The Sustainable Food Trust’s Patrick Holden guides us through why he thinks it is possible to develop and maintain a relatively harmonious relationship with dairy cows.
Because I am an organic dairy farmer and I am aware that more and more people are questioning the ethics of dairy farming, I thought it might be appropriate to share my perspective on why I still feel, after 45 years of milking cows, that it is possible to develop and maintain a relatively harmonious relationship with dairy cows.
We farm in West Wales, near Lampeter; here is our story.
Holden Farm Dairy was established in 1973 by a group of six ‘back-to-the-landers’, of which I was one.
We purchased our foundation herd of 30 Ayrshire cows from Scotland and Sussex.
The herd has subsequently grown to 80 milking cows and is now the longest established organic dairy herd in Wales; all the milk now goes to produce a single farm, unpasteurised cheddar-style cheese, called ‘Hafod’.
I am, of course, well aware of the concerns that a growing number of people have about dairy farming, I suspect precipitated in part by the trend towards very large permanently-housed herds.
These issues often include: the premature removal of the calf from its mother, the killing of dairy bull calves, the use of antibiotics and the rise of mega-dairy farms, where the cows never get to graze on grass.
All these issues concern me too, not least because I am directly involved with some of them on virtually a daily basis.
I can also well understand how people may be inclined to react when they see an advertisement on a hoarding or back of a bus, as have been seen throughout the UK, reminding consumers that milk production entails the removal of the calf from its mother at a very young age.
I have total respect for anyone who chooses for ethical or dietary reasons to avoid involvement with dairy farming or the consumption of dairy products.
Clearly, I don’t fall into that category. Although my day job is running the Sustainable Food Trust, I’ve milked my cows for nearly 50 years, including half a dozen times in the last week.
I am also acutely aware of the extraordinary sensitivity of cows to all that is happening around them.
From this long experience, might I dare to suggest to some of those who are most concerned about the suffering of farm animals, that it really is possible to work with them in a way which accommodates our responsibilities to them as sentient beings.
So, although our dairy farming practices are not entirely free of some compromises which attract criticism from animal rights activists, I want to be open and honest in explaining why I can live with my dairy farmer’s conscience, and, not only that, I would not be ashamed if there was a webcam recording our practices.
I would be more than happy to explain to anyone who is concerned about these issues, why this is the case. I feel passionately that we should be open and transparent about every element of our production.
This is because I believe that in order to maintain the trust of the public, it’s critically important for all consumers to be able to make informed decisions about what they choose to eat or not eat, especially as I believe that sustainably and compassionately managed farm animals will need to play a central role in rebuilding the lost soil fertility and biodiversity that industrial farming has destroyed during my lifetime.
This is what we do at Holden Farm Dairy.
Removing calves from their mothers
We keep all the calves with their mums for at least two or three days, and often longer. In the case of the female calves (heifers), they will either suckle their mums for 12 weeks, or we foster them onto another cow, normally one with strong maternal instincts.
It is surprising how much variation there is in the attitude of different dairy cows towards suckling.
Some show hardly any interest in the calf at all, others will bond strongly with their own calf and reject all others, and a third group, the ones we try to select for foster suckling, will actually relish the opportunity to nurse more than one calf.
Of course, there is an art to fostering. When the cow first encounters her adopted calf, it will be helpful if she is distracted, either by eating or through somebody standing close to her to ensure that she does not maltreat the calf.
Normally, after two or three suckling sessions, by which time the cow can smell the residues of her milk in the poo of the calf she is suckling, they will bond.
Once this happens, foster suckling is very simple – twice a day, normally just before milking, the cows queue up to be with their foster offspring. They are let in with them for about half an hour before returning to the herd.
This becomes a routine that both calves and the suckler cow understand very quickly, and the calves thrive and are happy in a small group.
At 12 weeks, we normally wean the calves – definitely a noisy process, at least for a couple of days. We try to do this as compassionately as possible, often by suckling them once a day for a few days before turning the milk supply off.
The slaughter of dairy bull calves
This issue is a challenge for all dairy farmers. In an ideal world – and the present one is far from ideal – all male dairy calves would be reared, either as beef up to around two years old, or sooner than that as rosé veal, from anything between four and 12 months.
Rosé veal is a flexible term, but for us it means meat from a calf that has been reared normally, with full access to hay, silage or grass, depending on the time of year, as well as milk, up to 12 weeks old.
In our case, the male veal calves are weaned onto whey from our cheesemaking operation, which definitely improves their growth rates and makes the meat more succulent.
I know that for many people, the ending of any animal life, especially a young one, is unacceptable, but for me it’s all about the reverence and compassion and love that is shown towards the animal right up to and including the moment of slaughter.
