Doing dairy differently

On the fringes of the dairy sector can be found models of small-scale dairy farming that work better for animals and the landscapes they roam.

These pioneering farms use a range of production methods that champion cooperative ways of working and higher animal and environmental welfare. They also seek to diversify income streams and sell direct to customers to ensure a fairer price for the farmer.

These mission-driven initiatives rely on committed customers (or food citizens) who support their values and are willing to pay the true cost of milk.

The Ahimsa Dairy Foundation and Calf at Foot Dairy provide just two unique examples of farmers trying to do dairy differently.

image: man and cow love in barn with green foliage and leaves in the background
Lily and Vraja, Ahimsa Dairy Foundation.

Ahimsa Dairy Foundation

The Ahimsa Dairy Foundation (ADF) runs a unique dairy farm in the heart of the picturesque county of Rutland which is entirely slaughter-free. Inspired by the model of farming at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the Hare Krishna temple near Watford, no cow, bull calf or grown ox is ever sent to the abattoir and all live out their full natural lives.

Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning non-violence and that is the way the not-for-profit organisation farms.

Fundamentally the team believe that it is wrong to take a cow’s milk and be sustained by this miracle food and then kill her when she becomes less productive. She deserves a happy old age, chewing the cud with her friends and relations in the fields, in gratitude for all she has given.

ADF commented:

“At a time when fossil fuels are destroying the world and leading to catastrophic climate change, it makes no sense to kill bull calves in their thousands. Their strength and muscle can be employed to work the land as they did for centuries even in Britain before the advent of the industrial revolution and the tractor.

Oxen work in harmony with nature and their hooves do not damage the precious soil as heavy machinery does. Their dung and urine is also a vital fertiliser for the earth feeding billions of microorganisms and worms and creating healthy pasture, which acts as an important carbon sink”.

At present, the Ahimsa Dairy has a herd of more than 35 milking cows, calves and oxen, all with names and individual personalities. It also has a bull called Superhero, who is father to most of the calves. The calves stay with their mothers and the herd for at least six months, until they become big and strong. There are six calves who now have their own little gang.

The milking cows are mainly milked by hand and only visit the bull every two to four years. They do not have yearly pregnancies as in conventional dairies.

The Ahimsa Dairy strives to farm to the highest agroecological standards, encouraging and supporting wildlife on its organic pasture. A survey by the Wildlife Trust showed that, since the cows had been there, biodiversity on the land had increased and last year critically endangered water voles were found living on the banks of the river which runs through the fields.

Barn owl and bat boxes have been sited on the trees and there are soon to be boxes for kestrels too. In the warm months, the farm is awash with moths and butterflies. 

Calf at Foot

The Calf at Foot Dairy (CAFD) sells raw milk from its farm gate and offers deliveries via its online shop. Its cows are Purely-Pasture-Fed Jersey and Native cows and it uses a ‘calf at foot’ farming technique that was pioneered by Fiona Provan of CAFD.

Fiona commented:

“Our cows are milked just once a day. All the cows know their name and come when called. The calves stay with their mothers, ideally until a natural weaning age of about 9 months, but this can vary depending on how mum and her calf are doing.

"Knowing what’s right for our cows is an art-form and requires that we share an intimate relationship with them (with trial and error!).

"Having my cattle on pasture always felt right to me. However, as I began researching I discovered just how important grazing cows upon mixed, perennial, permanent pastures is.

image: family of cows walking across pasture in the sun with trees in background

"Our cows are moved across fields swiftly, as a bunch (similar to how wild herds of herbivores move to protect themselves from natural predators). This grazing rhythm helps to create and maintain a soil carbon sponge.

"Under-hoof the soil is healthy, fertile and rich in organic matter, leguminous plants, grasses and forbs draw down carbon; locking it into the soil to feed the plant roots. The resulting deeper taproots not only mine the soil (bringing trace elements and minerals to the surface to enrich our food with micronutrients) but are key for breaking up compacted soils. This allows rainwater to penetrate deep into the ground and prevents run-off – building resilience to drought and flooding.

"Populations of beneficial bacteria, fungi, wild flowers, seeds and invertebrates bloom. This banquet brings insect loving songbirds and seed loving finches. Nectar and pollinators abound, followed by small mammals, amphibians, grass-snakes and raptors. This is a form of regenerative agriculture.

"For too long farmers have depleted and degraded our soils, sown annual ryegrass monocultures and killed our precious dung beetles and earthworms. They have overused chemical fertilisers and wormers – lowering their cattle’s immunity to parasites due to overgrazing. This I call degenerative agriculture.

“Many of our customers think of our Proper Milk as medicine, but we like to think it’s a little more. It’s the contentedness of our cows, the vitality of our soil and a link joining our biomes to our biosphere.”

A comment by Jyoti Fernandes of the Land Workers Alliance continues to offer food for thought when reflecting on the above case studies and dairy alternatives:

“These creative farmers push the boundaries for the most ethical milk available but, in reality, most small-scale family dairy farms have very high standards for their animals. Almost all of the small-scale dairy farmers I know care deeply about their cows. Small-scale dairy farms need reliable support from ‘consumers who care’ to stay viable”.

Can grazing produce dairy with a lower carbon footprint?

It is argued that well-managed holistic grazing systems could sequester carbon in grasslands by stimulating plant growth and carbon sequestration in the soil, compensating partially or entirely for the greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted by livestock.

However, the science around this is patchy and does not reach clear conclusions. The answer to this question appears to depend on a given location, the climate and soil type etc. and how degraded land was prior to being holistically grazed. Find out more in our feature 'How bad are meat and dairy for the climate?'.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter