How Now, Old Cow? Do “Slaughter-Free” Dairy Farms Come at an Unsustainable Cost?

As consumers, we’re more like sheep than we’d like to admit – that is, if sheep were tempted to buy food based on “free from” marketing. Gluten-free, fat-free, lactose-free, dairy-free and GMO-free labels are already firmly stamped on many of the foods we buy in shops and restaurants, and are associated with an invisible yet potent, virtuous halo. After all, if a slice of cake is gluten-free, it must be positively healthy.

The latest marketing wheeze appears to be “slaughter-free” dairy production – a 30 cow herd in Rutland, described as a bovine spiritual utopia, where calves are not weaned but run with cows as “grazing partners”; male calves (renamed as ”oxen”) are used for draught power rather than reared as beef; and once cows retire from milking, they are literally put out to pasture rather than being culled.

There’s no doubt that this ticks an entire list of ethical boxes – who doesn’t want to imagine that cows live a happy life browsing the buttercups once they’re too old to produce milk? Yet, given the critical need to produce food sustainably (in terms of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), it also leads to a number of questions.

While there may well be a niche market of consumers who are prepared to pay £4.50 per litre for slaughter-free milk; in an era when we primarily choose foods based on price, is this endeavour going to achieve long-term economic sustainability?

Food purchases for EU consumers

The environmental impact of dairy production increases with the proportion of non-producing (dry cows, growing heifers or “retired” cows) in the population – keeping retired cows out on pasture would be expected to add a huge quantity of greenhouse gases to the carbon footprint per litre of milk produced. Carbon footprint and resource use per litre is also negatively correlated with milk production – the low yields associated with this type of hand-milking operation would further add to its environmental impact. How do we, as consumers, balance the relative values of animal welfare and planetary health?

FAO LCA 2

In a system where no cattle are slaughtered, but where cows need to have a calf on a regular basis to produce milk, the herd size will increase exponentially over time. In two, five or ten years time, how will the owners reconcile philosophical arguments against slaughter with the difficulty of supplying enough feed to fulfil the requirements of an ever-expanding herd using a fixed quantity of pasture?

Finally, and most importantly, animal welfare should be the cornerstone of any dairy farm. Euthanasia is upsetting, yet is the only option when animals are too sick or injured to survive. As consumers, we need to take responsibility for the fact that slaughter of both healthy animals (for meat) and sick animals (for humane reasons) is an unavoidable, if unpalatable truth. Just as the recent ban on cattle slaughter for beef in India is going to have negative impacts on food security, economic sustainability and environmental impacts, it’s time that we faced up to the reality of food production and stop thinking that we can have our slaughter-free dairy and eat it!

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Does Size Matter? Dairy Efficiency Becoming Paramount During Crisis

Media articles relating to agriculture appear to fall into two groups. Those relating to small-scale agriculture are glowing accounts of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats; lovingly taking care of the land and animals according to holistic principles; and selling their produce at the local farmers’ market. By contrast, commentary upon large-scale agriculture invokes images of corporate-controlled factory farms with blatant disregard for animal welfare and local community issues; blithely pumping animal manure into water courses.

To consumers, the majority of whom do not understand agriculture, but have questions about how their food is produced, the choice (as presented by the media) is clear. Small farms must be better for the environment, the economy and the local community. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), we need to sustainably intensify food production over the coming years in order to feed the increasing global population. For many however, the concept of intensification and high-efficiency production systems appears to be contrary to the holistic, small-farm philosophy.

Small cows dominateI will be presenting at the “World Congress on Controversies and Consensus in Bovine Health, Industry & Economics” in Berlin later this week, and have been asked to debate the question “Are hyper-intensive, mega farms more efficient?” If we examine the science, the results are unequivocal.

To use the U.S. dairy industry as an example: over three-quarters (76.7%) of dairy farms have small herds (less than 100 cows) and only 4.2% are large, with more than 500 cows in the herd. Yet the contribution to total milk supply is disproportionate – those 76.7% of herds containing <100 cows produce only 13.7% of U.S. milk, whereas the 4.2% of farms with >500 cows produce 63.0% of U.S. milk. A 17% Large cows dominateincrease in milk yield per cow is exhibited in large herds compared to small herds – does this mean that so-called mega farms are more efficient? Yes. They have a higher output of milk per unit of input. Data from the FAO also shows that as milk yield increases, the carbon footprint (and other resource use impacts) per unit of dairy is reduced.

Yield per cow and herd size (metric)Does this mean that large herds are better? Not necessarily. There’s no measure of animal health, worker conditions, or community support in these data. Yet these issues are size-independent. It’s possible to have poor animal health or worker conditions on a small farm, just as it is on a large farm. I’ve seen some great small operations, but also visited amazing large farms, including a 1,200 cow dairy in SE England where I was extremely impressed to see that they had a hospital pen to segregate sick cows from the rest of the herd, and that it only contained 12 cows. A 1% morbidity rate. How would that compare to the average human workplace, school or city?

Size isn't importantIs there an ideal farm or herd size? A blueprint to lead the global dairy industry during the current crisis? No. Dairy farms vary considerably – it would be foolish to suggest that there is only one sustainable way to produce milk (although this approach is often taken by certain NGO groups). However, one thing is clear. As we approach a global population of 9.5+ billion people in 2015, we need to stop vilifying large farms and worshipping small farms, and instead promote efficient, well-managed, productive farms that can survive the crisis, regardless of size. As the saying goes – it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.