Dairy Free Guide

By KD Angle-Traegner / Last Update: October 2019

Are you thinking about switching to a dairy free diet? Or, have you recently cut out dairy but have a few questions about the alternatives?

If so, you’re in the right place. I’m happy you’re here.

Many people have positive, almost nostalgic feelings about dairy products as a result of the incredibly successful ad campaigns by the industry. These unsuspecting consumers are shocked to learn that the dairy industry employs some of the worst crimes against animals in our industrialized food system.

First, let me tell you why it’s time to dump dairy.

Then I’ll show you how easy it is to live dairy free.

FAQ: Animals aren’t hurt or killed for their milk. Why shouldn’t we use it?

Many well-intentioned people overlook dairy products because the cultivation of the raw material (milk) does not require the immediate death of an animal. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The dairy industry is hell on the animals. It’s an industry filled with forced pregnancies, mechanical milking machines, industrialized living conditions, and grieving mothers.

Here’s the sad truth: Every single cow or goat used to produce milk will go to slaughter once their productivity lessens. In the end, they all die.

Why Dairy Free?

Why should you consider giving up dairy? There are plenty of reasons why dairy free is a good idea.

Let’s examine the biggest one: For the animals.

Dairy Milk Comes From Animals

Most of us didn’t grow up on a farm. What we learned about farming came from children’s books, toys, parents, or school teachers.

These lessons are usually general and brief; animals live on a picturesque farm with a farmer and his wife who love and care for them. It’s taught that milk comes from a cow, but it’s never entirely explained how.

What we didn’t learn from these sources, we learned from the dairy industry itself. The industry has spent millions of dollars on advertising and media campaigns promoting their products as healthy and nutritious.

They’ve been successful, too. I bet you can name at least two different ad slogans for milk right now, can’t you?

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

Many people are unaware of what goes into the production of milk, and that’s precisely how the industry likes it. Instead, it’s time to know better so we can do better.

Starting with the veal and dairy connection.

A closeup of a black and white spotted cow in a field of grass.

Robin. Farm Sanctuary. New York, USA. / Photo: JoAnne McArthur, WeAnimals

The Dairy + Veal Connection

Perhaps the most significant not-so-secret secret about dairy has to do with the cows themselves. And it’s a doozy.

Dairy cows are female cows who, contrary to popular thought, do not “naturally” produce a constant supply of milk. Like humans, a cow only produces milk after she has given birth. Because of this, she will endure a continuous cycle of forced pregnancies her entire short life.

An Aside: Although they have a natural lifespan of nearly 20 years, practically all dairy cows are sent to slaughter much sooner than that. According to this dairy farmer, there are a few reasons for this including:

  • She doesn’t produce enough milk to cover the cost of her food.
  • She is infertile.
  • She could have other health issues that require a veterinarian.
  • To maintain herd numbers.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of dairy cows give birth to calves. What happens to all of those babies? It depends.

Female calves are raised to replace the other cows in the dairy herd. Male calves are useless to the dairy industry, however. A small number are reared to replace breeders, but the surplus of male calves goes on to supply the veal industry.

I told you it was shocking. Before I went vegan, I had no idea. Dairy = veal.

The Veal Industry

Straightaway, it needs to be said that any industry built upon the life and death of another can never be ethical. But the veal industry is especially rotten.

Bull calves are considered a by-product of the dairy industry. These male calves provide little to no value to dairy farmers, so they’re handed over to veal farmers to rear.

The heart-breaking process begins with the calf being removed from his mother at a very young age, typically within a few hours of being born. After the birth and removal of the calf, the mother returns to the on-going milking cycle. (1)

Bull calves, on the other hand, can end up in a few places: A veal crate or a group housing.

Veal Crates & Group Pens

A veal crate is a small, individual crate that measures 2.1 – 2.5 ft (66 – 76 cm). They’re designed to prohibit movement; calves can be tethered or chained entirely immobile while inside. (2)

The system first appeared after World War II. At that time industrial principles were being applied to lots of things, farming agriculture methods included. Generally speaking, the idea was that the less movement possible created the most tender meat. (3)

Group pens, on the other hand, are barns that can house anywhere from two to groups of ten or more calves. 

