Cow’s third year*

5,000 (1st 10 months after giving birth)

2,500 (for the calf)
300 (remaining 2 months)
2,800 liters/cow/3rd year

*Lifetime Production*

0 liters (1st 2 years)
2,800 liters (3rd year)
21,600 liters (years 4-15)
24,400 liters/cow/lifetime

24,400 liters / cow / lifetime
28,500 liters / cow / 5 years

So that’s 85.6% of the milk produced by factory farmed cows with triple the costs for feed and care.

3.5 times the price per gallon.


17.6 lb * 3.5 = 61.6 lb (0.0279 tons)

$120 * 0.0279 = $3.35

$21 + $3.35 = $24.35 / gallon