Obviously, cheese tastes good. Really, really good. My love affair with cheese was enduring, passionate, committed… from the baked olive oil-drenched feta we ate on family holidays in Greece, to the filthy-ripe goats cheese on the Christmas cheeseboard and the dusting of salty Parmesan on alfresco Italian tomato pasta. Actually perhaps Parmesan’s a bad example: Parmigiano Reggiano has been in the news recently because of the cruelty of its intensive, zero-grazing systems, with cows permanently confined indoors. Oh yeah, and over 95% of US dairy cows are kept indoors all the time so that’s American cheese off the plate too. UK cheese though – that’s okay, surely? Our cows graze outside on green pasture, just like in the adverts and nursery rhymes.
Well, kind of. Currently only a small percentage of UK dairy cows are housed all year round, but this number is increasing. The threat of mega farms, like the recently proposed (and rejected) 8,000 cow dairy at Nocton, is likely to be only temporarily kept at bay by ‘environmental concerns’. The size of dairy herds is growing, from an average of 126 cows in 2008 to some herds of over 1,000 cows today, and increased herd sizes means difficulties in accessing pasture. Basically, the more cows, the more likely they are to be housed all year round. Quite aside from the economic threat to small family-run dairies from these large farms (even at the lower level of 3,770 cows, the Nocton farm could have forced around 50 small dairy farms out of business), there are obvious welfare problems in zero-grazing systems, most notably the cows’ inability to carry out natural behaviour, having less space to move. This is a particular problem for the large Holstein breed we have genetically selected for higher milk yield.
But is access to pasture really all we should be worried about? The UK dairy industry tends to have a pretty good public welfare image, certainly more positive than that of meat animals. However, animal husbandry expert John Webster compares the relatively good welfare of an organic beef cow with the struggles of the ‘exhausted’ dairy cow (1). A dairy cow is over five times as efficient at converting food to calories for human consumption than a pasture-fed beef cow and this comes at a cost: she is at greater risk of infectious disease and her behaviour is more restricted. Even compared to zero-grazed beef cattle, organic dairy cows experience greater physical discomfort, pain and injury, and equal nutritional problems. This is why, if forced to choose (and to the confusion of my past-vegetarian self) I’d probably eat an organic steak over a crème brûlée.
The key welfare issue with dairy though is the core process of the industry, in which dairy cows are subjected to a relentless cycle of insemination, pregnancy and birth. After birth, their calves are taken away from them so that we can drink their milk instead. At just 4-6 years old, dairy cows are ‘spent’ from being forced to continuously produce milk, and are then taken to slaughter. A cow’s natural life span would be 25 years. Whether zero-grazed or organic, all forms of dairy farming involve forcible impregnation: the farmer inserts his arm into the cow’s rectum to position the uterus, and then inserts an instrument into her vagina. Often a restraining apparatus is used during this process, commonly called a ‘rape rack’.
In high-welfare organic systems, the calf might be allowed to stay with his or her mother for some days, even weeks, but after that they have to be separated: this is normal across the dairy industry in order that milk is available for us to drink. Standard industry practice is that the calf is taken away after 24 hours or, in many intensive systems, immediately. I’ve come across people who say that calves being taken from their mothers is some sort of vegan ‘mythology’. Not so: this is standard practice in organic and non-organic systems, as confirmed by the UK’s leading organic certification body, The Soil Association. It is also basic logic: if dairy cows kept their calves with them until they were weaned, almost all dairy farming would end. Cows are mammals, just like us, and the emotional trauma the mother goes through at having her child ripped from her side is evident in the way she calls for, and searches for, her calf. Scientific research on this issue disagrees as to whether the cow is more distressed if her calf is taken earlier or later in the bonding process, but it doesn’t dispute that there is a significant level of stress involved either way.
In America, AHA ‘Certified Humane’ dairy farmers are allowed to put a plastic nose ring with sharp spikes on the calf so that every time he or she tries to nurse, the mother gets a sharp spike in the breast. This means the cow learns to fear her baby, and the baby learns that the mother runs away every time she approaches.
Organic farms will keep calves in groups once separated from their mothers, and the Soil Association prohibits farmers from weaning calves until they are at least 12 weeks old. However, once weaned, male calves cannot be used for milk production and, in the case of Holsteins, cannot be reared for beef production either. This means the majority are killed, whether organic or not (the Soil Association encourages the rearing of bull calves for rose veal or beef, or selling them to other organic farmers with these systems). Transport of young calves to slaughter has been shown to result in up to 50% of calves having bruised hind joints and on-route mortality rates greater than 20% (2).
Animal Ethicist Bernie Rollin criticizes the huge dissonance between traditional husbandry ideals – those green pastures we value so much in the UK – and “the unequivocal and relentless breeding of dairy cattle for productivity alone” (3). The suffering of the dairy cow runs far deeper than limiting access to pasture.
I used to be embarrassed to admit that one of my staple foods was processed Laughing Cow triangles. Now I’m even more embarrassed but for very different reasons: the plight of the dairy cow is absolutely nothing to laugh about. Sure, a lot of cheese tastes really good. But knowing what a cow had to go through to put it on my plate leaves a bitter aftertaste that, for me, is too hard to stomach.
(1) Webster, J. 2017. Green and pleasant farming: cattle, sheep and habitat. Extinction and Livestock Conference. London, UK
(2) Hemsworth, P., Barnett, J., Beveridge, L. & Matthews, L. 1995. The welfare of extensively managed dairy cattle: A review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 42, 161-182.
(3) Rollin, B. 2017. Guest Commentary: Animal Welfare in the Dairy Industry. AGWEB. Farm Journal