Dairy farming has been around for generations. From small farms supporting one family to mega-sized dairy operations providing milk for commercial sale, there is one thing central to it all: Cows. The humane treatment of these docile animals continues to be a topic of discussion, such as whether they feel pain when milked often enough.
Healthy cows do not feel pain when being milked on a routine basis. A cow's udder is designed by nature to stand up to a newborn calf's vigorous suckling and, by extension, to a human or machine milking. However, if left untreated, certain illnesses can cause pain during the milking process.
Of course, it isn't possible to actually ask a cow about pain during milking. (Too bad since that would answer this question once and for all!) However, there are research studies and observational evidence that can help us make an informed decision. So, let's mooo-ve along and see what we can find out.
Cows and the Milking Process
Milking a cow is one of those things that leads people to quote the old adage, "the more it changes, the more it stays the same."
For time immemorial, a cow has been milked by bringing Bessie into the barn, cleaning the teats, grabbing a milk receptacle, and artfully tugging on the teats and udder. Milk flows.
Typically a cow only produces milk after the birth of a calf. Many nursing cows give enough milk to feed the calf with plenty left over for their human caretakers, often as much as eight or more gallons a day. Farmers may need to milk a new mother cow every other day or so since the calf suckles daily.
Dairy cows that are raised for the sole purpose of producing milk need to be milked daily. Many produce enough milk to warrant multiple milkings in a day. This continuing, labor-intensive need eventually brought about automated milking systems (AMS).
So, whether there's a suckling calf, you hand milk one cow, or have a barn full of Bessies hooked to automated milking machines, it is for the same reason: to relieve Bessie of her milk and provide nourishment to another creature—animal or human.
What Does Milking Feel Like for Cows?
The closest comparison we have to what cows feel when being milked is what a human mother feels when breastfeeding her baby or pumping milk to store and use later. It's a completely natural experience that, when done right, is not painful.
Breastfeeding a baby gives a sense of relief to the mother. In preparation for feeding, a mother's milk accumulates in the milk ducts in response to physiological stimuli. The more milk a baby drinks, the more milk the mother makes.
Cows and human mothers share similar experiences during the lactation period. Of course, the actual parts look a bit different, and we give them different names, but the basic biology works the same.
- 1Calf (baby) is born and begins to suckle (nurse).
- 2Suckling releases hormones in the mother and causes her to produce milk.
- 3Milk is made and squeezed out through milk ducts in the udder (breasts).
- 4As a result, udders (breasts) begin to feel full and heavy.
- 5The calf, baby, or machine latches onto the teat and begins to suck.
- 6Suckling, nursing, or pumping draws milk out of the udder (breast) and relieves the pressure and heaviness the mother feels.
Automated milking parlors have evolved through the years. They now offer several features to ensure that the process is comfortable and pain-free since cow comfort is essential in milk production:
When the entire process is handled correctly and humanely, neither a cow nor a human mother should feel any pain while their little one or an automated machine is expressing milk.
Reasons Why Milking Might Be Painful to Cows
We've established that milking is not painful for healthy cows in a typical setting. There are, however, circumstances when the milking process might be painful for cows. In these cases, it's imperative to address the issue and alleviate any pain and suffering the cow might feel.
Mastitis is a common health problem among cattle in the dairy industry. It is an inflammation of the mammary gland caused when bacteria enter the udder. On the business side of dairy farming, it can lead to a reduction in milk production.
On the humane side of things, mastitis can cause pain for the cow during the milking process. The udder becomes swollen and distended, and the cow may be uncomfortable when walking.
Abomasal Displacement in dairy cattle is when the abomasum, one of the four parts of a cow's stomach, moves out of its normal position or twists upon itself. When it occurs, the displacement most often happens during the first three months of lactation.
This condition is excruciating for a cow, causing much distress and usually leading to decreased milk production.
Dry-off is the time during lactation when the milking is gradually or abruptly stopped. The mammary gland continues to make milk, which causes pressure and even engorgement for the cow. The cow may experience pain during milking as a result.
Cows with this dry-off issue will express their pain by lying down or responding aggressively to any udder manipulation.
Milking is handled on a regular schedule for the cow's benefit. Frequent, routine milking is best for the cow's overall health and well-being. Dairy cows are usually milked two to three times per day. With automated milking systems, a cow can decide when she wants to be milked.
If, for some reason, a cow does not get milked at the usual intervals, milk will build up in the udder, and she will become uncomfortable. Extreme cases of not being milked (going days between milkings) can cause udder injury, bruising, illnesses like mastitis, and ultimately rupture of the udder.
More commonly, in the shorter term, not milking a cow regularly will cause her to eventually stop producing milk, ending the lactation period until she calves again.
How Can You Tell a Cow is in Pain While Milking?
Since cows can't verbally tell us what they're feeling, they show us by expressing their pain and discomfort with behavior changes. According to a 2015 study on Pain Evaluation in Dairy Cattle, cows will exhibit certain behaviors when experiencing pain:
Other pain behaviors can include a decreased appetite and stamping or kicking when milking attempts are made.
Who doesn't love the sight of a herd of brown or black and white cows out in the field? It's the pastoral scene of storybooks and movies we all recognize and enjoy. Yet dairy farming goes way beyond that idea to using cattle for the mass production of milk.
Of course, as caretakers of these gentle creatures, we are or should be, concerned about their welfare during the milking process. But it's a relief to know that regular milking does not cause pain for a healthy cow.