The Ethical Dairy System

The reason we describe our approach to dairy as ethical is that in every decision we make on the farm, we aim to meet the highest possible ethical standards, so that includes the animals, the land, the wider environment and the people who work here.  The decision to brand ourselves as The Ethical Dairy was not an easy one.  We are well aware that people have differing views as to what constitutes an ethical approach.  We wanted to come up with a name that encompassed the totality of what we were doing – so our approach to sustaining rural employment and our environmental activities, as well as the cow with calf model.  We noticed that visitors who took part in our farm tours were increasingly using the word ethical to describe what we do. 

We fully appreciate and acknowledge that many people believe livestock farming can never be ethical, and we respect that point of view.  However, for as long as other people want to consume dairy and meat then our motivation is to prove that farms needn't be cruel to be viable - we want to show that it is possible to produce food in a way that doesn't damage the planet and at a price that is affordable.

We are trying to create a food producing system that is sustainable in the long term without causing harm to the planet.  We are doing that by moving towards almost a closed loop system where we have enough animals to be sustained on pasture from the farm, producing waste that we turn into energy and digestate, which is then used to rejuvenate the soil. Plus other environmental activities, such as ponds designed for insects, broadleaved trees for red squirrels etc.

We are not a slaughter free dairy and we do not pretend to be.  For people who are interested in slaughter free dairy we recommend ahimsa milk.  Eventually the cows and the bull calves will enter the food chain for meat. With regards to the cows, because we're giving the animals a very natural and stress free life, our cows live a long time - we have a few that are 17 years old for example, current age range in the herd is 3-17 with an average age of around 9 years. Most of the cows are served by the bull but we inseminate for herd replacements.   We have noticed an improvement in animal health and productivity since we started keeping the calves with the cows and reducing the frequency of milking.

At the moment we have 115 cows with a view to increase that to 130 by the end of next year. Our cows are a three-way cross - Swedish Red, Holstein and Montbeliard. We keep the cows in two groups, one calving in November and the other calving in March, give-or-take a couple of weeks respectively. We don’t deliberately aim to extend the lactation beyond a year but the calf suckling does tend to delay oestrus a bit, meaning that some cows can slip from one group back to the other. As the cows are cross-bred, they have a fairly flat lactation curve – they don’t peak very high, like Holsteins, but again don’t fall off quickly – so they usually milk on for 15/16 months quite happily.

The cows are out on pasture as much as possible.  For our indoor housing, during the winter and early spring, we have a novel system based on a mattress bed that equates in comfort to field conditions and single, plastic wand, dividers that allows cows to spread out on their sides, as they would on pasture. It requires a lot more space per cow than the more typical steel cubicles but is clearly liked by the cows.

The parlour is an auto-tandem that gives each cow an individual cubicle when being milked, which greatly reduces stress and allows the cow to milk and eat her ration in her own time. Each cow is treated as an individual and is able to see what is going on around her in the parlour. In addition the milking machine is applied from in front of the cows' legs rather than from behind, as happens in most parlours, which is a more natural approach (similar to that of the calf). In total we get around two thirds of the volume of milk we were getting before we introduced our cow with calf system. The volume of milk from the cows varies depending on what age the calves are and also on the individual cow.

The calves stay with their mothers for 5-6 months (who we milk just once-a-day), though we separate them at night, normally from about 6-8 weeks of age to prepare them for weaning and to ensure we get at least a little milk from the cows in the morning. This summer has been a little different due to the drought and they stayed with their mum round the clock till around 5 months.  After weaning we milk the cows twice-a-day, as they are still producing a lot of milk for the next couple of months, or so. Then it’s back to once-a-day.

By 6-8 weeks of age the calves have begun to seek out their calf creep areas and enjoy the company of their peers more than their dams for much of the time. The cows and calves are re-united after morning milking. We only milk once a day while the cows are suckling the calves. The cows are right next to the calves, separated by a simple rail barrier, so they can see and touch noses but the calves can't suckle. The gates are set up in such a way that it only takes us a few minutes to move any calves in the cow area into the calf creep.

At aged 5-6 months the calves are weaned.  The male calves will stay on our farm and be reared for beef, the females will go on to join our herd.  We are an organic and Pasture for Life farm so they all stay on pasture. We sell about half of the young cattle intended for beef (so the male calves) at between 10-12 months of age to an organic farm-based charcuterie business near Berwick, also in the south of Scotland, for ruby veal. The point at which we sell them at is determined by their weight rather than their age. The balance are finished on our farm at around 16-18 months of age and go direct to the abattoir. Yes, life for them is fairly short but it is sweet.

The Berwick farm, Peelham, we know extremely well and similar to ourselves they take the utmost care and treat the animals with respect.  They collect the animals from us in small groups, again to minimise stress, and take them back to their farm. They then personally take them to a small abattoir in Durham, again this is one they know well and the reason they use this abattoir is due to their high standards and respectful approach. 

Despite having a large percentage of Scotland's livestock our local area isn't great for abattoirs, and as on-farm killing isn’t allowed in the UK it does mean we have to make some difficult decisions at times about what is best for the animals and what is viable for our business. Our beef cattle go mainly to Aberdeenshire to an abattoir that specialises in selling organic beef to supermarkets, and so they meet all the standards required to have organic accreditation.  We also use our own beef on-site.  For the beef we are able to use ourselves we minimise journey times by using our local abattoir, which we've visited and know the owner.  

Our land can only realistically grow trees or grass.  We do both.  We have developed our farming model to try to maximise the nutritious food that can be produced from our grass, creating employment within our fragile rural economy.  The land we farm on would not support arable farming and if we stopped using it for ruminant farming it would very quickly become non productive.

It’s worth remembering that in a natural situation once a ruminant gets a bit stiff or lame it quickly becomes food for predators. What we try to do on our farm is give our animals a good life and a quick death, when the time comes.

All human food systems are imperfect. Plant based systems, particularly monoculture, also have negative impacts on wildlife, biodiversity, deforestation, diffuse pollution, social deprivation etc.  It is well documented that the impact of rising global demand for avocados, almonds and other out of season fruit and veg is now having damaging environmental repercussions, this is particularly acute for pollinators and wildlife, including small mammals and birds.

So if all food systems are problematic, what is the answer? 

For us ecological farming systems seem the best approach for the land we farm; low-impact livestock farming complementing arable farming.  These models look at ways animals can complement a plant-based food system to utilise co-products, by-products, food waste and grasslands while adding fertility to the soils. In an ecologically based food system meat and dairy production would fall from current levels but total global food production would, in fact, be greater than from crops alone. The release of arable land from the production of animal feed would allow low-impact, plant-based systems to produce the balance of our food requirements for the foreseeable future.  These low-impact farming models would be ecologically based and move towards a closed-loop (waste-free) system.  This is the model we are following.

Any form of farming will involve compromise but this model can potentially deliver adequate amounts of affordable food while also delivering substantial public benefits and not necessarily at any extra cost to society. 

Our overall goal is to produce food better and more sustainably.  We seek to reduce the impact our system has on animals’ sentient behaviour, but it will never be perfect. Our ethical farming model is designed to produce nutrient rich food using methods that support human and animal health, while actively improving soil and water quality and increasing biodiversity. 

We acknowledge that not everyone will agree with our approach but we invite you to respect that we are doing our very best to encourage kinder, most sustainable approaches to food production.  Thank you.