Portrait of a Cow

This feature was published in the Sep/Oct 2022 issue of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.

Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow prompts a deeper look into the dairy industry.

Thursday, 1 September 2022 published by Resurgence & Ecologist

If we think of the dairy cows in children’s books, we probably picture a happy cow lolling about in a field, milked by hand by a nice lady in a mob cap. Our benign image of dairy farming is deeply ingrained. Director Andrea Arnold’s film Cow presents a different reality. It follows a dairy cow called Luma over a few years. We see her give birth, separated from her calf, and repeatedly milked by machines whilst standing on concrete. There is no commentary or explanation for the scenes presented, it is simply an invitation to consider the life of this mammal.

Perhaps it takes ninety-odd minutes of sustained attention to cut through years of looking away. Most of us are utterly disconnected from where our food and drink comes from. Luma’s life illuminated my own ignorance as I struggled to make sense of what I was watching. Was Luma’s experience typical of the life of a dairy cow in Britain? I wanted to find out.

Luma lived on Park Farm in Kent. The farmer, George, tells me that Luma was a Holstein-Fresian, like the rest of his herd of 350 cows. That sounds like a lot, but George says he still knows them individually, “You can line up my cows and I’d know the number on its bum by its face”. He milks them twice a day, first at 5am and then again mid-afternoon.

The happiest parts of the film are when Luma is grazing outside, looking up at the sky. George’s cows spend seven to eight months of the year outdoors, usually between March and October. Most dairy cows in Britain (over 60%) graze outside for between six and nine months and are housed over the winter. Around 20% are outside for three to six months, while 6% are now continuously kept indoors. This compares favourably to other countries. Worldwide, most milk now comes from cows that are kept exclusively indoors. In the US, fewer than 5% of cows have access to fields.

Cow begins with Luma giving birth and licking her newborn clean. After a short time together the calf is taken away. Luma moos. What does it mean for a mother to live without her baby? What does it mean for a calf to grow without the companionship and protection of its mother? Without the suckling, nuzzling and licking? The film can’t answer these questions but it provokes them as we see a relationship severed.

The dairy industry is predicated upon this separation. Cows produce milk, after they’ve given birth, to feed their young. To keep up milk production, cows must be regularly impregnated and the industry removes their calves and takes their milk. Most farms separate the calves within the first 24 hours after birth, trying to minimise the potential suffering by not allowing stronger bonding to develop. George follows this rule. He says cows react in different ways, some like Luma are protective and vocal, whereas others don’t seem to mind.

This is the most emotive issue within dairy farming. David Finlay, a dairy farmer in Scotland, says his farm tours alerted him to the public’s reaction to cow-calf separation. Visitors often asked why the cows and calves weren’t together, revealing how little people think about it. It was particularly an issue for women, and Finlay’s own wife and mother were disapproving. He now runs the Ethical Dairy which keeps calves with their mothers for the first five months of their life. Other farms in Britain are pioneering the same practice and the website Cow-Calf Dairies maps examples.

Finlay acknowledges that it’s still not perfect. “From three months we separate the cows and calves overnight, otherwise the calves would take all the milk. Weaning at five months is still a bit premature, but it’s a compromise because it would naturally happen at around eleven months.” To try to take the stress out of weaning he puts a little plastic tab on the calf’s nose which sits on their upper lip, so whenever the calf reaches for milk, the tab pushes the teat away. That means calves can be with their mothers, but can’t suckle, and after eight or ten days of that, they appear more relaxed about separation.

Another distressing scene in Cow is when we see Luma’s calf’s head burned with a hot rod. This is called debudding. It’s a process to remove the horn-producing cells of a calf before they grow into a horn. It’s done to prevent horns from injuring stockspeople. Luma’s calf is given a local anaesthetic so that they can’t feel the burning and then a painkiller to ease their discomfort afterwards. Sean Wensley, author of Through A Vet’s Eyes, told me that he is appalled by the common mutilation and would rather farmers start breeding hornless animals to avoid the practice.

Henry Mance, chief features writer for the Financial Times and author of How To Love Animals in a Human Shaped World, had no intention of becoming a vegan, until he learned about the dairy industry. I asked him what he thought of Cow and he told me, “You cannot help but notice how outsized and unstable these heavily-bred animals are. These animals have been relentlessly bred to produce more milk, pushing their physiology to the limit.”

It’s true that we’ve bred dairy cows to produce more and more milk at the expense of their own health. Most British dairy cows now birth around three calves and then they’re finished, commonly succumbing to lameness, mastitis or infertility. Shockingly, over one quarter of British dairy cows are lame at any one time.

Wensley says the backdrop to this ill-health is the low price for milk, pointing out that it’s often cheaper than bottled water. Finlay tells me: “in dairy you’re indoctrinated into the idea that your next litre is your most profitable, it’s ingrained into us to chase more litres.” George explains, “Our costs have gone up but the price of milk never did. We got around 24p for a litre of milk when I was a kid and we still get that now. It’s all about maximising what you get from your animals. We need cows to give us more milk.”

Watching Cow, Wensley couldn’t fault the treatment of the herd. The stockspeople were gentle and compassionate. The cows had fresh straw, health checks and preventative care. Luma birthed 6 calves, so she was around 9 years old when she died, living longer than most, though a healthy cow could live for 20 years.

George was saddened by the audience reaction to Cow. He acknowledges that he was born into dairy farming so might be desensitised to its practices, but he adores his cows. He allowed the cameras onto his farm because, he says, “I believe I do as good a job as I can, I’ve got nothing to hide.” He felt the film gave a realistic depiction of his farm. “It’s upsetting to have people slagging off my job, my way of life, my passion. It’s what I do and what I love doing. If you’re against it, don’t drink milk.”

George appreciated the new perspective Cow offered him, particularly seeing Luma giving birth. “I’m always at the back end but it was interesting to see her face, her eyes. I never see them in the field in the middle of the night, looking at the stars.” It was Luma’s eyes that stayed with me after watching the film. Having borne witness to her life, how do we meet her gaze?