Farm Animal Sentience

Tue, 25/01/2022 - 09:07am

As a child I was very much aware that there were some cows so quiet that you could sit on their backs and others who would kick you as you tried to put on the milking machine. One extra-ordinary cow could send a jet of slurry halfway across the byre if you left a bucket directly behind her at milking time! They were certainly characters.

Amongst the sheep, the Blackface ewes would butt you, protectively, as you tried to move them with their young lambs but the Shetlanders could disappear over the hill as you attempted to lift their lambs. You had to trust that they would return eventually, which they invariably did. All part of a life spent working with animals. 

Then there are the Collie sheepdogs. Kip was a most memorable dog. I swear she understood English and would sort the sheep with me with little further guidance than what she’d heard my father tell me. I remember once taking sheep out to a certain field but to my extreme annoyance old Kip wouldn’t let the sheep into the field. Eventually I prevailed but afterwards learned I’d put them in the wrong field! Kip knew better than I did where those sheep were supposed to be.

On returning home after many years away in education and consultancy my objective was to follow the prevailing dictum of intensification. Stack ‘em high. While my empathy with the animals from my youth on the farm had become somewhat diluted over time, I still felt deeply uncomfortable with the effects of intensification on the animals. And on myself.  I could feel myself becoming de-sensitised to animal welfare and suffering, but in this industry it was a case of ‘toughen-up or get out’.

It was the arrival of Wilma on the farm that helped me understand how far we were drifting away from what folk believed was acceptable treatment of farm animals. Then, when we opened the farm to the public, that disconnect became even more obvious.

This realisation set us on a very different track. If we treated our animals with as much compassion and respect as we could afford, would they respond positively?

This was one of the main reasons we decided to experiment with cow-with-calf dairying. Trialling the system in 2012 was a painful wake-up to the challenges of this approach. We couldn’t make it work at that time, but walking amongst the cows with their calves of an evening I just knew, ‘this was right’. It was also a wake-up to the importance of the cows’ feelings.

In the early days of cow-with-calf they were stressing when coming into the parlour because, in the past, this was the point after calving when their calves were taken away. It was chaos.

They tried to block the gate into the calf creep (the calf-only creche area) where we put the calves at night so that we had some milk in the morning. They withheld their milk in the parlour in protest and suffered from udder infections as a result. Without a doubt those cows knew their own mind. They knew what they wanted, they knew how to express their frustration and they knew how to disrupt a system that they didn’t trust any more.

The problem was that with the introduction of a new cow-with-calf system they simply didn’t know what the rules were anymore. To be honest, we didn’t know either because we were still working it all out.

To cut a long story short, that first year - particularly the first six months - was something of a nightmare. There were several points at which I was sorely tempted to abandon the whole exercise. But I didn’t.

The second year was transformational. We are now well into our sixth year of cow-with-calf farming here at Rainton, and ten years since that first traumatic pilot. The key thing we have learned is how important it is to drive stress out of the system at every level, and that’s because the feelings of the cows are so important to this way of farming. Each year gets better as the system becomes the norm and beds in.

We now have around 60 cows in our milking herd who have spent their whole lives in a cow-with-calf dairy where they are able to express natural behaviour and enjoy natural maternal bonds. Born into this system, they have never known any other way.

There is a lot that’s different when you farm this way, especially the behaviour of the cows.  They are much more vocal if they feel something isn’t right, perhaps more empowered to express themselves. Most noticeable is how previously the cattle, if they escaped from a field or building, would high-tail it down the road away from the farm. Now they don’t. They just mill around the farm buildings. They seem happier, more content. Visitors comment on how calm the animals are, and we sense a lot more trust between us and the cows.

We have had a lot of emails and social media messages in the past few weeks touching upon issues of animal welfare and bovine sentience. We always do in January, it’s the Veganuary effect. Several recent emails have referenced the film ‘Cow’ by Director Andrea Arnold. It’s a documentary that follows the life of a dairy cow over several years, and apparently it shows her reactions as her calves are taken away.

We haven’t seen the film yet, we live many hours away from the nearest cinema showing it, but it sounds impactful and important.

We see and understand the intelligence, the personalities and the emotions of the cows on our farm. We acknowledge that sentience in the way we work with them day to day, and we welcome questions being asked about the systems in which these animals live.

David Finlay