Can we learn to love the mega dairy? That was the question posed by communications consultant Amy Jackson as she travelled the world gathering information for her Nuffield scholarship. Here, she explains why the industry needs to do more to counter the ‘untruths’ about large dairy units.
I found that if we’re to maintain, let alone grow, the volume of milk needed to remain viable in a global market, herd size will have to grow to compensate for those continuing to leave the industry.
To expand, herds are very likely to diverge into specialised grazing and housed systems to overcome logistical, climatic and geography barriers.
Size is not a determinant of welfare – management is, as pointed out by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee and the RSPCA among others.
However, I did find some evidence that in countries where very large herds were the norm, diseconomies of scale had the potential to creep in at around 1000 grazed cows in a herd, mainly due to walking distances, and around 2,500 in a housed herd, due to the numbers of freshly calved cows becoming too large.
However, the point at which this kicked in depended on management skill. I certainly saw cows in very large housed units of 3,200 cows being managed in ‘mini’ herds very successfully.The whole ‘herd’ shared dedicated staff, the parlour and the building was kept in smaller group sizes determined by parity, age etc.
There were around 250 cows per group with 180-200 in fresh cow group. In some cases there may be another 3,000-cow ‘herd’ on another farm nearby but that would be operating independently.
With modern developments and management, system also no longer seems to be a determinant of welfare – as long as the right management practices are applied for the system used and the facilities are designed properly. The pros and cons of both grass-based and housed systems are well documented by the European Food Safety Authority and FAWC.
However, I think there’s been a revolution in knowledge about both housed and grazed systems in the UK in the past five years, with learnings from New Zealand/Australia and the US in particular coming to the fore.
That can mean deep beds for cows, enough feed and lying space, natural light and air, rubber flooring inside – or properly designed cow tracks, access to sufficient feed early in the season, shelter and shade outside.
The extent to which knowledge has developed is shown in cow preference trials with high yielding cows choosing feeding inside over grazing, and lying on dry deep beds over wet, muddy or hard conditions – but they do like to go outside at night if that option is available.
The crux is that housing cows at any time, even winter, is unfamiliar to planners, regulators and the public, but any scale or system of dairy farming can, in fact, support a high standard of welfare – although more research is needed on what is needed to fully meet cow preferences.
This leads to a concern that campaigns against housing cows year-round are using perceived wisdom to influence consumers, telling only part of the story. This potentially obscures the real issue – the need to raise standards of welfare across the industry as a whole, at all scales in all systems.
With an estimated 15-20 per cent of dairy cows housed year round in any one year, the industry simply cannot migrate wholesale to grazing-based systems as there is not sufficient land availability, nor is everyone’s farm set up to maximise grass, nor can processors meet demand without maintaining some degree of year-round level supply.
Ideally, in recognition of this, the industry should be collaborating better to challenge untruths, communicate the changing face of the industry, and familiarise regulators, planners and the public with evolving farming systems.
And campaign groups could facilitate a greater overall improvement in welfare by encouraging the uptake of welfare outcome measures, and seeking technological solutions to providing cows with the choice and comfort they are telling us they want.
Amy Jackson, who runs the Oxtale communication consultants, advised the farmers behind the proposed Nocton dairy development in Lincolnshire in what became a bitter PR battle against animal and environmental organisations who joined local groups in opposing it. The farmers behind the development eventually scrapped their plans in February 2011.
Amy has subsequently undertaken a Nuffield scholarship under the heading: “Can we learn to love the megadairy? Politics, Planning and PR”. She travelled to Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the USA, as well as gathering information from the UK to compile for her report. Her findings can be read here
Earlier this week, a group of experts told journalists there was no relationship between the size of a livestock unit and the welfare of farmed animals. They said large units had the potential to deliver better welfare outcomes but agreed the key, whatever the size or type of unit, was the quality of stockmanship.