The Ethical Dairy System

Mon, 10/09/2018 - 18:01pm

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.  Eventually the cows and the bull calves will enter the food chain for meat.

For cow-with-calf dairying to work, we believe it must be operated in an environment that is stress-free. For cows that are suckling to let down their milk for us, they need to be relaxed. There is a minimum of banging and crashing of gates and machinery. No shouting and absolutely no physical abuse of the animals. Sticks are banned.

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 18 years old for example. The current age range in the herd is 3-16 with an average age of around 9 years, and as we are actively growing our herd at the moment there are more young cows joining the herd each year. Most of the cows are served by the bull but we inseminate using sexed semen 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 125 cows with a view to increase that to around 135. We have a closed herd, which means the only cows that come into the herd are those that have been born on the farm, and the main reason for this approach is disease prevention. It has protected us from many of the infectious diseases that are endemic in the national herd, but means it takes much longer to expand the herd size. 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 April, 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 and have been cereal free for the past 3 years, with the only additional feed being mineralised lucerne nuts, which is a supplemental feed made from alfalfa. 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 8 weeks of age to prepare them for weaning, to help their rumen development and to ensure we get at least a little milk from the cows in the morning. 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.

Calf health is the main priority for the first few weeks. Every calf gets an additional 2.5 litres of colostrum in the first couple of hours of life on top of anything it has suckled itself, from a pool of good quality cow colostrum which we harvest and freeze in sachets of that amount. We also manage the indoor housing very carefully, including a strong focus on calving box hygiene, thorough water cleanliness and we environmental inoculation which floods the indoor housing with 'good' bacteria to outcompete pathogens.

By 6 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 and the male and female calves separated, as at this point they are becoming sexually mature. The females will go on to join our herd.  The male calves will stay on our farm and be reared for beef.  We are an organic, free range and certified pasture for life farm so they all stay on grass. We sell about half of the young cattle intended for beef at around 10 months for ruby veal. The point at which we sell them is determined by their weight rather than their age. Generally speaking the male calves are 350-400kg at around 6 months old - almost fully grown, and they grow around twice as fast as our calves did before we moved to this system.

We take the bull calves to our local abbatoir, and we are lucky to have one relatively close to us which minimises stress and transport. The meat will head south to go to retailers who are particularly interested in supporting sustainable and ethical meat production, such as The Green Butcher

Around half of our bull calves are finished on our farm at around 16-18 months of age when they are fully grown and go direct to the abattoir. Yes, life for the bull calves is fairly short but we do our very best to make sure it is a live worth living, where they can enjoy a quality of life and express natural behaviours.

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 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, when the time comes, a quick death.

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, regenerative 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, regenerative, pasture-based farming models would be ecologically driven 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.