What Is the Value Of A Life? A Dairy Calf Story

I used to work in a specialty cheese shop. I was surrounded by cheeses from around the world and I knew the unique history and characteristics of each of them. Blindfolded, I could tell the difference by smell and taste. At the tender age of 20, I was a gourmet, a bona fide connoisseur of artisan cheeses. Every day, I lived, breathed, ate, and, according to my roommate, smelled like cheese. I was proud of that at one time. Even after becoming vegan, I pined for cheese. At least, I used to until I met someone who made me lose my craving forever.

dairy calves are taken away from their mothers at birth

Dairy calves are taken away from their mothers at birth. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur.

“Drop calf” is the industry term for baby cows who are taken from their mothers to be sold for slaughter. To a dairy farmer, a baby cow is competition for his mother’s milk and therefore an unnecessary cost. Along with animals the industry considers “old” or “worn out” because their production has slacked, “drop calves” are sold to the highest bidder at stockyard auctions throughout the country. These are the animals who end up in pet food or in cheap, frozen TV dinners. They also have their stomachs scraped after being killed for rennet, an ingredient in cheese.

As part of my work with an animal rights organization, I visited auctions to document what I saw. And what I saw was heartbreaking. But one particular image still haunts me: a tiny newborn calf covered in amniotic fluid, lying all alone in the corner of a dirty pen one bitter cold morning. Barely a few hours old, he looked bewildered, fearful, and in desperate need of his mother. “If he survives,” said a worker when I asked about him, “he’ll probably sell for a dollar or less.” One dollar. That is what his life was worth to the dairy industry.

Since that moment, the thought of eating cheese or anything made from milk literally turns my stomach. Because now, whenever I see such foods, I see him too. I see his disoriented expression. I see him shivering alone in a dirty pen. I see him cowering in the corner, wet with amniotic fluid. I see him again and again and again whenever someone asks about my veganism and then tells me they could never give up cheese and other dairy products. “I love it too much,” they might say, searching my expression for some hint of agreement. Instead, I think of the baby cows that milk really belongs to, the milk that is their birthright, and upon which their very lives depend. And I see it cruelly taken away because the person standing before me likes the fleeting taste of pizza, ice cream, or a glob of camembert spread upon a water cracker. And I think: is that what their lives are worth?

Got milk? Never again.


“What Is The Value of a Life?” is an excerpt from the book All American Vegan, by Jennifer and Nathan Winograd, and is reprinted with their permission.

Learn more about the cruelty inherent in all dairy production, even on small farms, here.

Ditch dairy cruelty with our Guide to Going Dairy Free, and check out our feature, Groundbreaking, Game-Changing Vegan Cheese Is Here.

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About Jennifer and Nathan Winograd

Nathan is a graduate of Stanford Law School and a former criminal prosecutor as well as corporate attorney. A vegan for over 20 years, he has helped write animal protection legislation, spoken internationally on animal issues, created successful No Kill programs, and has consulted with animal protection groups all over the world. Jennifer has been vegan and worked in the animal rights movement for over 20 years. She has written guides to vegan living and taught vegan cooking classes. She is a founding Board Member of the No Kill Advocacy Center and currently divides her time between promoting the No Kill philosophy, vegan cooking, and homeschooling her children.


  1. I’m sorry? Did I understand you to say cheese can only be manufactured if a baby cow is deprived of it’s mother’s milk?

  2. Pingback: Your Guide to Going Dairy Free: Plant-Based Milks, Cheeses, and More

  3. The story of the mother cow ‘s and their babies is one of the saddest, to work in the farming industry you would have to close your ears and eyes to the abject misery-suffering and cruelty that goes on around you.-she is -artificially inseminated -repeatedly-has her babies taken from her at birth-they cry for each other -he is taken to the abattoirs and killed within hours of being born -or confined in a pen not being able to move around-for veal -we all have choices -I always wonder -what kind of people do that to animals?

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