The murky world of milk production

Have you ever wondered about how your milk was produced? If you’re like me then I doubt it. I was too busy making sure my chickens weren’t kept in cages, and my pork, beef and lamb was free-range. I didn’t have time to check on the dairy cows as well. Plus, I’ve seen cows in fields, black and white ones everywhere, so I’m sure everything is fine.

I wish I could say this with certainty. End the article now reassuring you that, yes, all dairy cows are kept in open pasture – green grass, blue skies, freedom to roam, while being milked once a day by the milking maid, before she heads back to the farmhouse to hand-churn some butter. But I can’t.

Whenever we farm animals for food, inevitable the question of animal welfare pops up, and rightly so. But livestock farming isn’t only a question of animal welfare; but also of sustainability. And this is no more apparent than when we look at the problems the dairy industry faces. Issues such as the price paid to farmers, the type of feed used, disposal of manure, and the fate of male calves all need to be addressed and understood in order to move towards a more sustainable dairy system – both financially and environmentally.

The current situation

Currently there are 9432 dairy farms in the UK, according to the AHDB, compared to 13,000 in 2007 which is a fall of 3500 in 10 years. The major reason for the decline can be attributed to the cost of milk being close to or lower than the cost of production. It currently stands at 27 pence per litre (ppl) where 2016 production costs ranged from 26ppl to 32ppl depending on individual farms. Add to this the current uncertainty surrounding the fate of EU subsidies given to dairy farmers ahead of Brexit and the future of dairy-farming in Britain doesn’t look promising.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. We, as consumers, have the power to support our dairy farmers and show that we would back changes in production to safeguard the future of dairy-farming and help create a sustainable model.

What must be done to move towards a more sustainable system?

The low cost of milk is forcing farmers to look at ways of reducing their costs and most do so by turning to intensive farming where they lower production costs due to the need for less land, while simultaneously relying on high protein feeds such as soy and grains to keep milk supply high and costs low. And we, as consumers carry on buying this cheap milk, while closing our eyes to the negative impact intensive farming can have on the environment and dairy-farming as a whole.

Farmers should be encouraged to implement sustainable practices such as the benefits of grazing cattle on pasture which according to the National Trust, in their report “What’s your beef?” well-managed grass land can prevent soil erosion, siltation of rivers and create high levels of bio-diversity and act as carbon sinks. Grass-fed cows are a vital ingredient in moving towards a sustainable dairy industry and even barn reared cows should be fed high levels of grass in their diet in the form of hay or silage to reduce the reliance on soy and grains.

Waste is an issue on any farm with livestock, but particularly with large-scale intensive farming. Large slurry pits form which has an impact on the local environment, harming wildlife and polluting local water sources if not handled correctly. In whichever farming system – intensive or free range – animal waste develops, farms should be encouraged to look at recycling manure either to be used as fertiliser or to create power for the farm. Langage farm in Devon does exactly this by feeding farm waste into an anaerobic digestion plant where it is turned into, heat, electricity and fertiliser for the farm. It is a business model that should be encouraged and one which is vital if we are to keep the environmental costs of farming as low as possible.

Another factor of dairy farms, one that is unavoidable no matter the system used, is the fate of unwanted male calves. You can’t milk a bull so there is little need for them on dairy farms. So two options exist; either kill the male calves within hours of being born (an argument which I cannot support) or raise them as veal or beef. Unfortunately as consumers we are still a little reluctant to buy veal. Perhaps because our image of veal is still of the poor conditions that continental veal is reared in. British rose veal though is of a much higher standard and welfare. Calves are reared for between 6 to 8 months, and are fed on a diet of grass rather than the continental preference of milk. Often veal is considered cruel due to its short life but compared to lambs (5-6 months), pigs (6-8 months) and chickens (42-50 days) it is an argument that doesn’t stand up.

How can consumers help support farmers?

So as consumers we should be looking to buy milk from dairies where the cows have been fed a grass diet, have access to pasture, where waste is disposed of carefully (or better yet recycled), where male calves are raised as British rose veal and above all the farmers receive a fair price – one that is consistently above cost of production. Such a farm may exist but unfortunately due to a lack of traceability within the dairy industry where milk from a wide range of farms is processed together at large dairies we can never be sure of which farms we are supporting.

For the future of dairy and to promote sustainability across the whole industry I wouldn’t oppose a two-tier system of milk production similar to that used for farming pigs. With this system you can buy free range pork where the pigs spend the majority of their lives outside, or outdoor bred pork where they spend 3-4 weeks outside, before spending the rest of their lives indoors. Both systems are regulated and labelling is clear for the consumer to understand which production method was used. A similar system for milk would be a good thing. Free range and organic milk on one side, high–welfare, barn-reared milk on the other. Both would need to be regulated and conditions for both regarding type of feed used, welfare of cows, fate of male calves would all need to addressed; with a favourable nod to sustainability. But such a system would allow farmers to adapt current systems to meet the requirements while also giving consumers on all budgets access to milk that supports the dairy industry and its move towards sustainability for the long-term.

Presently, as consumers wanting to support a healthy sustainable dairy industry we must look to buy free range milk, currently stocked in Asda under the Pasture Promise label, or organic milk which is more readily available. Both systems promote grass-fed diets, summer grazing and the organic standards strongly recommend forming partnerships with other farms to raise unwanted calves as veal.

We have power as consumers to show food producers and suppliers what we want and what we are willing to pay. To not change our habits means that we must take our portion of the blame for a failing dairy industry. It is simply not good enough to sit idly by when we have the power to help create a more sustainable industry.

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