Do Dairy Cows Have to Be Pregnant to Produce Milk?


Dairy farms regularly impregnate their dairy cows, usually through artificial means.

They wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t necessary, so common sense tells us that being pregnant has something to do with lactating.

However, I think where most people get confused is that cows are not continuously pregnant.

The Dairy Cow Milk Production Process

Here’s how the cycle looks like from a high level:

  1. A cow that is not producing milk is inseminated
  2. Much like humans, it gives birth to a calf about 9 months later, and only now will it start to produce milk.
  3. Milk production is high initially, and the cow is milked on a regular basis until fat levels (in the butterfat) get too low.
  4. Once fat levels drop, the cow is “dried off”, meaning the amount of milk taken from her is progressively reduced.
  5. The cow “rests” for a few months before the process starts again.

You can read more about how cows feel about being milked and the milking process here.

The way it’s talked about sometimes in vegan circles can give you the impression that as soon as a calve is birthed, the cow is inseminated again.

In reality, a dairy cow produces milk for months after birth.

It’s still an ethical issue, and a valid reason to go vegan, but it’s good to have a clear picture of what actually happens on a dairy farm, instead of spreading misinformation (purposefully or not).

Can Dairy Cows Produce Milk Without Pregnancy?

I’ve seen a few discussions about injecting dairy cows with certain hormones to simulate a pregnancy and stimulate lactation.

However, there’s not too much actual research on this at the moment as far as I can see, and it’s certainly not going to be standard practice any time soon.

So for now, yes, dairy cows do have to get pregnant in order to produce milk. However, they aren’t pregnant while milking actually occurs.

This is just one of the reasons why vegans don’t consume dairy.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

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