Cow is a documentary film chronicling the life of a dairy cow and her calf on a dairy farm in Kent. There is no narration: the sights and sounds of the farm are left to speak for themselves, and the viewer is invited to empathise with the protagonists, notably Luma (aka cow number 1129).
The film begins with the assisted birth of Luma’s calf (she appears to be unable to calve naturally), pulled from its mother’s womb using chains wrapped around the legs. The calf is unable to feed, licking pathetically at its mother’s udder, so Luma is taken away to be milked. The two are briefly reunited as the calf is fed Luma’s milk from a container, containing the colostrum essential for the new-born’s health, growth and vitality. Soon afterwards, the calf is tagged on both ears and taken to an outdoor pen for weaning, while Luma is returned to the cow sheds. (The calf is later moved indoors with other calves.)
Elsewhere in the film we see the cramped indoor pens and the filthy walkways between them; the milking parlour with its appalling piped muzak (whether it’s for the benefit of the cows or the farm workers is unclear) and a separate cubicle for each cow; Luma’s enormous, pendulous udder (imagine carrying a heavy sack between your legs), contrasting with her emaciated body; the disbudding of her calf in order to stop the horns growing; and, in glorious contrast, the obvious joy of the cattle and calves as they are released onto lush summer pastures.
Cow inevitably contains some upsetting scenes, not least when the farmer-turned-slaughterman utters the ominous words “I’ll walk her down myself”, and we know that Luma’s end is near. However, this is the reality of life on what appears to be a typical dairy farm, perhaps one that is better than most. Luma is handled gently throughout the film (hopefully, this wasn’t just for the cameras), she is impregnated naturally (penned together with a bull and left for nature to take its course), and she is killed on-farm, sparing her the trauma of a one-way ticket to the slaughterhouse. There is a haunting scene where the cows are shown grazing at night, with Luma looking up at a beautiful, starlit sky. What can she be thinking? Pity the increasing numbers of dairy cattle reared in zero-grazing systems.
Around 800 million tonnes of milk are produced worldwide every year, which equates to about two litres per week for every person on Earth. Andrea Arnold’s film shows how much of it is produced, and it should be required viewing for everyone who consumes dairy products. (Cow was screened on BBC2 on 4 December 2022 and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer until November 2023.)
Paul Appleby is a Fellow of the UK Vegetarian Society and a former trustee of the Society and the UK Vegan Society. He was secretary of Oxford Vegetarians (the forerunner of OxVeg) for 25 years from 1983 to 2008. Until he retired in 2020, Paul was a Senior Statistician at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, working mainly on long-term studies of the health of vegetarians and vegans, including the EPIC-Oxford study.