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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Jamie Oliver Should Be Presenting Friday Night Farming Facts – Not Feasting On Foodie Fiction

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Commercial dairy cows in Cumbria – should they be “retired” before slaughter?

Good grief. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, another food pundit comes up with an idea so daft that you could bottle it and sell it as vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, humanely-reared organic water. The latest brainwave from Jamie Oliver is to “retire” old dairy cows onto pasture, where they can graze for four years before producing highly-marbled beef. Contrary to most of the breed-related marketing, Holstein beef is pretty good, so it’s a mouth-watering concept until we take a step back and think about the actual sustainability impacts.

Producing beef from cull dairy cattle? Excellent idea. I once had a heated argument with an activist protestor outside the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC who seemed surprised that, when he told me that most cull dairy cows end up as burgers, I didn’t renounce my heathen ways and immediately seek out the nearest tofu burrito. It makes perfect sense – where would be the logic in discarding an entire cow’s worth (~301 kg) of nutritious, delicious beef simply to bury, burn or use the meat for non-food purposes? Indeed, ~50% of the UK (and ~24% of the US) beef supply comes either from cull dairy cows or dairy calves reared for beef.

Is there an argument for giving extra feed to cows that are going to be culled so that they get a little fatter and produce tastier beef? Yes indeed, adding value to cull dairy cows is a great idea, especially when the beef price is high. But here’s the rub. The average dairy cow in the U.K. is culled at 6.4 years of age. By that time she should have reached her mature weight, which means that the majority of extra weight she puts on in “retirement” is fat. Although we love the streaks of intramuscular fat that we see in a steak (marbling) and enjoy the depth of flavour that gives to the meat, the vast majority of fat on a carcass isn’t particularly edible. So we’re feeding a cow for four years of retirement in order to discard (or rather render into tallow – perhaps to make some £5 notes?) a significant proportion of the weight that she gains.

A cow will eat 2-2.5% of her body weight in dry matter every single day. Four years of feeding a 700 kg cow = 4 x 365 days x 700 kg x 0.025 = 25,550 kg of feed dry matter, or 106,458 kg of fresh grass given that it’s only ~24% dry matter. Plus 4-years worth of drinking water, manure and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A hefty environmental impact compared, for example, to rearing two beef steers on the same amount of pasture over a 4-year period, in addition to culling the dairy cow when she leaves the herd (sans retirement). That scenario would provide 200% more beef (~900 kg total, even allowing for the lighter weight for grass-finished vs. grain-fed steers) from the same amount of pasture and with a smaller total quantity of manure and GHG emissions because the growing animals are lighter in weight throughout, therefore excrete and emit less*.

I can’t decide whether the increasingly asinine proposals for sustainable food production propounded by Jamie Oliver’s “Friday Night Feast” programme, which recently left the casual viewer with the impression that welfare of housed dairy cows is equivalent to that of battery hens are serious, or simply a way to court fame through controversy. However, the number of tweets lauding the programme’s food philosophy is alarming given the amount of time devoted to non-sustainable ideology. Time for TV programmers to redress the balance with some Friday Night Facts vs. Fiction?

*Note that I have not accounted for the beef cows needed to produce the steers, nor for the cost of rearing the dairy cow or the heifer needed to replace her in dairy herd. This is not a full system assessment, but simply about the best use of a unit of pasture area – adding fat to a mature cow (less efficient) or adding muscle and fat to growing animals (more efficient)