ORGANIC MILK. What about organic milk as a more ethical alternative? The "organic" label is supposed to be used only if cows spend a good part of their lives in outdoor pastures...
Section §205.239 or the USDA Organic standard mandates that:“The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals including ... access to the outdoors, and, access to pasture for ruminants.”... but unfortunately some dairies get away with minimal adherence to the standard.
If you drink organic milk (in the US), you will want to read a scorecard that's been created by an organization called Cornucopia. There are lots and lots of high-scoring local brands. Unfortunately, some of the biggest brands, like Horizon and O-Organics, do miserably. Organic Valley and Whole Foods score high.
THE VEAL QUESTION. When I first saw the Peta video Meet Your Meat I was shocked when Alec Baldwin intoned "if you drink milk, you are supporting the veal industry." The male offspring of constantly impregnated dairy cows have no commercial value to the dairies, so they're destined to become veal. Or so he says.
I stopped eating veal back when someone handed me a leaflet in front of a Burger King in Boston about 25 years ago. I don't want to support the veal industry (and you don't either). So what's the deal? If you drink organic milk, are you supporting the veal industry?
I wrote email messages to two organic milk suppliers, Horizon and Organic Valley after watching the video (about five year ago, when I was buying both brands), and both told me the same thing. No, organic male calves do not become veal. The reasons both gave were purely economic. The mainstream dairy industry meets all the demand there is for veal. Plus, organic calves are too expensive to be bought by veal producers. Based on that explanation, I would think this is the case for organic males in general, and not just males at these two dairies (but I'd like to see the issue addressed by Cornucopia).
So what becomes of male calves? For the most part, they become organic beef (the messages both said). Do dairy breeds make good beef? I suppose they must make "good enough" beef--for soup, pet food, who knows what. Organic beef cattle are better treated than regular beef cattle. The important difference is that they never wind up being bulked up at a feedlot, where they'd have to be stuffed with very inorganic antibiotics, hormones, corn, and worse. (That doesn't mean there's no branding, dehorning, and castration.)
So organic milk drinkers do support the organic beef industry, but not the regular beef industry, and not the veal industry. Lacto-vegetarianism has its roots in India, where it truly was a no-kill affair. Male calves grew up to be used for labor in that cultural setting, not for meat. But in western societies today, there's no separating milk from killing. (There could be no-kill milk in the future--see this post about bull semen sorting.) But milk doesn't have to go hand in hand with the barbarities of veal and feedlots.
If you drink milk, there are lots of reasons to choose organic, but you really do need to read the Cornucopia scorecard.