To All the Bobbies Out There

Karoliina Kase



In 2019, I moved from Estonia to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa for a new start in my life. In order to extend our stay in the country, backpackers have to meet regional work requirements, which usually entails 3 months of work on a farm. I found my first full time job on a dairy farm as a farm hand.

I felt uneasy before starting work on the dairy farm due to my concerns about animal welfare. By that time, I had given up meat, but my previous exposure to small scale farming led me to believe that dairy production was not bad. Yet I was not prepared for what I was about to witness on a commercial dairy farm.

Throughout the three months I worked on the farm, I realised how animal abuse is an inherent part of dairy farming. On all dairy farms, cows have to be impregnated in order to produce milk. Female animals are impregnated almost yearly and the selective breeding of the modern dairy cow takes its toll on the animal. Even though cows can live up to 20 years, most dairy cows are sent to the slaughterhouse at around age 6. Since the milk intended for the calf is consumed by humans, young animals are taken away from their mothers as early as right after birth, which causes tremendous distress to the cow as well as the calf. While female calves are reared for future dairy production, male or bobby calves are mostly sent to the slaughterhouse as they are a waste product for the industry. Besides what is considered normal in the dairy production, I witnessed numerous accounts of neglect and abuse on the farm–cows physically abused, sick animals treated wrongly or not treated at all, inexperienced workers causing animal deaths, and disabled animals left to perish. Still, more experienced workers assured me that this farm was good with animal welfare.

Working on a dairy farm and washing tens of thousands of litres of water down the drain every day, just to clean up the yard after milking, made me realise how harmful the dairy industry is to the environment. Receiving wages below the legal minimum and witnessing how workers’ rights were violated, I learned how animal agriculture not only exploits animals, but oftentimes even people.

Even though my initial reaction after working my first day on the farm was to leave, I decided to stay and document life on an average dairy farm. While the focus of this project is on animals, I also consider environmental and socioeconomic issues.

I was given permission to photograph on the farm by the manager.

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  • For milk production, cows first have to give birth. Just like humans, the gestation length for cows is around 9 months. The main phase of the labour usually takes about half an hour to an hour for cows and longer for heifers. Like humans and other mammals, labour is often painful. Dairy cattle are especially prone to birth complications due to their larger frames. Calving complications lead to negative effects in health, production and fertility in the mother as well as the calf. It’s necessary that a properly trained worker or a vet checks on an animal in labour.

    This image shows a cow with relatively easy calving, the mother was relaxed and the calf was pushed out of the birth canal in less than half an hour.

  • The herd walking to the dairy.

  • After birth, cows spend several hours licking their newborn calves. Mother’s licking will stimulate the newborn’s bodily functions such as breathing, urinating, and circulation. The taste of birth fluids reinforces cow’s maternal behaviour and bonding with her calf. In this process, the mother also learns to recognize the smell of her newborn.
    While most cows are very motherly and often adopt other calves, some animals will reject their offspring. This is more likely with heifers. Cows tend to reject their calves if the birth was traumatic, painful or via C-section, as these can lead to hormonal imbalances. Mothers also tend to react more to active newborns compared to calves who are weak or dead.

  • While many dairy farms don’t keep bulls around, our farm had its own “bachelor” herd of about 20 animals. These were some of the few bull calves to make it into adulthood. Bulls are more muscular than their female counterparts. Compared to cows, males have wider skulls, thicker necks and larger legs. Some Holstein Fresian bulls can weigh over 1,000 kg.

    Depending on the breed, bulls can become fertile around 8 months of age, but it is recommended to use slightly older bulls for reproduction. And while the male animals remain fertile up until 10-12 years of age, most are only used for a few years and then sold off to the meat works.

    Head butting, as seen in this photo, is used to establish dominance between bulls.

  • This animal became ill after she wasn’t herded into the dairy and missed a few milkings. She was unable to get back on her feet again and refused to eat or drink. She was lying next to the farm’s gravel road and a worker would occasionally inject her with electrolytes. Unfortunately, she slowly perished in 3 days.

  • While animal welfare is one of the biggest issues of dairy farming, the industry also has a detrimental effect on the environment. The general consensus is that it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of cow milk. An adult dairy cow drinks between 50-140 litres of water each day (the amount depends on the animal’s size, type of food consumed, whether the animal is lactating and outside temperatures). Our farm had about 2,000 cows, so that makes about 190,000 litres of water needed solely for drinking.

    Furthermore, a lot of water is sent down the drain because of cleaning. An industrial hose is running for at least 12 hours during shifts each day, all year round. And after the shift is finished, the milking cups, the milking platform and the yards have to be cleaned from a layer of faeces–sending hundreds of thousands litres of waste water down the drain.

  • On our farm, cows were fed dry forage, wet forage, supplemented by concentrates.

    Physiological and external factors, as well as the type of feed determine how much feed a cow requires. Our farm had about 2,000 cows, more or less half of them were lactating at any given point. Hence, the daily dry matter feed requirement for our farm was roughly around 34 tons.

  • Risk of death is highest during the first four weeks of a calf’s life. The most common cause of death is scours (diarrhea), followed by pneumonia, but many deaths are a result of various factors combined (when the calf was fed colostrum, disease, housing, season, etc). Studies have shown that there are strong correlations between calf mortality and calf management practices. For example, feeding the calf his or her first colostrum 3 hours after birth, group housing before 30 days of age and feeding an inadequate amount of milk or milk replacement to the calf strongly increase deaths.

