Why megadairies are wrong

Today, a quarter of the UK’s dairy farmers are at the Houses of Parliament, trying to save the UK’s dairy industry.

The dairy business has run close to the wind, financially, for a very long time – ever since we started to buy our milk from the big supermarkets rather than our milkman, and the supermarkets, knowing that we regard milk as a daily staple, knocked the price down and used it as a loss leader to get us into the shops. In we went, in our millions. Now all the other shops have shut, and we have no real choice but to go to the big supermarkets.

Having got us in, the big supermarkets started to nibble down the price of milk. For years now it has been common knowledge that dairy farmers were just about surviving. Now three of the biggest chains, Asda, Morrisons and the Co-op, have negotiated a way of obtaining milk (from the milk processing companies) that makes their cost significantly lower.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are all on what’s called “aligned contracts”, where the price they pay for their milk relates to the price of production.

If we do not support our dairy industry, mega-dairies become an inevitability. I could rattle on for hours about what a dreadful, dreadful thing this is – not just directly for the animals kept going on antibiotics, a diet that gives them liver disease, and a short, brutal life; but for the whole of British food production, which has a fairly proud history of being pretty well in alignment with what nature intended. Historically we have fed our cows the stuff that cows are evolved to eat. We don’t put our pigs in farrowing crates. We may have only recently started to be passionate about chickens, but care we do, and the cages of battery hens are slowly getting bigger. Some are even rescued at the end of their year’s prison sentence (although too few, and they come out bald and often with broken bones where they’ve been pulled so roughly from their cage).

Raymond Blanc – who is deliciously expert about food production – has said it so well. Do take a moment to read this.

There are a few points Blanc didn’t touch on, which I want to visit, briefly.

Firstly, antibiotics. We know how antibiotics work. They kill bacteria. We use them to some degree in food production already, but if you have read Blanc’s article (seriously, GO AND READ IT NOW, go on. Shoo), you’ll realise that megadairies require antibiotics in much greater concentration, not as a cure for diseases as they crop up, but as an everyday cure for the basic diseases that are the inevitable – inevitable – consequence of overcrowding and poor diet. Why is this such a bad thing, eh? Cows get sick, give them antibiotics. Cows get well. Game over, man.

Well, yes. But here’s the rub: the things antibiotics kill are some of the fastest breeding life-forms in the known universe. Bacteria. You’ve seen the footage of it teeming across the petri dish. Two, four, eight, sixteen – BLAM! A FRILLION! All you need is one whose DNA contains resistance to the antibiotic you’re using. One. And then you’ve got MRSA, for cows. And here’s the thing: if you are using antibiotics every day, routinely, that one resistant bacterium is inevitable. And then it really is game over, man.

There’s more! The antibiotics from the huge ranches in the US wash into rivers and drinking water. You want that? Really? Because there is no way to avoid it.

Which brings me on to my second point: pollution. Nocton Dairies fought long and hard to put up a cow battery farm – a megadairy – near Lincoln. Last year they lost their battle, and the reason they lost it in the end was because they could not absolutely guarantee to the Environment Agency that waste from the facility (read: cow poo and wee in legendary amounts, not to mention antibiotics etc) would not seep through into the local aquifer and pollute drinking water. They couldn’t guarantee it because it is something that simply cannot be guaranteed, by anyone, anywhere. It’s not that the Lincoln site was unique. We are a small, lumpy island. And shit, as they say, flows downhill.

The third reason we should oppose this, is that we ought to care about the quality of our food. There are just three companies who provide milk to all the large supermarkets in the UK. The dairy farmers sell their milk to these companies, and the companies process it (Pasteurisation etc), and sell it on. So if we end up with megadairies, we will likely all end up drinking their produce. And their produce is not something I would put in my body.

