Milk money

Are we about to see a "race to the bottom" for farm animal welfare?

23rd October 2019

“I think that in the modern world, with mega-farms and mega-dairies, people have lost sight of that essential contact between humans and the animals,” says Nicola Pazdzierska, co-founder of Ahimsa, a not-for-profit “slaughter-free” dairy in Rutland.

Named for the Hindu virtue of respecting and not harming life, Ahimsa uses the so-called “calf at foot” method, in which calves stay with their mothers until they are five or six months old. In Pazdzierska’s fields, seeing calves suckling their mothers is a common sight, a stark contrast with intensive dairy farming where calves are separated from their mothers hours after their birth.

According to David Finlay, whose farm is based on the Dumfries and Galloway coast, very few people are aware of the fact cows are separated from their calves. The farmer realised this after visitors came to his farm. “Separating the calves from their mothers was something that people were uncomfortable with. On top of that, I suppose there was the fact that many of the cows express their unhappiness with separation, and that was something that we were particularly aware of.” 

COSTS

Finlay stopped separating calves and cows three years ago now. The dairy farmer doesn’t shy away from the initial challenges of that system, though. He says: “There is a fairly major income and physical penalty for this. Because you’re looking in the bulk tank in the morning and seeing half the milk there.”

Intensive farming is a contentious subject on the points of environmental pollution as well as animal welfare. In the last few years, mega-farms have been associated with the pollution of waterways and blamed for antibiotic resistance, which has potentially major implications on human health.

This is a bizarre outcome of not thinking about a whole system approach with farming

Animals are also fed with large quantities of corn and soya which are in the majority of cases genetically modified and linked to deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest. Animal cruelty, particularly in the case of caged chickens and crated pigs, has also been a concern for the public.

Sam Packer, policy officer for the Soil Association, an organic certification body, says the industry needs to “move away” from intensive farming. For example, he says, in Ireland where farms have increased production recently in order to export more milk, problems have been created which farmers are struggling to deal with.

“They’re now reaching a point where those intensive systems don’t have the land available to spread the slurry from the system. Dairy farmers are buying land just to spread slurry. This is a bizarre outcome of not thinking about a whole system approach with farming.”

OVERHAUL

A “whole system” approach to farming is what Pazdzierska and Finlay are trying to achieve. The two farmers are aiming to create a system as close to nature as possible for their cows, pastures, and the biodiversity of their farms. In the words of Ahimsa’s co-founder: “The whole thing is all connected. A healthy pasture means healthy cows and means healthy people and a healthy environment.

“Since we’ve moved on to the land we’re on, [because] we are organic, the biodiversity according to the local wildlife trust has increased several times because of the way cows will graze. It allows lots of other species and plants to actually emerge.”

Finlay agrees with the approach but he says it takes a while to see the benefits, especially when it comes to the soil, and his farm wasn’t immediately as productive as it has been. “It took a long time — 10 years — before we were really getting back to where we were before.” 

Farmers in the UK are stuck between a rock and a hard place, economically speaking. As Pazdzierska explains: “You know the small dairies have gone to the wall. So people have a choice basically. They either get out of farming and then we lose all that knowledge… of the land and the history, or they’re forced to upscale. And of course the farmers who upscaled, they’re up to their eyes in debt and they’ve had to put more and more pressure on the animals.” 

In the British countryside today, you will see about nine times fewer small farms than 15 years ago. At the end of the day, farmers need to make a living, as Packer remarks: “Keeping those calves suckling on those dairy cows for that number of months reduces your milk yield, right? So you make less money. And it’s as simple as that.”

Dairy farmers are accustomed to balancing acts with their finances. A small drop in yield can make a big difference, especially on small farms, and the reason the number of dairy farmers is shrinking is purely financial.

But there obvious benefits to intensive farming for consumers too. For example, food can be produced more cheaply at a time of austerity and potential food insecurity. Milk is one of the most heavily subsidised and artifically-priced goods that consumers buy — we haven’t paid the true cost of it in a long time. Most farms make a loss on every litre of milk produced and only subsidies ensure they stay afloat.

STANDARDS

Subsidies come from the EU as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which pays landowners subsidies on a per hectare basis. Smaller farms that don’t benefit from the advantages of scale get the same amount per hectare of land than their bigger, more competitive neighbours.

An investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has shown intensive farms running feed-lot style beef units, poultry mega-farms and pig units in the United Kingdom have received around £70m in subsidies in two years, even though many of them already make a profit.

In order to get subsidies, farmers need to comply with a number of environmental measures, such as maintaining hedgerows for native birds and “wilding”, leaving a parcel of land free for wild plants and animals. But for some British farmers, this is where the environmental stewardship stops.

While most countries have seen a large increase in their organic agriculture, the UK has seen a decrease of 15% in the five years to 2017, according to Eurostat. Organic farming encourages farmers to use natural processes and tends to have a limited impact on the environment, it also demands high standards of animal welfare which means farmers must meet the “behavioural needs of animals”, according to the EU’s website.

That’s not to say British farmers don’t have their animals’ welfare at the top of their list of priorities. There’s a big argument to be made that British agriculture has the best welfare standards in the world — which historically has caused problems.

