How Many Vegans Does it Take to Change a Dairy Industry? It Depends How We Look at the Numbers

Jerseys in parlourThe Advertising Standards Authority in the UK have just ruled that it’s permissible for vegan campaigners to use emotive terminology to describe dairy production, on the grounds that the claims made do represent dairy farming methods.  Thus, phrases such as “mothers, still bloody from birth, searched and called frantically for their babies” are sanctioned as legitimate, despite the anthropomorphic language and lack of sound scientific evidence for loss- or grief-type emotions in dairy cows.

Excellent animal welfare should be the cornerstone of every livestock production system, including the non-tangible and therefore difficult to measure emotional side of animal welfare, yet using these types of emotive phrases does not really appear to be advancing the vegan cause. As quoted in the Times article, 540,000 people in Britain enjoy a vegan diet at present, up from 150,000 in 2006.

That’s a considerable number, approximately equal to the population of Manchester (City, not Greater Manchester) or the number of people in the UK who are aged 90+, yet as a percentage of the total British population, less than one percent (0.82% to be exact) choose a vegan diet. Is the proportion increasing? Yes. The equivalent percentage in 2006 was 0.25%, yet even at today’s figures, 99.18% of the British population are non-vegans. Are there any other situations where we would consider than less than 1% of the population to have a significant influence? Possibly not.

Bad news bias factory farm

Given that it takes five pieces of positive information to negate the impact of one piece of negative information, it’s more crucial than ever to get simple, factual, attractive messages out to the general public about dairy farming. Rather than campaigning against emotive activist claims, we need to reach out to the 99.18% of people who have not removed animal products from their diet and reassure them that they’re making appropriate food choices for themselves and their children.


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?


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!

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


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)

A Christmas Wish – May All Your Cows Be Like Your Best Cow

I love conversations that leave my brain firing on a million cylinders and open my mind to new ideas. I was lucky enough to have three such discussions this past week, one at an organic research farm; another at a 300-cow Jersey operation; and the most recent with three faculty at the University of Oxford with regards to the interactions between animal welfare and livestock sustainability.

Animal welfare is a touchy subject – many people appear to define excellent welfare as only including a narrow range of production systems or practices; and although everybody has their own image of what a “happy” animal looks like, it’s not always easy to identify or describe those systems without anthropomorphizing. Indeed, I’ve become increasingly aware that promoting improved productivity and efficiency as a means to improve sustainability can be misconstrued as encouraging the agricultural equivalent of a owning a Victorian dancing bear or cymbal-playing monkey – a “force the animals to perform, regardless of the cost in terms of animal welfare”-type philosophy (see picture below).



Yet such suggestions entirely miss the point, as any system that is consistently detrimental  to animal welfare is neither productive nor efficient on a long-term basis. We humans don’t perform well if we’re chronically underfed, stressed, sick, or housed in unfavorable environmental conditions – and neither do livestock.

Personally, my agricultural utopia would be one where all livestock operations, regardless of size, location or production system, exhibit both high productivity and excellent animal welfare. Admittedly, this leads to the difficult task of not only defining excellent welfare, but also the metrics and benchmarks by which it can be assessed within each operation. However, there is one overarching metric that can be measured, and improved on any farm or ranch – animal health. By definition, an animal that is chronically sick, lame or in pain cannot be said to be a example of good welfare.

As consumers, we want to know that the animals that provide us with milk, meat and eggs are healthy. Indeed, I imagine that even the most militant vegan opposed to the consumption of animal products would agree that animal health should be paramount. As producers, making sure that livestock are healthy is as ethically important as treating workers well. Plus, healthy animals are easier to manage: they grow faster; they have fewer incidents of  illness or death; and they produce more milk, meat or eggs. These improvements in efficiency and productivity also mean that we need less feed, less land, less water and have a lower carbon footprint per unit of food produced.

Let’s consider lameness in dairy cattle. A major animal welfare issue, it costs between $120 and $216 per incidence (UK costs below)* and is a major cause of cows being culled at or even before the end of their second lactation. Similarly, mastitis has a huge impact on both cow longevity and productivity, and costs the US dairy industry $1.7-2.0 billion per year. If just these two health issues were addressed, how many associated dairy cattle health and welfare issues would be improved; how much could dairy farm profitability be enhanced; and how much would the public image of dairy improve?

Every herd has its best cow – the one who is never lame, doesn’t suffer from mastitis, metritis or ketosis; and gets back in calf easily – all while having a high milk (and components) yield. There is no magic bullet to improve productivity and efficiency –  yet the discussions I’ve had in the past week conclusively demonstrated that that does mean suiting your system to your available resources and, though excellent health, nutrition, breeding and management, allowing every cow to perform like your best cow, every single day. I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that in 2015, all your cows will be like your best cow.

*Lameness costs £180 pounds per incidence in the UK, or £15,000 per average herd annually. Mastitis costs the UK dairy industry £170 million per year.