Raymond Blanc’s article deals with the nutritional difference between factory-farmed milk and milk that is more naturally farmed. If you care about the nutritional profile of your milk you’ll go the extra step and buy organic, which is proven to contain more Omega 3 Alpha Linolenic fatty Acid (ALA) than non-organic milk. If you’re baffled: that’s the stuff that helps protect you from heart disease.

My last point relates directly to the previous one and may seem a bit esoteric at first glance, a bit pearl-clutching and middle-classy – but bear with me, it isn’t at all: welfare. We think of this as an animal welfare issue. It is. Not just bovine animals, but humans. We are animals too. Just as with cows, whose quality of diet and quality of life affects their bodies profoundly, the same applies to us. If we have stressful lives and a poor diet, our health outlook plummets. Cows are no different. One of the ways we ensure that our own diet is poor, is bad animal husbandry – eating animals that have had a stressful, poorly fed life.

There is a basic correlation between the respect we afford the food we farm, and the respect we afford ourselves. If we think of the things we eat as cheap commodities, something to be treated any-old-how as long as we can afford the end product, to be propped up with antibiotics and chemicals, fed any old crap, produced cheaply, raised in an environment which shows no consideration for the 3.5bn years of evolution that went into producing that life form’s basic requirements, we are effectively saying “Yeah, it’s fine: feed me any old shit.” The human body is an amazing beast, with its powerful and versatile liver – far more so than most other animals (try feeding a cat the wrong diet. They die. Fast. The same is true for cows, which is why cows in a megadairy have a very short life and, unlike chickens, whose dietary requirements are more versatile, will be too diseased to be rehomed at the end of their stint in the factory farm). The human body will keep going on the most godawful diets because of our powerful livers, for a very long time. But not for ever.

There is a valid argument that most people simply cannot afford food raised to high welfare standards. Most people are simply too close to the breadline to worry much about where their food comes from. I can’t argue with that. It’s a fact. But we should not use that as an excuse to set up ever-cheaper, ever-lower-quality food production. We should address the reasons people can’t afford it in the first place, raise the standards of food production, subsidise good food production so that high quality ingredients are an affordable option for absolutely everyone. High quality British-produced food should be something we regard as a basic right and a pride, not something only the Nigellas and Jamies of the world can afford. If people choose to eat beige food from Iceland, that’s their human right. But a lot of people are eating poorly because of poverty, and that should be a source of national shame and the trigger for political solutions, not a reason to produce more cheap, shit food.

I really hope you tweet and write to and email Asda and the Co-op, and Morrisons about this. The power to change the big supermarkets’ food policies lies with us, not with them. Without us hammering at them, their only concern is their profit margin. Besides, if these mega-dairies happen, EVERYONE who doesn’t drink purely organic milk will end up drinking the rubbish end product. We need look only to the US, the original home of the factory-farmed dairy cow (google “milk” and “pus”) to see what a bad idea this is.

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About chiller

Rachel Coldbreath spent 20 years working internationally as a technical specialist on large data collections for law firms, before becoming disabled. She blogs on a variety of topics from the news and politics to gardening and how very annoying it is, being disabled. Habits include drilling holes about 1mm away from where they ought to be, and embarking with great enthusiasm on tasks for which she is neither physically nor intellectually equipped.
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6 Responses to Why megadairies are wrong

  1. ourgaff13 says:

    totally agree with you. Have already signed petition supporting the dairy farmers. They get a rotten deal, nearly as bad as the deal the cows get.

  2. Oxtale says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I am very interested in your views and your misperceptions as I am currently studying at what the public understands about large scale farming.

    However, there are a number of statements in this atricle I would like to challenge – please let me know your thoughts.