In 1999, a British ban on sow stalls — restrictive crates that kept pigs separate from each other — pushed prices up and meant supermarkets began importing cheap European pig meat instead. While the ban itself was well-intentioned, it caused the number of pig farmers in Britain to nearly halve in 10 years and largely didn’t improve the welfare of the bacon or pork on British people’s plates.

BREXIT WORRIES

Brexit is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and the RSPCC is all too aware of the complexities of the debate. The organisation tells us Brexit could present “advantages” as well as “dangers” to present welfare standards set by the European Union, and better awareness of how meat was raised was needed for consumers to make informed choices. “At the moment, product labels can be misleading and confusing for shoppers, which risks consumers not being informed about which systems they are supporting through their purchases.”

Despite this, the government is adamant that Brexit will improve animal welfare and the environment — though there’s no real evidence that’s the case.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) tells The Overtake: “After Brexit, we will have the opportunity to better protect animal rights and environmental concerns, and to introduce new schemes to support farming. This includes ambitious plans for a new land management system that will unlock potential for farmers and land managers based on the principles of public money for the provision of public goods.”

Is the government promising too much? Packer thinks so. He says: “I think there’s a failure of the UK government to get beyond seeing organic as a luxury or as something that’s done by a kind of elite — by a farming elite as well as a consumer elite. And it’s our job, the farming sector’s job and the public’s, to convince [the government] otherwise.” 

UNDERCUT

Concerns about the British farming industry go much deeper than whether welfare will be improved.

As Brexit looms, farmers are also worried trade deals with countries which do not have the same EU welfare standards in food production could lead to a “race to the bottom”. 

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has stated in case of a no-deal Brexit, the only way for UK farmers to compete with cheap meat and egg products would be to deregulate the industry — effectively lessening or removing welfare regulations altogether.

It could end up forcing down British welfare standards. It’s a serious situation

Both Finlay and Pazdzierski are among the farmers concerned about a potential UK-US trade deal. The latter says: “Chlorinated chickens and feeding cows hormones to increase milk yield or increase beef production is banned in the EU, it’s not banned in America. It could end up forcing down British welfare standards. It’s a serious situation.”

Packer believes chlorinated chickens are just the tip of the iceberg and shows the issues with the US food safety system as a whole. “Effectively [chlorinated chicken] is indicative of a system that focuses on last resort solutions to solve a public health problem.” 

Whether or not the UK as a whole will change its agricultural policy in years to come and incentivise more farmers to take on environmentally sound business models, a lot of farmers are taking the initiative. However, this comes at a price for the consumers.

WELFARE

As mentioned, it’s important to note that farmers already adhere to high environmental as well as animal welfare standards and that the type or size of farm isn’t a guarantee of animal welfare. As an NFU spokesperson puts it: “The NFU has long-maintained that animal husbandry, health and welfare are the most important factors for good on-farm practice, not the type of farm system. Farm size and system are not themselves a measure of an animal’s welfare.

“Farmers are rightly proud of their standards of animal health, welfare, and environmental protection which rank as some of the highest in the world, and the high quality, safe, traceable and affordable food they produce adheres to these high standards.”

The NFU also says it encourages the public “to look out for the Red Tractor on packaging to ensure the food is produced to high welfare standards and can be traced back to a British farm”.

Ahimsa started off as a cow sanctuary and became a dairy later, as a way to fund pensions for their cows and bulls. The aim of Ahimsa is for none of their animals to ever see the inside of a slaughterhouse. This comes at a price for those who buy their milk: “We had to ensure that our cows lived to their full natural lives. We obviously charge more for our milk, but some of that money goes to the long term care of our cows and our oxen.” 

Three years on from letting the cows stay with their young, Finlay is starting seeing the benefits in his commercial farm. “The natural productivity and health of the cow and calf is beginning to reward us. That ecological principle is the one that we’re trying to understand and harness for the benefits of everything. The land and the environment, the animals and the people working here.” 

While the bull calf’s life is much briefer, there is little doubt it is about as happy as you’ll find in any dairy!

Since they are able to stay with their mothers, his calves are growing faster and leaving the market around the ages of 6-10 months, about 18-24 months sooner than if they were fed on formula, as staying with their mothers improves their growth naturally. “Even though the calf drinks a third of the milk, in total the herd’s milk production is now only slightly down from before, but we have an extra 30-35 cattle to sell.

“This is a key part of this dairy model. Instead of being a waste product, the bull calf is a vital contributor. While the bull calf’s life is much briefer, there is little doubt it is about as happy as you’ll find in any dairy!”

While he says it is possible for other farmers to increase animal welfare and go organic Finlay stresses it requires a fair bit of reorganisation: “Your entire farm infrastructure has to change to accommodate it, your thinking has to change and your management approach has to change.” 

Packer believes pioneering dairies such as Ahimsa and Finlay’s farm could potentially change the agricultural landscape. “If the benefits of maintaining those relationships within animal herds improves their welfare, reduces their reliance on all sorts of inputs and keeps them on pasture, if all those benefits are recognised and also could be paid for, potentially in future schemes, then those farmers wouldn’t be pushed to do things badly to make more money.”

23rd October 2019