I remember their eyelashes. Big, dark, doe-eyes encased by long, wispy, soft, curled lashes on their demure black and white bovine faces. Newborn calves were kept in a teeny, tiny pen alone. As a young child, I was fascinated by these baby creatures. I thought it was quaint that they had their own little space, their very own tiny house with a front yard.
I grew up in rural Utah and had friends who lived on pastoral dairy farms—you know, the kind found beaming across every carton of milk. Sure, I knew cows lived there and I knew milk and cheese came from them. However, the exact mechanics of how eluded me. As I matured, and after enough games of hide-and-go-seek among these rows of sheds housing tiny young calves, I started to piece together a more sinister cycle taking place. It was a gradual tugging on threads of understanding, an unraveling of a dark truth behind those happy cows on those happy milk cartons.
As the winter melted away and spring emerged, new baby cows could be found hobbling about the farms, taking their first steps under the guidance of their mothers. My excitement turned sour as I got older and began to notice spiked nose rings piercing through these day-old calves. Hungry for their mother’s milk, the spikes stabbed her udders, leaving them unable to feed and bond. After a few days of this process, the calves were taken away from their mothers permanently. I will never forget the screams from the mothers and the cries from the babies in response. These babies would now be held across the farm, shackled inside a veal crate, though I didn’t know yet what veal meant.
In my early teen years, I became a Rodeo Queen—a rural rite of passage for gritty yet glamorous young cowgirls. Among other royal responsibilities of a newly minted Rodeo Queen, I was tasked with judging 4H cattle at the annual county fair. I watched in awe as pre-teen kids paraded their animal across the arena, radiating with pride. They hugged their animals, named them endearing pet names like “Daisy” or “Buddy,” and watched as their animal was auctioned off later in the night, sold by the currency of their weight in flesh. I then watched as these same children broke down in sobs while loading their pets onto the slaughter truck.
Curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to know why these cows—the ones with brown and black fur without spots—were the “meat cows” and the Holsteins—the ones with the iconic black and white spots—were allowed to live longer as dairy cows. I asked a nearby rancher there at the fair, and he scoffed saying, “Spots or not, they all end up at a feedlot.”
This Is Not Okay
Later in my teen years, I discovered a mysterious contraption on my friend’s family farm that looked like a medieval torture device. I wasn’t far off—the colloquial industry term for this device is “rape rack,” and it is used to impregnate dairy cows so that they can produce milk. Contrary to popular belief, cows don’t produce milk on the day-to-day. Like all mammals, they have to give birth before they start lactating. This discovery shook me as I had recently survived my own experience of sexual assault.
I knew that what had happened to me was not okay, and it should never happen to anyone, ever. As a woman and a budding feminist, I was learning the urgency and vitality of bodily autonomy and consent. I couldn’t compute that this industry wholly revolves around the commodification and exploitation of a mammal’s reproductive system. Because, lest we forget, we are merely mammals ourselves.
Marketing Is Not Reality
These vignettes of the idyllic barnyard scene live only in my memories as factory farming becomes the status quo. While these scenes continue to be advertised on milk-derived products, they are only images of the past. If such a place does still exist, they are more than likely not the source of the milk or cheese you purchased at the store.
What I have learned is this: dairying is not a reciprocal relationship. People can love cows and still send them off to slaughter. Cows do not endlessly lactate—they must be impregnated and give birth, and the device used to induce pregnancy is called a rape rack. Cows do not explode if they are not milked. In a natural world, their babies would drink their milk, but they can’t because they are taken away within days of birth to 1) follow in the footsteps of their mother or 2) be turned into veal.
That farmer was right. Spots or not, they all end up at the feedlot.
Natalie Blanton (she/they pronouns), MS is an activist and Sociology PhD Candidate at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. Natalie has been a rodeo queen, turned full-time animal rights activist, worked for multiple farmed animal sanctuaries, and as a community educator for Planned Parenthood. Now, at the university level, they teach undergraduate Sociology of Gender and Sexuality and Environmental Sociology.