Veal crates used to be the industry standard (and in some places they still are). This standard is changing, however. Several states here in the U.S. enacted bans against their use including Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island. (4)

According to the American Veal Association, group pens are now industry standard for all formula-fed veal calves.

No word on what happens to non-formula-fed calves, though. Do you know? Email me.

Forced Seperations

Before a calf ends up in a veal crate or group pen, they are removed from their mother. Here’s the uncomfortable truth about that: Dairy cows show obvious emotional distress when separated from their calves so soon after giving birth.

A newborn calf laying on a barn floor with the mother cow standing over her while other cows watch.

Mother and newborn calf / Photo: JoAnne McArthur, WeAnimals

Studies on cow-calf relationships in domestic cattle revealed that merely five minutes of postpartum contact between a cow and her calf is all that’s needed to develop a strong maternal bond.

The same studies also show that the strongest bonds among cows are between a mother and her child. And these relationships last long after the calf matures. (5)

Anguished dairy cows have been known to escape enclosures and travel for miles to reunite with their young. Others have hidden their babies in tall grass, hoping they won’t be found and removed.

Many dairy cows cry incessantly looking for their missing calves.

For every gallon of milk that sits on shelves, there’s a grieving mother who has just had her baby taken from her.

By the Numbers

Veal calves are slaughtered young; anywhere from three weeks to 22 weeks old. In 2017, the United States produced 80.2 million pounds of veal alone. (6) Bob veal, the youngest veal on the marketplace, is made from calves who are killed when they are less than a month old. About 15 percent of all U.S. veal is bob veal. (7)

The Dairy Industry

Now that you know it’s connection to the veal industry let’s talk about the dairy industry.

The typical dairy consumer likes to imagine that milk comes from a small family farm with a big red barn and cows lazily grazing on a hill. Farmers lovingly tend to each cow by hand, squirting a stream of fresh milk into a metal pail. Its rhythmic sound is familiar, even though most of us have never stepped foot on a working farm.

This idyllic imagery is so iconic that in 1935, a Los Angeles milk inspector invented the Dairy Roadside Appearance Program. The program encouraged farmers to clean up their properties, paint barns, and plant flowers to help preserve this farm facade to consumers. (8)

Today, the Dairies of Distinction Program continues in much of the same way. Attractive farmsteads reinforce dairy stereotypes while hiding the reality of what happens behind closed barn doors.

Now produced at higher levels than ever before, milk has become a global industry. And where is most of the milk produced?

On Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), aka Factory Farms. Small and medium-sized farms are driven out of business by these large scale operations, a whopping 86 percent of milk comes from 26 percent of farms with more than one hundred cows. (8)

Dairy farms are getting bigger, too. Farms operated on 1.3 million more acres in 2017 than in 2016. (9)

Modern Dairy Farming

Whether the cows end up on a large-scale factory farm or instead find themselves on a smaller farm, the process for obtaining milk is mostly the same.

Today’s average dairy cow will spend her entire life enduring repeated forced pregnancies in order to produce milk. She’s given hormones to increase milk production and antibiotics to combat sickness borne from the dirty, crowded, and unnatural conditions of the modern farm.

She’ll give birth only to have her baby taken from her within minutes or hours of being born. Still grieving, she’ll be put back into milk production until the cycle begins all over again.

The dairy industry could not exist without the exploitation of mothers and their children. And the veal industry could not exist without the dairy industry.


Is Dairy Cruel to Animals?

The life of a dairy cow — repeated forced pregnancies, separation from her children, mechanical milking sessions, and artificial (and often horrible) indoor living conditions — is just simply cruel.

Her children’s lives don’t fare any better either. Whether returned to the dairy industry or sold to the veal industry, most calves have no opportunity to be with their mothers.

Pushed by caring consumers, the dairy industry has implemented changes to husbandry practices. Like the phasing out of veal crates to group pens, for example. It’s true that these changes are more humane, but it’s also true that they still don’t provide freedom from being killed.

Free-range, organic, or more humane farming practices do not change that fact. Living vegan, on the other hand, can and does.

Dairy & the Environment

Animal-based products have an environmental cost.

