Last updated: November 2012
Like humans, cows produce milk to feed their young. However, unlike humans, conventional dairy farming normally requires the removal of calves from their mothers little more than 24 hours after being born.
The dairy cow is also the hardest worked of all farmed animals. To enable a constant supply of milk cows are usually artificially inseminated two to three months after they have given birth and are required to nurture a growing calf inside while simultaneously producing milk. This routine inevitably takes its toll, and many cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, before their fifth birthdays.
Concern about these issues, as well as about the increasing intensification in the industry, has led to some welfare assurance schemes emerging in the UK. The two articles on this page from the Soil Association and Viva! express, sometimes conflicting, views about what such schemes have to offer.
Animal welfare at organic dairies
Josh Stride from the Soil Association explains how its organic standards benefit the life of a cow.
Everyone has their own reasons for buying organic – from reduced pesticide use to taste and wildlife conservation. However, while many consumers make purchases based on concerns for animal welfare, remarkably few realise that organic – and, in particular, the Soil Association – provide a guarantee of the highest levels of animal welfare standards available.
Organic standards put animal welfare first. As well as requiring that animals are genuinely free range, organic standards cover living conditions, food quality, the routine use of antibiotics and hormones, as well as transport and slaughter. These standards mean that animals raised in organic systems enjoy the very highest welfare standards of farmed animals.
In general all organic farm animals must:
- have access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit);
- have plenty of space (indoors and outdoors);
- be fed on a diet as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs);
- not be routinely given antibiotics to treat illness;
- not be given hormones to encourage growth or productivity.
- When looking at dairy cows in particular, there are several specific standards of note:
- dairy cows must spend the majority of their lives outdoors and when they are brought indoors during bad weather they must have appropriate bedding and space
- they must be fed a minimum of 60 per cent forage at all times and whatever the balance of forage or concentrate (soya or corn) it must be 100 per cent organic.
As a result, average yields in organic production are around a third less than in non-organic production – cows fed on concentrated feed may produce more milk, but it can be stressful for the cow to do so and puts a strain on the animal’s health.
A key difference between organic and non-organic dairy systems is in how calves are treated. Under organic standards, the feeding of calves must be based on natural milk, preferably maternal milk, for a minimum of three months. A calf may only be weaned when it is taking adequate solid food to cater for its full nutritional requirements. In non-organic systems this can happen much earlier, which can cause distress for the mother cow.
Because the typical high milk-yielding breed of black and white cows (Holstein-Fresian) cannot be reared for high quality meat production, it is common practice for male dairy calves to be killed at birth or exported to the continent for veal production. Soil Association standards have never allowed the sale of calves to continental-style veal systems, and since 2010 our standards have specified that farmers must have a plan to avoid the culling of newborn calves. Options for organic farmers include raising native breeds such as a Red Poll or Shorthorn that have been bred for both milk and meat, or raising male calves for organic ‘rose’ veal – a robust, mature meat, pink in colour and aged for flavour. Male calves raised for this veal enjoy plenty of space and light inside suitable buildings over winter and outside at pasture for the rest of the year, a varied diet, and the care of a foster cow when available.
What’s still wrong with dairy
Juliet Gellatley from the vegetarian and vegan campaign group Viva! explains how problems inherent in the dairy industry still exist under organic and other certification schemes.
Highly invasive practices such as embryo transfer and ovum
pick-up are prohibited but artificial insemination is allowed without any regulations governing the breed (and therefore size) of the sire.
Fertility hormones may not be used to synchronise calving but may be used to induce labour or bring a cow with failing fertility into heat.
Calves may only be housed individually until seven days old and then they must be group housed, however disbudding is still permitted up to three months old and castration with a rubber ring is allowed in the first week of life. Calves may not be taken to market under one month old but beyond that age they may endure journeys of up to eight hours to market or the abattoir.
Cows on organic farms may still be impregnated every year to provide a continuous supply of milk and may endure the trauma of having their calves taken away within 24-72 hours of birth. They may also carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation for seven months of every year, just like those on conventional farms. These two welfare insults are inherent in dairy production and cannot be eliminated.
The birth of male calves is also a problem for organic dairy farmers using high yield breeds such as Holsteins and the scheme allows these ‘unwanted by-products’ to be shot shortly after birth.
There are also no firm guidelines on the length of time which dairy cows may be housed indoors, although zero-grazing systems (where cows never go out to pasture) are prohibited.
RSPCA Freedom Foods scheme
The RSPCA’s Freedom Food Standards for the welfare of dairy cattle provide little more than the legal minimum for cows and their calves. As in organic farming, cows suffer the repeat trauma of having their calves taken away shortly after birth and face the gruelling workload of pregnancy and lactation. The only practices of conventional farming which are prohibited are embryo transfer and ovum pick-up. Calves may still be housed individually up to eight weeks old and can travel to market as young as seven days old, enduring journeys up to eight hours long.
The standards on the removal of supernumerary teats and disbudding do offer slightly higher welfare than the legal minimum, with anaesthetic being required for both procedures under the scheme and a younger age limit set. However, the fate of male calves is ignored under this scheme, leaving farmers free to kill off any unwanted calves immediately after birth.
Red Tractor – British Farm Standard
The Red Tractor logo on dairy products signifies that the milk was produced in the UK on a farm which meets the standards of the National Dairy Farm Assurance Scheme (NDFAS). However, these standards are simply the UK and EU legal minimums and nothing more! The only thing this logo guarantees the customer is that the product was produced in Britain and the farm was not breaking any laws, at least not on the day it was inspected!
There is more information about the dairy industry and animal welfare at Viva!’s website.
The Vegan Society website offers information on how to live a healthy diet without dairy and meat.