Milk of Human Kindness
Long Live Biodiversity!
Milk of Human Kindness
Cover: Blue button jellyfish. Photograph: David Liittschwager/ National Geographic
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Friesian heifers. Photograph: Jean Frooms/Istockphoto.com
Organic dairy production sees the welfare of the cows as of paramount importance. It is a humane system, in contrast to conventional dairy production which values neither the cow or the farmer; merely cheap milk.
THERE IS NO SUCH thing as a short cut in North Devon, so I spend my time on lengthy meanders down a riddle of deep lanes. These journeys are often brought to a stop by a procession of limping cows on their way from field to parlour. I find myself halted in the road, engine stilled, forced to spend ten minutes or so, watching this harrowing sight. I would say that around half of these dairy cows are severely lame. It seems as if it is a painful effort for them to move their tired, bony frames forward. I say ‘seems’, as having studied Zoology I’ve had the ‘dangers’ of anthropomorphism drummed into me. However, I’ve also spent a while working with a vet, and it doesn’t take much of a sensibility to work out by looking at an animal whether they are in pain or not.
What I’ll say on the subject is this: I find it hard to look those cows in the eye. Their expressions have prompted me to investigate the matter of milk, and as a result, to switch to only buying organic milk.
So why do cows suffer from lameness? And is it necessary to keep newborn calves separated from each other in small enclosures for six weeks, in conditions where they can’t freely move about? What are welfare standards like on organic dairy farms? With these questions foremost in my mind, I set off to visit some organic farms in Devon and Shropshire.
Looking at just one aspect of dairy farming – lameness – illuminated for me the intrinsic differences between organic and non-organic dairy systems. Lameness, according to a dairy farmer who runs three organic herds near Shrewsbury, is caused by breeding, feeding and care. Take the issue of breeding first. Obviously if you breed dairy cows to produce the maximum amount of milk possible, then there is a physical price to pay for carrying around vast udders. Sometimes the body frame is put under such pressure that lameness due to a strain on the hips can set in.
Feeding dairy cows a diet high in protein content is a practice commonly used in conventional dairy farming to produce high milk yields (10,000 litres per cow, per year). This protein comes in the form of ‘cowcake’, which contains peas, beans, soya or fish meal. A side-effect of such a diet on cows is that their feet become ‘soft’, and, combined with the daily journey to be milked on hard concrete often covered with acidic slurry, this causes havoc with hooves (laminitis and digital dermatitis).
In an organic dairy system, there are strict regulations regarding feed. The bulk of the cow’s diet must consist of forage (grass, hay and silage), which is far closer to what a cow’s stomach is naturally designed for. There is an upper limit to the amount of protein a cow can be fed. The protein must be organic and is usually indigenous (peas and beans).
Of course, milk production is not so high on such a diet (perhaps 6,000–7,000 litres a year) but the stress on the cow’s system is far lower. So although organic cows produce less milk per year, they stay healthier and produce milk for longer: on average eight or nine lactations, or even, on a very unintensive farm, up to twelve to fifteen lactations. Conventional dairy cows, with their high yields, rarely ‘last’ more than three or four lactations. To put it bluntly, cows under an intensive system producing high quantities of milk often suffer from lower immunity to infection, infertility, udder problems or chronic lameness and are culled at an early age.
ONE OF THE keys to understanding the whole organic system of milk production, and its associated high standards of welfare, is that all quick-fix management aids are taken away. So, instead of applying artificial fertiliser to the pastures, organic dairy farmers have to use a system of rotation and natural fertiliser (i.e. dung). They get a lower yield of grass with this system, but the benefits are that the grass is of higher quality, and there is often a better mix of clovers (which can’t take high fertiliser application), with a result of better-
tasting milk. The lower grass yield means that organic farmers can’t keep so many animals on the same acreage as conventional farms. This lower stocking density allows for more natural herd sizes, lower stress levels in the herd, and more attention being paid to each animal by the herdsperson.
Another artificial management tool of conventional dairy farming is the routine use of antibiotics. This is to prevent mastitis in the ‘drying-off’ period when a cow is being brought out of lactation and into calf again. Mastitis is the scourge of dairy farmers and is a very painful condition for cows. It is caused by bacterial infection of the udders, due to dirty surroundings, or the amount of milk taken being incorrect, leading to over-full udders and blocked ducts. In most non-organic dairy farms, mastitis is seen as unavoidable, and instead of measures being taken to try to prevent it, all cows being dried off are given antibiotics. During this time the milk produced must not be used, so it is wasted.
Organic farmers are not allowed to resort to this routine use of antibiotics. So drying-off time receives a lot of attention from the herdsperson, with milk production being dropped gradually, and the cow receiving a special diet and being in as clean an
environment as possible, with a low stocking density of animals.
In fact, good management is a necessary hallmark of an organic system, to keep the cows in good health and producing milk, without resorting to frequent use of medicine. Many organic farmers use homeopathy, with, they say, good results. If antibiotics are needed, they can be used, but the milk must not enter production for nine days after the finish of the prescription – three times longer than is prescribed for conventional production – so the health of the consumer is also held as a high priority.
On the small organic dairy farm I visited in Devon, not one of the twelve cows was lame. I asked the Shropshire organic farmer what percentage of her dairy herd might be lame at any one time. She scratched her head. “Well, none, I would hope,” she replied, as if astonished by the question.
WHAT ABOUT CALF welfare? Dairy farming, whether organic or not, is essentially about keeping a cow either pregnant or lactating throughout her lifetime – without her calf. In both systems newborn calves are taken away from their mothers within a day after birth. Organic dairy farms work the same way, because if a bond is allowed to form between the newborn calf and the cow, and then the calf is removed, the process is much more stressful and harrowing for both animals. However, the systems differ in terms of how the calf is penned and fed.
The calves on most conventional dairy farms are individually penned for six weeks in small metal gated areas, with little room for manoeuvre, and certainly no opportunity to exercise. They are fed on either powdered milk, or milk left over from each milking. In contrast, organic calves are penned individually for just a few days. Organic regulations stress that these newborn calves must be able to see and hear other calves. These individual pens must allow calves to walk about
easily, turn around, lie down and stretch. After a week the calves are penned in small groups of two to five calves for a few months, before being introduced to larger groups. In addition, in an
organic system the milk that calves are fed must be at least 51% fresh, whole milk (as opposed to powdered milk), and calves are not weaned until they are at least three months old.
WHETHER WE SHOULD drink so much milk anyhow, because of health-related concerns, is outside the scope of this article. There is also the issue of what happens to the male ‘bull’ calves, and of the associated veal industry, both in the UK and abroad. However, if people want to buy milk, and they want it to come from cows that are treated with the highest welfare standards, then organic milk is what they should look for. Yes, it is more expensive, but the consumer is paying more for a less intensive system, where more time is spent managing the herd and pasture for optimum health all round.
On a last note, I know quite a few conventional dairy farmers, and they are not a cruel bunch. They are just being squeezed in the worst way, forced economically to maximise production. Although milk prices are finally rising, they still don’t truly reflect the cost of production, or indeed the unnecessary suffering caused. As one herd manager put it, “Getting a proper milk price is the biggest welfare issue of all.” So next time you buy a cheap pint of milk,
remember who’s paying for it.