Let’s take a closer look at how dairy products and the environment are connected.

Dairy Hurts the Environment

Dairy products aren’t just terrible for animals; they’re awful for the environment too. Currently, we’re in the midst of massive ecological devastation. Raising animals for foods like dairy products is the single-greatest human-induced source of destruction to the environment.

Dairy & the Environment - Dairy Free Guide - Your Daily Vegan

Living Dairy Free Helps the Planet

Dairy farming is a significant contributor to air pollution, ocean dead zones (10), habitat loss, and species extinction. It’s also a shockingly inefficient and wasteful use of our limited natural resources. Not only that, dairy cows also create a big, giant waste problem:

  • It takes 1,000 gallons of water to make one gallon of milk. (11)
  • One pound of cheese requires 900 gallons of water. (12)
  • Cheese generates the third-largest food source of greenhouse gas emissions. (13)
  • Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day. (14)
  • A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city with a population of 411,000 people. (15)
  • Dairy Cows create more than one billion pounds of waste in one day. (16)

Learn more about how animal agribusiness hurts not only the animals but the planet as well in this comprehensive guide, The Environment & Veganism.

Mothers Against Dairy

Because motherhood isn’t limited to one species.

Mothers Against Dairy is a worldwide movement that launched as a project devoted to sharing stories from vegan mothers whose mothering deeply reinforced for them the injustice of dairy farming.

I am a Mother Against Dairy: My Story

Every July 14th I sit down to write. Sometimes I write in a journal, keeping my darkest thoughts and ragged grief to myself. Other times I’ll write an article on this website that’s just a little too personal to make me feel comfortable hitting the publish button. Nevertheless, I still do.

July 14th is a bittersweet day. It’s my son’s birthday. We should be celebrating, but we aren’t and never will. That’s because my son was stillborn, he died before he was born.

There are reasons, explanations, and medical terms that describe what happened to my son. They’re just words though. None of them can change what happened; nothing can.

Saying Goodbye

I was 19 years old when Jonathon was born. He was full term and born several days before my due date and two days after his father’s birthday. Circumstances meant that I had no choice but to have a natural birth, knowing my son was already gone.

I didn’t know then and still struggle with now, how to cope with the loss of my only child. I held my son when he was born, trying to absorb a lifetime of love from the child I would never get to raise.

Our time together couldn’t last. I knew that eventually, I would have to call the nurse to come and get my son.  I would have to call the nurse, and once I did, I’d never see my son again.

I’ve never made a more difficult call than when I pushed the call nurse button. The time I spent with Jonathon seemed to go by in a split second. It wasn’t enough; I wanted more.

When the nurse came, I had a hard time letting go. Finally, I wrapped my son in a blanket, kissed his forehead, and handed him to the nurse. Watching my son leave I felt my heart break into a million pieces. Although many years have passed now, the hole his death left in my life feels as palpable today as it was then.

The Vegan Connection

I mourn the loss of my son every day. There is nothing that I wouldn’t give to be able to have raised him. It’s true that I never had the opportunity to mother my child, but I am a mother.

The feelings I have for my son, about the life I created and birthed, are profoundly maternal and filled with grief. I imagine any animal who creates life and brings it into this world, any mother, would feel the same way if they lost a child. And I imagine that their pain is as tangible as mine.

Separating families is what the dairy industry does. Children are taken from their mothers within minutes or hours after being born. My motherhood was erased when Jonathon died, much like the way we wipe away the motherhood of dairy cows. We pretend it doesn’t exist because it’s easier than acknowledging the fact that we are taking babies away from their mothers.

I know losing a child hurts — human or non-human — children are mere children to their parents. The pain of loss is not limited to species. Neither is grief. 

We don’t have to be the same as mother cows to care about them as individuals. In fact, we only have to care.

A young pregnant woman with the text, "My son would be 21 years old today. He was born stillborn. Jonathon was full term and circumstances meant that I was forced to have a natural birth, knowing my son was already gone. I didn't know then, and struggle with now, how to cope with the loss of my first and only child. And as a mother haunted by this loss, I cannot help but think of the dairy industryand its never-ending cycle of forced births and stolen babies. Cows carry their young for nine months, building the biological bond with their children long before they give birth. They have deep maternal instincts, yet newborn calvesare taken from their mothers within hours of birth, causing extreme distress for both. My motherhood was erased when Jonathon died, just like we erase the motherhood of animals used for food. We pretend it doesn't exist because that's easier than acknowledging the fact that we are taking babies from their mothers. But the pain of loss is not limited to species. Neither is grief." - KD Angle-Traegner.

