Retiring Cows: Where Would Cows Go?

What would happen if cows stopped working? 

This isn’t to suggest that cows will go on strike tomorrow. With special bedding and housing, automatic brushers, and nutritionists creating the perfect feed plans, all while dairy workers are preparing for the next milking to prevent any discomfort, cows have many perks at the workplace. Rather, there are those who criticize the dairy and livestock industries, arguing that animals should no longer be used to produce food and the country should rely on plant alternatives. So what would happen if this occurred as soon as tomorrow, ending the use of cows for food production forever? 

The most obvious problem is, of course, what would happen to these newly retired cows? 

Let them roam free! Please keep in mind that cows are not bison. Wild herds of cows are unlikely to roam the earth, reclaiming their natural habitat. Why? Cows have been domesticated animals for centuries, with the herd and their farmer having a symbiotic relationship. The cows produce milk for the dairy farmer’s livelihood while the farmer provides a comfortable home with nutritious food and any necessary medical care. The two need each other to survive. If the cow was removed from the dairy farm and her farmer, she wouldn’t know where to go for food or shelter. 

And if there was no business, cows couldn’t stay on the farm. With no demand for cattle, farmers could not care for their herd or sell them to someone who could, causing a loss of home for the cows and potential ruin for the farmer. This is something both wish to avoid on any scale. Though farmers work to increase and decrease breeding according to demand, giving the best chance to themselves and their herds, the cows already on the farm on this hypothetical retirement day would need to be relocated. 

Send them to sanctuaries! may seem like the simplest solution, but it isn’t. There are approximately 9 million cows in the US dairy industry alone. Sanctuaries would be overfilled with cows needing hundreds of pounds of food and water each day. And while these cows sent here would graze and need to be milked temporarily, they wouldn’t be providing their milk to the masses as part of a sustainable cycle. Cows’ caregivers would be scrambling to find the money, time, and resources to care for a sudden influx in retired cows that cannot supplement income for these expenses. 

Well, they don’t ALL have to go to the sanctuaries. People love hearing about pet cows! While the idea of returning to the world of the family cow gives a warm feeling of nostalgia, this is nothing more than a romantic notion of rustic living. Cow care is an important and crucial part of dairy farming. Even if someone can access and afford the feed, a cow is a much more demanding pet compared to a dog, and her “doghouse” needs more, too. The fantasy of owning a cow on not even a half-acre of land isn’t feasible, so how will neighbors in similar, surrounding communities do it? 

With few able to house them all and no longer used for their milk, the dairy cow population would have to dramatically decrease. While cows likely won’t go extinct, they will become less common in the world. We would have to go without their nutritious milk or their special contributions to a healthier planet.

If there isn’t a solution for 9 million cows in the US dairy sector, then the beef cows and cows from other countries not included in this hypothetical won’t make a solution any more plausible. 

Yet, if the world somehow rehomes the millions of cows in food production, this isn’t the only impact that the world will see. Next week, the series will look at what would happen to the land currently used by cows.