I’m sure you saw the news in the media recently about the crisis that UK dairy farmers are facing. In a nutshell, too much milk has been produced for not enough demand and farmers are getting a pittance for what they produce from the supermarkets because of this. They’re even getting their payments delayed, which means missing deadlines for bills and so on.
Now as you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of the dairy industry, but it is kind of a complex problem. It seems that small dairy farmers are giving up the business due to lack of profits and it is these smaller businesses that tend to graze their cattle outside in the warmer months. Sadly, some small dairies are trying to solve the problem by merging, and this means having cows in sheds all the time. There’s no daylight, no freedom to roam, no joy whatsoever in their lives as working milk machines. Of course, even farmers who do choose to graze their herd outside still have to sell male calves to the meat industry, forcibly separating them from their mothers. They still have to maximise output, meaning unnecessary strain on udders and calcium deficiency in cows. They still have to administer painful injections to stop infection and sell ‘worn out’ mothers for slaughter at the end of it all. I’m not saying that small dairy farmers are living in an idyll, just that they are a degree better than factory farms, where misery is everywhere, all the time. The fact that decreased demand for cows’ milk has led to this sorry state of affairs is odd. The irony is not lost on me.
And then of course we have the frightening individual that is Liz Truss, our current minister for the environment. She has proposed a raft of measures to combat this dairy crisis, one of which is to reduce the number of dairy inspections by eight thousand a year. It seems lunacy (and if you’ve ever heard her give a speech, this will be of no surprise to you). To reduce inspections, when more farmers feel forced to merge into so-called mega farms, therefore negatively impacting animal welfare significantly at a stroke, seems insane. Viva has a website which is an excellent resource called White Lies which details the fact that when farms attain Soil association, Freedom Foods or Red Tractor accreditation, often all the farmer needs to do is not break the law on the day of the inspection. Standards need to be raised and this means an increase in random, unannounced inspections, not a flippin’ reduction Ms Truss!
The dairy industry doesn’t just impact negatively on the welfare of cows however. The recent badger cull sparked controversy, not just because badgers are cute (well, there may have been a bit of that) but because many scientists felt that badgers were being made the scapegoat by the dairy industry, to explain away the outbreak of bovine TB on their farms. A far more likely explanation seems to be that slurry gets transferred from one dairy farm to another and TB gets transported that way. (Remember foot and mouth.)
Author Patrick Barkham suggests in his novel Badgerlands that perhaps the intensive way cows are reared these days makes their immunity to TB very low. So these mega farms that could become part of the system here in Britain (they’re already the norm in America) could well be creating their own problem (remember mad cow disease, or BSE.) Even in the unlikely event that Badgers are the main cause of this outbreak, catch/vaccinate/release programmes have been found to be far more effective than culls anyway.
Happily, there are some people who have seen the industry for what it is – some very important people: dairy farmers themselves. There are pages devoted to documenting dairy farmers who have ‘seen the light’ and decided to go into a kinder business. These individuals are from all over the world – Ireland, The Netherlands, Iran and beyond. Each one of them has to struggle against a culture (no pun intended) that sees dairy farming as not doing much harm, and so brands them mad for giving it up. They have seen the look in the calf’s eyes as they sell him at market, pleading and scared. They have heard the cries that emanate from both mother and calf when they are forcibly separated, that sometimes go on for days. They have experienced cows going lame from lack of calcium brought on by intensive breeding and mastitis due to excessive milk production.
Perhaps Liz Truss should work on getting those EU subsidies diverted from propping up the meat and dairy industries and have them support kind businesses instead. Due to lack of demand through increasing lactose intolerance and increased awareness of health and welfare issues, dairy is a dying industry. Let’s breathe new life into farms, making them utopias of plant based food and wildflowers. Naive, me?