The case against modern dairy farming
In recent months, dairy cows have been discussed mainly in relation to two other subjects: Bovine tuberculosis, and badgers. The ongoing cull has understandably been the focus of huge public debate, with one side blaming badgers for spreading bTB to cattle, and the other arguing the slaughter of badgers will have no meaningful impact on halting the disease.
In the middle of all the arguments, of course, stand the poor cows. So let’s put them at the heart of this conversation. Instead of shooting badgers to ‘save our cows’, is there a better way to improve their lot?
Many experts argue that there is – and that in fact, the majority of suffering dairy cows go through is caused by the modern, intensive farming systems they are part of.
Here’s the case against the modern dairy industry…
A fair price for farmers
As dairy consultant Steve Jones argues here, the current, modern system of dairy farming suffers from an inherent imbalance. The prices most supermarkets are willing to pay for milk are so low that small dairy farms just can’t make ends meet.
These super-tight margins have, over the years, pushed farmers into having larger and larger dairy herds, and employing more intensive farming methods – which lead to the many problems described later in this article.
So, at the heart of the problems with modern dairy farming is the fact that farmers are not being paid a fair price. And of course we – the public – need to take some responsibility for that. How many of us would be happy to pay significantly more for a pint of milk?
The pricing issue is made worse by a lack of basic understanding among consumers. Many people don’t much think about where their food comes from, or how it gets to them. And so the imbalanced cycle – with one side making big profits and the other side struggling to keep its head above water – is allowed to continue.
What happens to the calves?
In order to produce enough milk to meet modern dairy farming targets, dairy cows go through a constant cycle of pregnancies. This ensures they lactate (produce milk to feed their calves) sufficiently.
Of course, the calves get hardly any of this milk, as they are usually removed from their mothers within 24 hours of being born. Animal welfare organisations maintain that this can cause severe separation distress in both cow and calf.
Female calves may be re-introduced into the dairy cycle, though that is not always the case. Many females – and even more males – are seen to have little or no economic value. As a result, they are sometimes shot in the head immediately, killed for veal (sometimes following live transport over long distances) or slaughtered to be added to various food products, such as pies.
Injuries and illness
Cows in the modern dairy system are put under a lot of stress – both mental and physical. This is one of the main reasons why UK dairy cows experience relatively high levels of illness and injury.
Dairy cows in the UK are genetically selected and farmed to produce the maximum amount of milk. Many produce up to ten times more milk than is naturally needed to feed a calf.
In a nutshell, that means a single dairy cow can be carrying around more than 20 litres of milk at any one time. This heavy burden can contribute to lameness, making it difficult for cows to stand or walk easily.
Dairy cows’ living conditions can also contribute to foot and leg problems. Many are kept indoors, in concrete cubicles, outside of the summer period. This can lead to cows standing in their own dung, softening their hooves and making infection more likely.
Dairy cows often also suffer from illnesses like mastitis and milk fever. You can read more about the main health issues affecting them on this page of the Compassion in World Farming website.
The spread of infection
Animal welfare campaigners also argue that modern dairy farming methods make herds much more susceptible to infectious diseases – including bovine tuberculosis.
Amongst stressed, exhausted cows, packed closely together indoors, disease can spread particularly fast. By the time an infection is identified and tackled, it has often seriously affected a large proportion of the herd.
A dairy cow’s lifespan
Another major welfare concern is the length of time a dairy cow can be expected to live. Cows can live for 25 years or more – but on many dairy farms, they are unlikely to get past five.
A combination of stress, exhaustion, lameness and infertility mean that their economic value rapidly decreases; so after just a few years, they are sent off for slaughter.
Modern dairy farming has a huge impact on wildlife and the environment, too. Small, traditional dairy farms used to be varied havens for British wildlife, supporting huge numbers of invertebrates and songbirds.
However, as larger herds of cows are kept indoors for longer, it becomes less important to the farmers managing them to maintain those outdoor meadows. Instead, those cows become a bigger and bigger drain on grain stocks.
And then there are the methane and slurry issues surrounding ‘mega dairies’. As Steve Jones argues here – would you be happy to live in a ‘methane belt’ stretching as much as 25 kilometres away from your local farm?
Humans and milk
Some high profile experts are even beginning to challenge the perception right at the heart of the matter: That we should all drink milk, and eat dairy products, because they are good for us.
Dr Alan Goldhamer at T. Colin Campbell Foundation, for example, argues that the evidence suggests quite the opposite – that dairy products are strongly associated with serious health conditions including childhood onset (type one) diabetes, asthma, cancer, obesity and arthritis. You can read his full report here.
What’s the alternative?
So, if you want to continue drinking milk – but you don’t want to be a part of the system that causes all these problems – what are the alternatives? And what can be done to encourage humane sustainable dairy farming?
In legislative terms, Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming Philip Lymbery outlines some of his proposed legislative solutions here.
And perhaps we need to look backwards, rather than always straining to produce more and more for less and less.
It seems that in many ways, traditional, pasture-based, smaller-scale or organic systems might be the answer.