Dairying in the Real World

Wed, 16/06/2021 - 19:15pm

Having just watched Countryfile on iPlayer, in response to the outcry about the Irish dairy farmer practicing zero-grazing for his 200 dairy cows, several thoughts struck me. Firstly, the zero-grazing system (mowing the grass in the fields and transporting it to the cows in their housed accommodation) was flagged as being ‘new’. It isn’t. Zero grazing was being practiced in Aberdeenshire 45 years ago when I was a young farm consultant, but what goes around, comes around and this is the nature of evolution.

Perhaps it didn’t work last time for various reasons but it takes a new generation of farmers to try things again and maybe this time things will be different. Maybe the technologies have changed to make it a working proposition. On this occasion the farmer also has installed robotic milking which means he has more free time. Maybe the tractors are bigger and more powerful allowing him to travel backwards and forwards to the field and the barn less often. Perhaps the price of milk is better relative to the cost of running, what appears to be, a high cost system.

I do ‘take my hat off’ to that farmer. He was taking over the family farm but saw a life of drudgery ahead and decided to commit everything to building a more sustainable farming business. I respect that. He is achieving remarkable milk yields from his cows, who look to be in good condition, which will earn him respect (and perhaps a little bit of envy) from his fellow farmers.

This high output system of farming invariably involves a lot of support from fertiliser, seed and feed companies, haulage companies, farm contractors, vets, foot care specialists, breeding specialists, nutrition specialists, engineers to keep the high-tech equipment in good working order and so on. All good for the economy and encouraged by governments who provide public money to assist with some of the costs through grants and subsidies. All that extra milk will be processed and sold into world markets, earning export revenues for the home industries. The ‘dairy industry’ loves this kind of farming, I mean, what’s not to like?

Actually, quite a lot, but don’t get me wrong, there are certainly exceptions to what I’m about to say.

Whatever level of commitment the farmer, and his family/staff, need to make to get these dairy systems to work well increases exponentially with their size and intensity. With a lot at stake, there is a lot of pressure on everyone and everything to perform to capacity. When things go wrong, and they do, they can go wrong big.

We farmers, our advisers and those who draw up food policy look at the financial balance sheet to see if the new high-tech systems can deliver ever cheaper food, profitably. But, as we are discovering, there is a lot more to consider which, if we ignore, will cost society much more in the longer term.

First off, let’s look at the fields. The heavy machinery travelling back and forth across it regardless of whether it is waterlogged or not (because the cows must be fed every day) means there is a high likelihood of soil compaction. Add to this the single species of grass (a monocrop) means that there is little biological diversity in the plants, consequently in their roots and therefore in the biodiversity in the soil; from worms right down to the micro-organisms. There are also no flowering plants for insects and therefore few birds that feed on them. It’s a bit of a biological desert.

It doesn’t end there because, to keep productivity high, the farmer needs to use highly productive grass species that need to be reseeded every few years which means ploughing and cultivating, further disrupting the soil life and releasing carbon into the atmosphere from the soil’s vital organic matter reserves, reducing the resilience of the soil. These highly productive grasses also need a lot of feeding but with the soil’s biological activity substantially disrupted, this has to come from artificial manufactured fertilisers (which are also harmful to soil biology) much of which, it has been shown, gets washed into ground-water which together with heavy slurry applications is causing pollution.

Let’s move to the cows and calves. All the cows and calves in the film were in excellent condition, a credit to the farmer and his family. However, more generally these systems, and the farmer alluded to this, need to get a lot of milk from each cow to pay the bills. To get 89 litres from one cow in a day is pretty mind boggling, but this an exception. More typically an average daily yield in these systems of 30-40 litres is normal. The boast is that they are helping to ‘feed the world’. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we look at the dried food value, it takes about the equivalent of 3kg of cereals and pulses (soya) to produce each kilogram of milk. A net loss to the global food system of 2 kg of food for each kilo of milk food equivalent produced.

Cows in these types of commercial systems are working to their genetical limit and tend to suffer burn-out, manifested as various ailments. The net effect is that, on average, the industrial cow burns-out after only two or three years. Unfortunately the industry is in denial about what this means and refuses to use longevity as a critical measure of welfare, arguing that it would be bad for cow welfare as it would encourage farmers to hold onto cows when they should be culled. I feel there is some kind of disconnect here.

Moving onto the calves, it appeared that there were no dairy bull calves. As it is likely the dairy calves were conceived by artificial insemination, it is possible they were using sexed semen which guarantees 9 out of 10 calves will be female. There is no room for dairy bull calves in intensive dairy units, as they are almost worthless - in the words of an NFUS spokesman I once heard speak, they were shipped or shot. But things are changing. Thanks to public revulsion of this practice it has resulted in some supermarket supply contracts stipulating the bull calves be reared to at least 8 weeks, so there is hope.

Matt Baker flagged up that separating cow from calf at birth is common. In the real world it is more than common, it is almost universal. The industry argument that it is better for cow and calf is, I have to concede, quite true - but only if we don’t change our mindset and management approach to the cow and calf.

On our farm we have proved, if only to ourselves, that it is possible to leave the calves with their mothers for up to 6 months and still make a profit. Sure, it ain’t easy but it is possible and the number of enquiries we are now getting from people wanting to dairy this way is really heartening!

We have looked at some of the soil, biodiversity, pollution and animal welfare impacts of intensive farming systems. Something which is increasingly getting public attention is the impact of these intense production systems on the people working there. The Countryfile programme picked a farm where the family were working in conjunction with robotic technology in what appeared to be a relaxed and balanced lifestyle. If that is the case, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, it is the exception to the rule. For most in the industry, dairy farming is a tough and relentless business and nowhere more so than in the intensive sector.

The industrial dairy model typically contracts its workers to 12-hour(minimum) shifts, 12 days on and 2 days off in grindingly monotonous jobs. Few UK workers are prepared to put up with these terms meaning that the industry, like much of our food industry, is dependent on desperate people from desperate economies. There are two consequences that arise from this. Firstly, the constant pressure on the workforce results in a disproportionate level of mental health issues. Secondly, the itinerant workforce spend little in the local economy because their primary residence and family is in another country. This means there is less money circulating in the local economy and the rural social infrastructure – schools, shops, doctors, services, etc. – become hollowed out.

Finally, and this is by no means a comprehensive list of grievances about the industrial model of dairy farming, these intensive dairy systems are so reliant on a plethora of services to keep them functioning – fertilisers, feeds, seeds, cheap energy, cheap foreign labour – which, in what seems to be an increasingly unstable world, makes the system very fragile. If any one of these critical parts suddenly becomes unavailable, the system collapses. As more of our food comes from these fragile food systems, so our resilience to shocks decreases to the point where we cannot afford to let them fail, even when they have become fundamentally unsustainable.

So, how do I end this? As I’ve tried to highlight, farming and food production is a really complex process with long term and initially invisible impacts that extend well beyond the farm gate. The Countryfile programme barely scratches the surface of these issues focussing, as we all do, on the here-and-now and ignoring the rest.

The negative public reaction to that farmer’s methods reflects both a deep unease at what was actually a well-run, modern, technology-based farming system as well as the disconnect society has with modern farming. This is the way our food is increasingly produced. This is farming in the real world, but it needn’t be this way.

It’s really up to you guys out there. Government isn’t going to do anything to address these issues. You, we, everyone has to get more informed about the issues behind the food we are buying to make sure that through our buying decisions we create diversity in our food and farming system, and not just diversity, it has to be sustainable in every aspect. We, the citizens, are the only ones with the power to bring about real change.

David Finlay