Drinking Milk

Shyamasundara Dasa is the farm manager of New Gokul, at Bhaktivedanta Manor near London, England.

The question is often asked whether we should be drinking milk, because the modern system of milk production includes the killing of all the cows and bulls.

Are we implicated in the slaughter and what should we be doing about it?

This is the likely scenario of a cow from a dairy herd:

Cows are fed to maximize milk production even at the extent of risking their own long-term health.

Milking is done in milking parlors where one operator is responsible for often hundreds of cows. A suction system pulls milk from the udder. Robotic milking is becoming more prevalent where a computer replaces the manual work of a cow milker. The machine can identify the cow, provide the feed, locate the teats by laser, disinfects and then milks the teats, records the whole process. The modern milker is a computer operator.

Mastitis, an udder infection, is very prevalent in cows milked by machine.

Calves are most likely killed at birth if they are bull calves; regularly they are raised as veal calves where they are kept in small crates to restrict movement and fed a diet deficient in iron, which keeps their muscles white and tender to suit the tastes of the Western palate.

In almost all cases any calves not killed are taken away from their mothers at birth or very soon after and are either fed a milk replacement or are put onto another cow kept for that purpose. The natural bond between mother and calf is broken.

All milking cows are killed when they have reached the end of their scheduled number of lactations, when their milk yield drops below a certain level, when they are uneconomically unhealthy or when the farm policy changes. The average life expectancy of a British dairy cow is 5 years, whereas their life expectancy at the Manor is an average of 18 years.

It may be wondered if Srila Prabhupada was aware of what went on in modern dairies. Here is a quote from the purport of the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.17.3)

“But in the Kali-yuga, the calves are separated from the cows as early as possible for purposes which may not be mentioned in these pages of Srimad-Bhagavatam. The cow stands with tears in her eyes, the sudra milkman draws milk from the cow artificially, and when there is no milk the cow is sent to be slaughtered. These greatly sinful acts are responsible for all the troubles in present society”

As well as the unethical acts of modern cow farming there are deeper consequences that are born from the act of harming cows. These are mentioned as wars, social unrest, being killed by one's own mother and being born as a cow oneself to experience the suffering one caused on the cow.

What is a person to do faced with these ethical and karmic considerations?

It may well serve us to consider the things that have been advocated by Srila Prabhupada in regards to cows and responsibility. He has informed us in numerous places that we should drink milk and milk products. Sometimes he has written or said that we should drink a pound or a half pound a day and other times he has said we should drink as much milk as possible. Milk is the miracle food and contains all vitamins to sustain life. It is also brain food for the production of fine brain tissues for spiritual understanding.

A point of consideration is that milk is a food sanctioned and designed by God, by Krishna, for humans and not just for the calf. The cow produces more milk than the calf needs and this is not accidental but by design. To get milk from a cow you need to impregnate the cow (there are numerous examples where some cows gave milk without impregnation but that is another story) and after a pregnancy of nine months a calf will be born and the cow will produce milk. Out of affection for her calf the cow will give as much milk as possible. The first milk is full of colostrum and this will give the best start to the calf. After about five days the milk looks normal and this is then suitable for us to drink. The milk is for the calf and for us.

In our system of cow care we let the calf be with its mother for two weeks and drink whatever he or she likes and we will take the surplus. From the third week up to six months we graze or pen the calf separately and give him or her access to the mother twice a day. The calf's share of the milk roughly equates to 25% of the day's total.

So to get milk you need to impregnate the cow and then you will need to arrange for a person to milk the cow, for the milk to be collected and then prepared in different ways. It is natural for a cow to provide milk for people, this is how Krishna created it. Drinking milk from a cow is not wrong but is completely natural and Divinely arranged.

To drink milk is OK, to take milk from a cow that has been impregnated for the purposes of producing milk is OK, to milk the cow is OK, to sell the milk is OK. The farmers should do it properly though. They should not prevent the cow having a relationship with her calf. The cows and calves should not be killed. The bulls should not be killed. The cows should be milked properly and the whole herd should be cared for with attention and kindness for their entire life. What the farmers are doing and how they are abusing the cow should stop but the drinking of milk from a cow even though she and her offspring have not been properly cared for is not wrong.

Imagine rejecting a piece of art or other contribution by a person who has been abused or harmed in some way just because they have been abused or harmed. That would be a double wrong. Similarly to reject the milk of a cow that has been abused is also a double wrong. It is the natural role of a cow to give milk and it is okay to drink that milk.

There are consequences for any foods we prepare and eat and to avoid the results of taking the life even of vegetables we are recommended to offer these foods to Krishna for his pleasure. The person offering is benefitted and the plants are also benefitted. This is the nature of the devotional process. Srila Prabhupada has taught us to offer milk to Krishna and in this way we are benefitted and the cows producing the milk are also benefitted.

We have been taught that we are not vegetarians but that we are prasad-ivores; in other words we eat prasadam, what Krishna has mercifully ordained for us - vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and milk.

Grow your own, produce your own food, live simply, support farms connected with city temples and providing their needs, live self sufficiently, form a global society or community producing all its needs. These are some of the thoughts propounded by Srila Prabhupada. He wanted farms growing the produce of the society, and places where cows are protected, providing milk and milk products for the ISKCON centers and society.

Sometimes in the debate about whether we should drink milk the comment that Srila Prabhupada drank milk rings out loud. Sometimes the commentators forget to offer their milk and products forgetting about an essential element in freeing oneself from the implication of taking food.

There are those who are feeling very strongly the pain of the modern dairy system and think that we should be vegan as a solution. It is important to remember the hand of God in the natural arrangement for the production of milk. Abstinence from milk is not the solution and neither is it helping the cow.

At various places around the world there are those who are working to provide the most ethically produced milk in an atmosphere of care and lifelong protection for the cows, calves and bulls. This comes from an understanding of the message of Lord Krishna and explained by Srila Prabhupada and these initiatives are a dedication to the founder of the ISKCON society. These milk and products will cost significantly more than the modern dairy milk as more cows are cared for with more personal interaction with the cows and produced in a more natural and sustainable farm system. Would you choose this milk and products if it were available at a higher cost?

In summation, producing milk and drinking milk is natural and food sanction by God. Before drinking milk as Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna have authorized then drink offered milk. Offer your milk and products with a heart of devotion and actually benefit the cows further who have given so much. Don’t stop there; do something in pushing forward a cow protection alternative. Push the establishment of cow protection farms, as did Srila Prabhupada. As keeping your own cows will likely be unpractical then help those who are protecting cows. Find out what cow protection milk and products would cost and pay the difference to help establish this part of the milk-drinking story.

If there is milk available that comes from lifelong protected herds then take it even at a higher cost.

Support a goshalla and use milk and offer it with devotion. Help cow protection projects and help establish an alternative.