    1. There is absolutely no difference in antibiotic use between large and small dairy farms (go and ask a milk processor who collects and tests milk). What makes a difference in antibiotic use is management expertise and levels of stockmanship. Extremely strict standards in UK milk production mean a producer who has any antibiotics in his milk will not only have that milk rejected, but he will likely suffer punishing fines. If a cow is treated with antibiotics, her milk must be withdrawn from sale for a number of days. Even milk from one cow who has been treated can be detected in a load of milk from hundreds of cows, therefore there is no way a producer is incentivised in any way to treat a cow. Clearly a sick animal must be treated, so it is entirely in a farmer’s interests to ensure cows do not go sick. Please check these facts with any farming or scientific organisation or a vet if you doubt what I am saying!
    2. cows must eat forage. Raymond is right in this aspect. A milking cow cannot be healthy if she does not have a large part of her diet comprising forage. Therefore it is almost impossible to feed a cow the way Raymond has suggested and expect her to be healthy. Yes some people fatten beef this way but dairy cows – no. Dairy cows on any size of farm will be fed a ration of forage, probably with some extra grain to meet her energy needs and some extra protein she will produce lots of protein in her milk and this nedes to be replaced, if she is not grazin,g eg in the winter. For cows housed for longer, they would be fed exactly the same. there is no difference in cow diets between cows housed in the winter and cows housed year round. Again please check this with any nutritionist or farmer.
    3. I have no idea where your statement about liver disease comes from. Please can you verify the source?
    4. Any cow fed a diet with more grass or leafy materials will have more omerga 3 in it. Doesn’t matter whether the farm is large, small, organic or not. This doesn’t say the cow’s healthier – it’s just about what she’s eating.

    I would be really interested in finding out the sources for your article – would you mind sharing them with me? Also, could you let me know your views on the following:
    1. How big is too big on a dairy farm – how many cows?
    2. Are megadairies by nature corporately owned or family owned?
    3. How are cows on a megafarm kept compared with ordinary-sized farms?

    Many thanks for publishing.

    • chiller says:

      We have no factory farm style dairies in the UK, so issues like the liver disease one are taken from studies into megadairies abroad. Blanc mentions it in his article, if you’d care to read it.

      Grain-feeding is a practice more commonly in use in dairy cattle in the UK, since a purely grass diet tends to drop the yield (you can google this, the same as I did, it is fairly common practice). Liver disease in purely grain fed (meat) cattle data can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6891898

      And from here http://www.wcds.ca/proc/2005/Manuscripts/Ametaj.pdf with specific regard to the grain-supplemented (but not pure grain) diet of dairy cows:

      Feeding diets with greater energy content (>1.65 Mcal of NEL/kg DM) during the far-off dry period is associated with a higher incidence of fatty liver. Attempts to provide more energy to cows in NEB do not seem to prevent fatty liver; on the contrary, increase the incidence of fatty liver.

      The issue isn’t with antibiotics ending up in the milk. I didn’t mention that at all. The issue is with that number of animals close together, disease transmission (if there is disease – and inevitably there will be because that’s life), will be greater. Therefore antibiotic use will be greater, and even if cows only got ill at an average rate, use of antibiotics at a normal level on the scale required to treat the normal health requirements of a mega-herd of cows, is going to result in antibiotic run-off. In addition, the more dense the population of cows, the more chances there are for any infection to become antibiotic resistant. This is a matter of simple mathematics. The plan with Nocton was to use the manure of the cows as fertiliser. While there are obviously plans to separate the milk of sick cows from the milk of healthy ones, I have not seen anywhere any mention of segregating cows such that their manure is separated from the manure of the healthy animals. If this is not done, those antibiotics will end up on the fields, and in the water.

      I did not suggest that the presence of Omega 3 oils in milk relate to the health of the cow, but to the health of the person drinking the milk.

      Your three questions:

      1. A number of insufficient size to cause distress and health issues for the animal, and not large enough to place the environment at risk from their waste. Group size should also take into account the people living locally. There have been some pretty miserable accounts from people living near the Nocton dairy in Devon, and the owner has already been made to pay “23,190 in fines for flouting environmental regulations. Do we really want a 3,700+ head farm based on someone who demonstrably doesn’t care about the environment?
      2. I don’t care. What matters is the stewardship of the animals and of their waste.
      3. The original Nocton plans did not allow the cows “loafing” space, nor give them access to outside grazing. I have objections to this on any size farm. Improved plans did allow for “loafing” space, and some access to outside grazing. It is telling that these were only provided after complaints were made about the original plans.

