Last week a restaurant in England posted a notice explaining why management had decided to stop selling dairy products made with cow's milk. The notice included the following lines:
“In order to make milk, all animals, whether human or cow or otherwise, must have a child. Cows are pregnant with theirs for nine months, just as we are. The milk they produce is for their calf; in order for us to get it, the calf is taken away or killed, usually within a day or two. Free-range and organic, it doesn't change that fact. After several months of milking, her milk production drops, so she is made pregnant again. This will happen from the age of two, to the average age of six, at which point most dairy cows become too exhausted, ill or infertile and are slaughtered for meat.”
Vegans are not the enemy of farmers, as all food generally comes from farms. Their personal decisions on diet are their own, but the vegan movement is putting extra pressure on dairy farmers to ensure high standards, so that others have no cause to abandon dairy products.
This notice is difficult to ignore, because in outline most of its facts are straight. The basic tenets of dairy are, you breed a cow that produces a lot of milk and calve her down. But experience has taught us that the calf would get scour if it was allowed to suck its mother's over-abundant udder. In addition, by keeping the calf separate from day one, you prevent the kind of bonding that makes later separation a terrible ordeal for everyone concerned. It is better if we milk her ourselves and feed the calf her colostrum and whatever else it needs.
Obviously the charge that we kill the calves we don't want is unfounded, except perhaps in New Zealand, where I was told of such practices on large industrial dairy farms. A farmer there once told me that male offspring were killed on the spot to avoid the cost of feeding them. It was all because they had scrapped subsidies, he said, and cost became a huge issue for farmers. In his opinion, only those with such brutal tactics could survive. I thought it was reprehensible then, as I do now. Thankfully I have never heard of it happening in Ireland or in England, and I hope I never do.
As we all know, farming is a rewarding yet difficult career. Dairy farming is among the most demanding professions in existence. With a seven-day week and no time off for much of the year, dairy farmers are tied to their workplace in a manner comparable only to heads of state. Those who supply winter milk, work like this all the year 'round and ne'er a break in sight. There are countless examples of dairy farmers who go without a day off for years at a time. My own father was one. As a relief milker a few years back, I remember stepping in to milk for a man in his 40s who was going fishing with his friends. He would be gone for three milkings, a day and a night. It was his first break since he took over the family farm as a teenager and he looked nervous about leaving his precious herd in the hands of a stranger.
Of course farmers don't generally make the kind of money politicians and CEOs make, so to do it you have to love it. And those who go to work with love in their heart are not about to mistreat animals or act with deliberate cruelty. In any case, to work successfully with animals you have to have an innate understanding of their needs and wants. Farmers know their animals and in many cases develop great affection for individuals. As cows are among the most fascinating of animals, full of mischief, intelligence and character, you'd have to be a robot not to recognise their individuality. Every farmer knows his cows and most grieve when an old stalwart comes to the end of her career. But however much we love our animals, we are running a business and we cannot allow sentiment to take over, or debts will not be paid and the farm will be lost.
There are a few individual farmers who act with cruelty towards their animals, but their actions are disliked by the majority and their results cannot be very impressive. Stressed animals do not perform. It is well known that eliminating stress is one of the key challenges in maintaining high productivity on farms. Stressed calves catch scour and die. Weanlings will not gain weight if they are cold, wet or deprived of food or water. Animals that are worried by the manner in which they are handled, with too much shouting or beating of sticks, will quickly shiver and shake the condition off their backs. You can see the difference overnight. If a herd of bullocks, for example, was brought into the yard in summer for testing and the job was done in a panic, the next day they will look like a crowd of shadows, without sheen and visibly tormented. Wise farmers know that the best way to bring animals in, is to lure them into a holiday with things they like, not to frighten them with sticks.
Now we come to the six-year life-span. This is an unfortunate reality for some high-performance breeds like Holstein. The brittleness of high-bred animals, be they Irish draught horses or Friesian milking sheep, is well-known. Breeding societies have been warning about the cost to animal welfare of over-indulging performance genetics for years, and thankfully this is now being balanced out of Irish herds with ICBF's excellent recording system.
We do not want to make the mistakes of others abroad. In the US they have bred a type of broiler chicken that cannot walk, and could never walk, no matter who tried to free them. They have been bred to put on condition at the expense of their own welfare and the reputation of the industry as a whole. Those who put greed above welfare standards do their industry a disservice, because they encourage people to believe that the whole industry must be like that. In some cases, by out-competing conventional farmers, they force the industry to become like that.
Dairy farmers had better watch out that this does not happen here too. As a relief milker I've seen many types of dairy outfit, from well run 100-cow herds that anybody would be proud to show off, to little old run-down farmyards with 10 or 12 assorted pets, who stood in line to be milked without ration or restrictions. Most of the farms I have seen would make you feel proud of our dairy industry. Standards of care have risen tremendously over the years, and our knowledge is greater than ever. Animal welfare has become an acknowledged aim of good farm management, which is to be acclaimed.
There are other factors however. For example, in my experience, the bigger the herd, the more difficult it is to give animals any meaningful individual attention. This means that problems can fester before they are noticed and the health of the herd can suffer. Disease and infection will travel much quicker through larger herds as there are more vectors, and it is harder to notice mild symptoms.
One 600-cow dairy herd which I helped milk regularly was, to my mind, a case in point. Although there were always a few people working on that farm, the sheer scale of everything and the amount of work there was always to be done, meant there was no time for niceties with the animals. Towards the end of each milking a sad-looking mini-herd of patients would hobble into the parlour, with a host of ailments ranging from foot-rot and mastitis, to various oozing infections. Perhaps better management could have reduced the number of problems that always seemed present there, but for me it was all because the scale was too great.
We need to think about where we are headed and protect what we have got. Some of the drive towards larger farms is because of pressure on prices and the need to scale up to maintain profitability. Some is no doubt driven by greed. There should be no imperative to go down this road however. The best dairy farms I saw were all around 100-150 cow herds. These farmers know their animals and they have time to keep them all in tip-top shape. Distances to the paddocks are not too great for this size of herd. Adding numbers adds commuting distance. Roadways must be maintained or you get footrot and lameness. The other solution is year-round housing, which rather defeats the purpose of advertising Ireland as the home of clean, green, grass-fed produce.
Veganism is just a sideshow, a reaction to the visible trends in farming. When we settle into a sustainable pattern of production and stop the destructive and unrewarding drive towards expansion, we will win back public confidence. To do this we must be paid fair prices for our milk and so feel assured that we can carry on as we are. This is the only long-term policy that is guaranteed success.