We did have a wonderful collaboration with a charcuterie producer near us, who would take all of our beef crosses and Ayrshire males at eleven to thirteen months. He sold the fresh cuts as rosé veal with the rest of the carcass being used in charcuterie, such as salamis and chorizo.
Rosé veal is a very different, sustainably produced and high welfare meat from the intensively-produced veal that most of us think of. He is no longer in business, unfortunately, but we would love to find a similar partnership.
In the meantime, we are rearing our male calves to about four or five months old after which we have them slaughtered locally, producing delicious mince burgers and steaks.
This provides a source of relatively inexpensive young beef and ensures that every animal born on our farm has a role, is valued and is no longer considered as an unwanted and disposable waste product.
To reduce the number of male calves, we are also using sexed semen to inseminate our dairy cows to generate more female offspring. Conception rates are lower, and in any case, it is a bit of a compromise, so I have some misgivings about the rightness of this practice.
But on balance, I feel it’s a way to reduce any moral conflict relating to the ending of the life of a relatively young animal.
Because the practice of using sexed semen on the cows we wish to breed from results in a higher number of heifer calves, we then use a beef bull on the remaining animals, which means that their offspring are reared for two years or more before they are slaughtered for beef, regardless of their sex.
The worst option is, of course, shooting the male calves at birth, which is abhorrent, both from the point of view of the waste and in taking such a young life, although ironically, the process itself arguably involves less stress than sending the calf off to market and an uncertain future.
In an ideal world, everyone would understand the importance of this issue and walk into their local supermarket demanding compassionately reared rosé veal from sustainably managed dairy herds, but we are certainly not there yet.
The misuse of antibiotics
It is becoming more widely known that the misuse of antibiotics on UK livestock farms is a significant contributor to antibiotic resistance in humans.
At Holden Farm Dairy, we made a decision not to use intra-mammary antibiotics (which are injected through the teats and into the udder of cows either during or at the end of their lactation).
Over 30 years later, I can confidently state that it is perfectly possible to manage a dairy herd without recourse to the routine use of antibiotics, since we have not used any in the udders of our cows for that entire period.
Encouragingly, the key indicator of udder health, the somatic cell counts, are staying reassuringly low on our farm, less than 150,000 cells per millilitre of milk. I would dare to predict that avoiding antibiotics altogether may well become the norm within the next ten years.
The need to reduce antibiotic use is a direct consequence of the alarm bells that are ringing all around the world as a result of bacterial resistance from the misuse of the resource in livestock farming, to some of the most important and potentially lifesaving antibiotics in human medicine.
On this front, the SFT is a member of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. Huge amounts of antibiotics continue to be used in farming. Farm animals account for almost two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries, and around 30-35% of all antibiotics used in the UK.
We still do use antibiotics when there is infection causing suffering or the risk of death, but even this practice is really treating the symptom not the cause of the problem, which is generally poor management or nutrition. I’m hopeful that in the not too distant future, we will be able to see all antibiotic use on our farm, as a thing of the past.
Of course, the dramatic growth of industrial-scale dairy farms in the UK concerns me very greatly. According to AHDB statistics, the number of holdings with 500 cattle or more grew by 14% between 2016 and 2017 and, in 2017, more than 10% were in herds with more than 500 cows.
Maybe I am being old-fashioned, but in my view the maximum numerical threshold for the right number of dairy cows in a herd, should be limited by their ability to comfortably walk to grass and back twice a day – realistically three-quarters of a mile should be the limit – during the grazing season, which should be a minimum of six months.
If this rule was made a condition of the future receipt of public funds, it might have a significant impact on the future direction of UK dairy farming.
Personally, I think it is entirely wrong that dairy farmers who have large herds should receive money from the taxpayer for operating units of this kind, since large-scale industrial production causes significant damage to the environment and the welfare of the animals concerned.
In our case, we are well below that threshold, with only around 80 cows in the milking herd, a number which I feel very comfortable about as it offers the opportunity to get to know each cow individually and makes the task of milking much more of a positive interaction for the cows and for us.
A final footnote: I believe in the interconnectedness of everything and the fundamental importance of living in harmony with nature and with all living organisms in the natural world.
In that connection, I consider that one of the very great privileges of my life has been to be able to work with farm animals on a daily basis. They have so much to teach us and I am humbled by their sensitivity and ability to respond to compassion and kindness.
I know that the stewardship I offer them is my responsibility, and all those who look after dairy cows need to be mindful that, in the end, they are accountable and responsible for any unkindness they show towards their animals.
For more information about Patrick’s farm, follow them on Instagram at ‘@hafodcheese’.