Social Issues

The Dark Side of Happy Cows

5 min read

The California Milk Board extended their series of "Happy Cow" ads. But the true plight of factory farmed dairy cows keeps them anything but happy.

In July 2010, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that essentially prohibits, starting in 2015, any egg from being sold in the state that comes from caged hens. This bill became law 20 months after a majority of California voters approved Proposition 2. It’s clear now that concern for the living conditions of livestock is no longer the province of animal rights activists alone.

Recognizing how widespread concern about the humane treatment of farm animals has become, the California Milk Advisory Board proceeded to ramp up its 10-year “Happy Cow” advertising campaign. A series of ads proclaimed that “Great milk comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows come from California.” These ads have been shown across the nation.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the ads. For one, they weren’t filmed in California at all. They were filmed in Auckland, New Zealand.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Milk Board ads claim that 99% of California’s dairy farms are family owned. But in order to arrive at this figure, they count rural households with only one or two cows. Meanwhile, there are corporate-owned dairies in the San Joaquin Valley which have 15,000 or 20,000 cows. It is these far larger enterprises that produce the vast majority of California’s milk.

The Problem with California’s Happy Cows Campaign

My primary problem, let me emphasize, is not with small-scale family farms. Nor is it with the many hard-working families who treat their cows well, take care of the land, and try to bring a healthy product to market. I don’t consume dairy products myself, but I know many people do. My problem is with the corporate agribusiness factory farms to whom the animals in their care are nothing but sources of revenue.

The “Happy Cow” ads present the lives of California dairy cows as exemplary models of the humane treatment of livestock. But thanks to the practices employed by the state’s large dairies, the amount of milk produced yearly by the average California cow is nearly 3,000 pounds more than the national average. This increased production may seem like a good thing, but it’s at a great cost to the animals. The cows are routinely confined in extremely unnatural conditions, injected with hormones, fed antibiotics, and in general treated with all the compassion of four legged milk pumps. Roughly one third of California’s cows suffer from painful udder infections. And more than half suffer from other infections and illnesses.

The Reality of Commercial Dairy Farms

Although genetically engineered bovine growth hormone is banned in many countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and much of the European Union, it is widely used in California’s largest dairy operations to increase milk production. Unfortunately, it also increases udder infections and lameness in the cows, markedly raises the amount of pus found in milk, and may increase the risk of cancer in consumers.

And there’s more. The natural lifespan of a dairy cow is about 20 years. But California’s dairy cows are slaughtered at four or five years old because even at that young age, they’ve become crippled from painful foot infections or calcium depletion, and can no longer produce the unnaturally high amounts of milk required of them.

If you were to believe the Milk Board ads, you’d think that the California dairy industry was a bucolic enterprise that operates in lush, grassy pastures. Some of the ads employ the slogan “So much grass, so little time.” But that isn’t even close to the truth. California’s dairy industry centers around the dry and barren Central Valley. Here, the cows are in overcrowded, dirt feedlots. Some never see a blade of grass in their entire lives.

Depths of Deceit

The ads are so full of BS that it’s hard to grasp the level of deceit. They show calves in meadows talking happily to their mothers. But in fact the calves born to California dairy cows typically spend only 24 hours with their mothers. Some don’t even get that much. Here is a video that reveals what actually happens to the calves.

The ads propagate the image that California dairy cows live in natural conditions. And that the practices of the dairy industry are in harmony with the environment. But the amount of excrement produced each year by the dairy cows in the 50-square mile area of California’s Chino Basin would make a pile with the dimensions of a football field and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it rains heavily, dairy manure in the Chino Basin is washed straight into the Santa Ana River. Some even makes its way into the aquifer that supplies half of Orange County’s drinking water.

The large-scale factory dairies in California’s Central Valley produce more excrement than the entire human population of Texas. About 20 million Californians (65% of the state’s population) rely on drinking water that is threatened by contamination from nitrates and other poisons stemming from dairy manure. And nitrates have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Those Happy Cows are Not so Happy After All

How do you think the Milk Board can defend such obviously deceptive advertising?  They say the ads are entertaining and not to take them seriously. But the Milk Board is not in the entertainment business. It has not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this ad campaign to amuse the public. It’s spent them to increase the sales of California dairy products.

Besides, does misleading the public become legitimate just because it is done in an entertaining way?

The Milk Board knows that showing calves being taken away from their bellowing mothers and confined in tiny veal crates won’t sell their product. Neither will showing emaciated, lame animals who have collapsed from a lifetime of hardship and over-milking, being taken to slaughterhouses and having their throats slit. But this is the reality for animals in the large-scale factory farms that produce most of the state’s milk. Covering up this misery with fantasy ads of happy cows who are actually in New Zealand is not amusing. It is perpetrating a sham on the public.

Why I Challenged the Milk Board’s Ads

This is why I joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a lawsuit that challenged the Milk Board’s ads as unlawfully deceptive. Thus far, the Milk Board has prevailed in court, even though it’s obvious that the ads lie to the public. Why? Because the California Milk Advisory Board is the marketing arm of the California Department of Agriculture, a government agency. And in California, in a truly Orwellian twist, government agencies are exempt from laws prohibiting false advertising.

Should we hold our advertisers, even if they are government agencies, accountable to reality? Should we require that what they tell us have some resemblance to the truth?

Fighting for Actual Happy Cows

In 2010, PETA erected billboards throughout the state that read, “California Cheese Comes From Miserable Cows.” PETA, of course, is an animal rights group. But this issue is increasingly being recognized as one that concerns not only vegetarians and animal advocates. Consumers who want the animal products they buy to be from humanely raised animals occupy every segment of society.

Consideration for the plight of animals is a central part of the American character. It is an essential part of who we are as a people. The “happy cow” ads are an insult to the legitimate humanitarian concerns of millions of people. As consumers, do we want to reward this sort of behavior with our hard-earned dollars?

Abraham Lincoln was speaking not only for vegetarians or for animal rights advocates when he said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog or cat are not the better for it.”

Tell us in the comments:

  • Do you eat dairy?

  • What do you think of the Milk Board’s claim of “happy cows”?