Dairy Free Food Guides

Whether you are new to dairy free living or a seasoned pro, these guides are for you. They’re filled with all the important things you need to know about vegan and dairy free alternatives. Each guide features an introduction to the issue, a comprehensive shopping guide (links included!), a selection of recipes to try at home, and much more.

There has never been a better or more delicious time to go dairy free.

Coffee Creamer


Ice Cream


Sour Cream


Egg Replacements


Dairy Free Books

Ditching dairy and living dairy free isn’t hard, but it does take a bit of know-how.

Here are some books to help you replace dairy in all of your favorite dishes.

Are you ready for some dairy free inspiration? I’ve found a selection of books that are filled with tips, tricks, and helpful knowledge on tasty, easy to make dairy free recipes. From ice cream to cheese to everything in between, these books have it all.

Am I missing your favorite dairy free book? Email me to get it added.

Dairy Free Living Guide - Your Daily Vegan

Truth in Advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.

Please contact me if you find incorrect data.

Article Sources

  1. American Veal Association. (2018). Questions: Why Are Calves Separated From Their Mother So Quickly? Retrieved from http://www.americanveal.com/questions/
  2. Wikipedia. (2018). Veal. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veal
  3. Strauss Veal. Veal 101. Retrieved from http://straussbrands.com/our-meat/veal/veal-faqs
  4. Humane Society of the United States. (2018). Veal Crates. Retrieved from http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/veal.html
  5. Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). (2012). The Welfare of Animals in the Veal Industry. Retrieved from http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/hsus-the-welfare-of-animals-in-the-veal-industry.pdf
  6. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (April 2018). Livestock Slaughter 2017 Summary. Retrieved from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/LiveSlauSu/LiveSlauSu-04-18-2018.pdf
  7. American Veal Association. (2018). Questions: What is Bob Veal? Retrieved from http://www.americanveal.com/questions/
  8. Modern Farmer. (2014). Inside the Milk Machine: How Modern Dairy Works. Retrieved from https://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/real-talk-milk/
  9. USDA. (February 2018). Farms and Land in Farms 2017 Summary. Retrieved from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmLandIn/FarmLandIn-02-16-2018.pdf
  10. Groot, M. J., & van’t Hooft, K. E. (2016). The Hidden Effects of Dairy Farming on Public and Environmental Health in the Netherlands, India, Ethiopia, and Uganda, Considering the Use of Antibiotics and Other Agro-chemicals. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00012
  11. Cowspiracy. Facts: Water. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
  12. Cowspiracy. Facts: Water. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
  13. Environmental Working Group (EWG). (July 2011). Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change & Health. Retrieved from http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/report_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
  14. Cowspiracy. Facts: Waste. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
  15. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2004). Risk Assesment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Retrieved from https://nepis.epa.gov/
  16. Cowspiracy. Facts: Waste. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/

Dairy & the Environment Infographic + Meme Sources

  1. Cowspiracy. Facts: Water. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
  2. Hoekstra, A. (2008). The Water Footprint of Food. Retrieved from http://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Hoekstra-2008-WaterfootprintFood.pdf
  3. Cowspiracy. Facts: Waste. Retrieved from http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nutrient Pollution: Sources and Solutions. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions
  5. Environmental Working Group (EWG). (July 2011). Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change & Health. Retrieved from http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/report_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf

Photo Credits

Chances are you’ve seen the award-winning photography of Jo-Anne McArthur. Her documentary project, We Animals, is a project that documents animals in the human environment using photography. The objective, “to photograph our interactions with animals in such a way that the viewer finds new significance in these ordinary, often unnoticed situations of use, abuse, and sharing of spaces.”

Some of the images in this article were obtained from We Animals and are being used to help raise awareness. To view more of this project or to support its mission, visit weanimals.org.