“It’s Pretty Much One Inbred Family.” This Is What Dairy Farmers Have Done to America’s Cows

A disturbing new article in Scientific American details how factory farmers have inbred America’s nine million dairy cows to the point where more than 99 percent of them can be traced back to just one of two bulls born 50 years ago. In fact, among all the male Holsteins in the country, there are just two Y chromosomes.

There is actually so much genetic similarity in America’s dairy cows that experts put the effective population size at less than 50. As the article states, “If Holsteins were wild animals that would put them in the category of critically endangered species.” Leslie B. Hanson, a professor at the University of Minnesota remarked, “It’s pretty much one inbred family.”

The cruel reason behind making millions of cows the by-product of mass inbreeding goes back to breeding for specific traits and the switch from allowing cows to mate naturally to forced insemination by farmers. Literally, a farmer will stick his or her entire arm inside a cow’s vagina and deposit frozen sperm. It’s horrifying.

A farmer deposits sperm inside a cow’s vagina
Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/Animal Equality

Sixty years ago, the average cow exploited for dairy produced around 5,300 pounds of milk each year. But after years of genetic manipulation and drug administration that force cows to produce more milk, that number has skyrocketed to more than 23,000 pounds. The article mentions one “prize-winning” cow that cranked out more than 78,000 pounds a year in 2017. Did anyone ever consider the physical toll these enormous quantities would have on the poor animals themselves?

Cows that produce huge unnatural amounts of milk suffer a number of hideous problems on dairy factory farms – from swollen, painful udders to infections that go untreated. Numerous undercover investigations by animal rights activists have documented this. Additionally, since cows are seen as nothing more than milk machines by dairy farmers, they are impregnated over and over again. After four or five years, cows’ bodies simply give out and they cannot continue to produce as much milk. At this point, they are considered “spent” and are sent to slaughter – some while still pregnant. Cows would naturally live 20 years or more.

A cow with udder inflammation on a Pennsylvania dairy farm
Photo credit: Compassion Over Killing

Aside from the cruelty involved in breeding cows to produce such enormous and unnatural amounts of milk, this inbreeding also leaves cows at risk for genetic defects and to huge swaths being wiped out by disease, since so many of them have the same genes.

There have already been problems, specifically with fertility. In the 1960s, pregnancy rates for cows were 35-40 percent. By 2000, that dropped to 24 percent.

By 2009, computers and algorithms were being employed to select males for breeding. This only made the genetic issue worse. “Inbreeding is accumulating faster than it ever has,” says Chad Dechow, a researcher at Penn State. The “inbreeding coefficient” for America’s dairy cow herd is currently at eight percent. For comparison, if you breed a bull with his daughter the inbreeding coefficient would be 25 percent.

There’s something else very bizarre and disquieting going on here as well. Scientific American points out that modern Holsteins are also specifically bred to be “tall and thin” because of aesthetics. “The ideal Holstein cow—at least in the view of people who judge these things—is feminine and refined. That means thin and angular.” WTF? As if exploiting female cows’ bodies weren’t enough, now they’re fetishizing them too? Sick.

A downed cow struggles, too weak to stand
Photo credit: Compassion Over Killing

While all of the above is enough to make anyone want to vomit, the good news is that the dairy business is dying. The Dairy Farmers of America reported a loss of over a billion dollars in net sales last year while sales of plant-based dairy alternatives soared. Additionally, the USDA reported that more than 2,700 dairy farms closed their doors for good in 2018. It seems the public is finally waking up to the horrors of the dairy industry.

From ice cream and cheese, to milk and butter – vegan alternatives to dairy products are everywhere nowadays. They taste fantastic and they’re so much better for you and the environment than traditional dairy. But just as important, they’re not products of horrific animal abuse. If you haven’t already ditched dairy, for fuck’s sake do it now.

Main image: Compassion Over Killing