  • Working on a dairy farm is rough. A milker has to wake up in the middle of the night for morning shifts. They’re constantly covered in faeces or smell like it. Putting on cups fast and standing for hours gives an aching back. Nobody knows how long the shift will be. Might be 7, might be 15 hours. A milker might have to work an evening shift, followed by a morning shift, which means 3 hours of sleep. Illegally low wages? That’s quite common as people who end up working on the farms don’t have other options.

    Backpackers are especially exploited because many just don’t know the laws in Australia or are desperate to get their visa requirements signed off. The latter means that working holiday makers will endure illegal working conditions for a period of time, so they could receive a second year visa. Many employers treat backpackers as a cheap and easily replaceable workforce.

    Image shows a backpacker overseeing the herd during sunrise.

  • This calf was left on her own in a tiny yard, with no ability to see as both of her eyes were patched up to cure pink eye. No one brought her food or water on a regular basis. She spent a few weeks like this until the patches were removed and she was released back into her herd.

    Pink eye is a contagious bacterial infection. Flies, sunlight and dust are favourable conditions for the bacteria to spread. The infection causes irritation and tearing, followed by ulceration of the cornea. Many cases recover on their own at this point, but a few animals can go blind if the infection is left untreated.

  • Within 24h after giving birth, the cow should pass the placenta. If the afterbirth remains inside the animal or only part of it comes out, the cow can become ill. Some cows eat the placenta after it has fallen out. The main theories to explain this behaviour are nutrition recovery, bonding with the calf, instinct and predator avoidance. Some farmers prevent placentophagy, since there are rare cases of cows dying from choking on their own placenta.

  • Water tower.

  • Bonding time between the cow and the calf is cut short, because mother’s milk needs to be gathered for human consumption instead. On most commercial dairy farms, calves are separated from their mothers within hours. The abrupt separation of the pair negatively affects the calf as well as the mother and both can cry up to days. Calves miss out on suckling, which increases the risk of infectious disease and mortality. Furthermore, the calves don’t get the opportunity to learn necessary activities from their mothers, which otherwise would lead to improved milk production and maternal behaviour in the future.

  • Besides being one of the major causes for global warming, animal agriculture causes a myriad of issues which all lead to biodiversity loss. More than 80% of all farmland is used for livestock but it produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of protein. Mismanaged land, soil depletion and fencing increase migration and habitat issues for wildlife. Such transformations can eliminate 30-90% of biodiversity, depending on the local ecosystem and intensity of destruction.

    Rivers and lakes are sucked dry of water for animal farms and fertilizer/manure runoff poisons groundwater. Oftentimes, native wildlife is killed on farmland, because they’re either competing with farm animals for resources or killing livestock (predators). Humanity has wiped out 68% of animal populations since the 1970s. 96% of terrestrial mammals in biomass are humans and farm animals, while only 4% is wildlife.

  • Since most bobby calves will be consumed shortly after their birth, they cannot be treated with stronger medicine, which require long withholding periods. Hence many bobby calves live short and painful lives. Calf mortality was also the highest among male calves on our dairy farm. 450,000 bobby calves are slaughtered each year in Australia.

    This calf was probably born with brain damage, underweight, unable to move and the green paint on his head indicates that he wasn’t drinking milk. While the law prohibits transportation of calves in such poor condition, he was sent off to the slaughterhouse.

  • The first animals to go onto the platform will force their way onto the platform because of food. The last cows in the herd have to be pushed onto the platform, using the mechanical gate or walking them on.

    Once the animal is in a slot, a worker attaches milking cups onto her teats. Some animals are not bothered much, others will start kicking with their rear legs and kick throughout the whole milking. When teats have been overmilked or are scabby/cut then milking will be painful for the animal.

  • 1802 had a very complicated labour. She couldn’t push the calf out on her own, so three people tried to pull the calf out, without success. Eventually, the legs of the calf were attached to a buggie with a rope and pulled out. The due date for 1802 was missed, because a worker had accidentally marked it down incorrectly. 1802’s labour didn’t start naturally at the appropriate time, so the calf got too big and died inside her mother.

    1802 also suffered serious internal injuries from the difficult labour. 1802 lost her ability to get up on her own due to nerve damage. On this image, the animal is lying on a laneway after slipping in mud/faeces. Unfortunately, she wouldn't get up on her own anymore and was put into the sick herd. While serious mobility issues are a death sentence in animal agriculture, 1802 died on the farm on her own a few days later, most likely from internal complications from the labour.

  • After labour, 1802 started to get a fast buildup of gas inside her, which, if left untreated, is deadly. She was stabbed in the rumen, to release the gas.

  • Most rural communities in Australia depend on agriculture, but recent years haven’t been kind to the industry. 20 years ago, Australia was the third biggest dairy producer in the world. In 1980, there were 22,000 dairy farmers in Australia, now there are less than 6,000. Continuing drought in 2019, skyrocketing water prices and low milk prices have taken their toll on communities, which rely on dairy farming. Farmers have to buy extra hay and grain to compensate for dry pastures. Meanwhile, the lack of water has driven up its price, which consequently increases the cost of extra feed. At the same time, the price of milk has remained more or less the same or supermarkets don’t pass on the extra cost of the product to the farmer. This also means that small dairy farms are more likely to be affected, as factory farms are able to diversify their businesses and produce at lower costs.

  • Depending on the size of the herd, the last cows to be milked would have to stand in the yard for up to 7 hours (or longer if something unexpected happened). As the milking carousel rotates, a cow must walk into an open slot. The carousel should be in constant motion for most of the milking, hence a cow should enter an empty slot about every 5 seconds. For this reason, our manager did not want cows laying down in the yard. This was ensured by using a mechanical gate, which would be moved every now and then to keep the cows together as tightly as possible, forcing animals onto the carousel. Occasionally, animals were hurt by the moving mechanical gate.