  3. Oxtale says:

    Thank you for your answers – very useful. I have a few additional questions, if I may.
    1. You have clarified, as I pointed out myself in my response, that high levels of grain feeding happen in beef cattle not dairy cattle. The two require completely different feeding regimes because, as you have pointed out, dairy cows get fatty liver or acidosis upset of the rumen when given too much grain. I am therefore not sure why you are suggesting a dairy farmer would feed high levels of grain as it causes these disorders, so could you maybe indicate your reference for megadairies feeding higher levels of grain in their diets than other dairy farms? I think we need to be careful not to extrapolate a feeding regime for one type of livestock farming on to another, so I would be keen to find out.
    2. Given there are many dairy farms over 1,000 head that are permanently housed and several farms in the UK approaching 2,000 head, this is not far off the 3,700 you mention. And assuming their management regimes are exactly the same as would have been at Nocton, then what is the critical difference that makes a large farm a megadairy. What would need to happen to make these 1,000-2,000 farms into megadairies? An increase in numbers? To what? Or what change in the regime?
    3. I am interested in your views of many small family farms in Europe that keep cows tethered by the neck all winter; this allows no loafing or indeed any free movement whatsoever other than standing up and lying down. How does this compare with large scale dairies use free housing, even though some do not have specific loafing areas?
    4. I have figures from several large scale farms in the US and their rates of mastitis and lameness, the two ailments that would most normally require antibiotics. They are significantly lower than what the average rates in the UK, by a country mile. Could you tell me the diseases that the animals in megadairies contract by way of their close proximity, that would require treatment with antibiotics?
    5. Finally, I am really keen on looking at ‘outcome-based’ measures of health and welfare. Health is relatively easy to measure – incidence of lameness, mastitis, metabolic disorders, calving difficulties,mortality etc. But how do you measure the distress you mention that would indicate that cows aren’t happy in a system. And by contrast, how would you measure contentment or ‘happiness’? Are there some simple ways to measure this that the public would relate to?
    Many thanks again for this discussion – it is really helpful to my studies,

    • chiller says:

      1. The second paper I quoted referred specifically to normal dairy feeding practices, where grain is used to supplement the cow’s diet during the “negative energy” phase. This is normal dairy practice and it causes liver damage. Perhaps read the paper again.

      2. I have issues with very large dairies. The existing Nocton farm in Devon is approx 2000 head, and has caused problems, both environmentally and in the local community. The Lincolnshire application, which was eventually turned down, was for approx 3,700 head, but the company’s stated intention was to increase that herd size further, once the business was established.

      3. I find that completely unacceptable, which is why I am careful to source British, organic milk and dairy products for myself. European animal husbandry frequently falls far short of UK practices – and UK practices are still far from ideal.

      4. That is because in the US it is considered routine practice to dose the herd with growth hormones and antibiotics. This is a well documented fact of US food production, and both DO show up in US milk (you can google it, it’s well established). I do not need to provide you with a list of contagious illnesses that cows in the UK can contract which would require antibiotics, but there are plenty, for instance bovine TB, BRD, Campylobacter infections etc. Cows are as subject to contagious infections as are any other species.

      5. Health based measures are always a very blunt instrument. According to all medical tests, I am perfectly well, for instance (I am not, but they cannot identify why). I believe the most practical answer to your question comes down to what the animal is evolved to do, and to require. If a cow is evolved to live in smallish herds, roam about outside, socialise and so forth, then that animal is going to be happiest in an environment which most closely mimics its evolutionary niche. (ie: group living, sufficient space, suitable diet, social interaction, good opportunities to indulge in natural behaviours, be those physical or social).

      What on earth are you studying? People who blog about cows?

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