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When cows just become numbers

Above is a photograph I took of Philip, a herdsman who looked after a herd of dairy cows on a farm business I managed a few years back. This image says so much to me about what dairy farming is all about.

It's illustrates the relationship between farmer and cow that exists on so many small family farms and highlights the trust cows put in us.

Anyone watching the BBC Panorama programme ‘A Cow’s Life: The True Cost of Milk?’ will have been horrified by the vile scenes of these sentient creatures being abused on farms. Many will now look long and hard at the bottle of white stuff on their kitchen table and question the ethics of consuming any milk and dairy products.

Abuse of any living creature should be condemned and those found guilty of handing it out punished. But to what extent is this despicable behaviour prevalent on British farms and why does it happen?

In truth, it is impossible to know the number of times animals are shouted at, punched, kicked, or otherwise made to suffer on farms, or in domestic households. In my experience, such abuses of dairy cows are not widespread and are certainly not as common as the Panorama programme perhaps suggested. But we know it happens and not one single attack on any animal can be excused.

I grew up in with a family dairy farm back in the 1970’s that had 50 to 60 cows, all with names beginning with the letter ‘M’. Names, not numbers and each cow known and called by her name; such was the relationship between farmer and herd back then.

Through out my own farming career, which began in the mid-eighties, I have witnessed an incredible change in British farming landscape, from the rich tapestry of 100,000 family dairy farms in 1970, like the one run by my family, to the creation of ‘mega dairies’ holding up to 2,000 cows on one site today. UK milk producer numbers fell from 35,700 in 1995 to 11,900 in 2020, a decline of 67%. Yet total annual milk output remained relatively unchanged during this period, at around 14 billion litres a year.

But what have these industry statistics got to do with someone beating a defenceless cow with a shovel? Well, in my opinion, quite a lot. The contraction in dairy herd numbers has been driven by relentless pressure on farmers (and their cows) to deliver more for less. The dominance of big supermarkets at the top of the grocery supply chain has forced those supplying them to get bigger or get out. As a result, we have seen consolidation in milk processing and milk production from fewer, bigger farms.

The connection with rising concerns about the welfare of dairy cows is not simply a case of big is bad, but experience has taught me there is more risk animals will be mistreated when they become just a number. Huge investment in facilities to house and milk big herds of cows means there is real pressure to push for high milk output in order to achieve a return on the money ploughed in (often borrowed money).

Large numbers of cows can no longer be managed and cared for by a single farmer or dedicated herdsperson. Often these herds are confined indoors 365 days a year, which creates a lot of work and a team of people are required to perform specific roles. Some staff may work shifts milking cows, whilst others focus on feeding calves, or cleaning bedding. These more specialised roles with so many animals, means that it is impossible for workers to really get to know and understand individual cows.

This is how cows can become just numbers with no individual identity and how the relationship between man and beast is lost. Increasingly technology has now become the interface between farm staff and the cows. Robots and devices that can monitor cow activity, gut function and milk composition, are relied upon for communication between the two.

On the small, family dairy farms that thankfully still exist today, most cows are secure in the knowledge that they are awarded what might be referred to as ‘pet status’. By this I mean they are treated as part of the family that keeps and tends them. Many of the herd will themselves be drawn from long family lines that have grazed the same pastures, slept in the same barns and been milked by the same people for generations. The farm is their home too.

I have milked herds of 150 or more cows where I have been able to identify every cow by sight, know how they rank in the hierarchy of the herd, know what causes them stress and fear and know who is happy to be stroked and who would rather just be left alone. In small family farms this relationship between humans and cows is close and it’s personal.

In every herd there are ‘well-behaved’, complicit cows, who go through each day so quietly and untroubled that you barely notice they are there. But there are those who are sometimes nervous, perhaps highly strung, who don’t always do what is expected and may kick out if spooked. At times, cows can test the patience of tired, overworked and underpaid farmers. Who hasn’t raised their voice to a disobedient dog, or overexcited child, when tired?

Owning a cow is no different to owning a dog or a cat, except that you may have 200 of them who all demand your attention 365 days a year and yet you still you can’t earn enough from their milk to pay your bills.

It's important to remember that farming families depend on the generosity, productivity, good health and good nature of their cows for their own livelihoods. They have brought them into the world as calves and invested time and money in raising them for two to three years before they start producing milk. A short productive life, or one blighted by illness and injury, whilst painful for a cow is also costly for the farmer. When you are the one paying the vet bills or having to go out and buy a replacement for a dead cow it hurts.

The pain of losing a cow that you have formed a close bond with doesn’t just hurt the pocket. There is a real sense of losing family member because you spent time with her, spoke to her and knew her so well. You placed your hands on her at milking times twice a day, you felt the warmth of her skin, you instinctively noticed changes in her behaviour and she knew an awful lot about you too, your good days and your bad days.

You may still be shocked and sickened by the images shown on television when you read this, but I want to assure you not all farms (or farmers) are the same. Many of us love what we do and we feel privileged to have such a close relationship with animals and nature. Without wishing to excuse any of the horrible events that were shown, please remember that whilst seeking to be factual some television documentaries set out to shock and don't want a more balanced view to spoil a sensational story.

The only authority I have in writing this piece is a lifetime of working with dairy cows and other farm animals. I don’t claim to be an expert; I am simply sharing some of what I have observed and learnt. I can’t promise you no one ever hurts a cow on any farm; the same way I can’t assure you all staff in care homes don’t abuse elderly people. Unless there is 24-hour public surveillance of every building and field on farms, nobody can.

The one thing I can do however, is encourage and help you to make better choices about the farms that your milk comes from. I am passionate about promoting a better understanding of how food is produced on farms and forging closer connections between farmers and consumers. Through that connection we can create a food system that provides a more informed choice for you, a fair reward for farmers, a better life for farm animals, space for nature and safeguards for our planet.

Take a look at the Produce & Provide website to find dairy farmers and producers of all kinds of wonderful British food, who sell direct from their farms to their local communities and beyond. We have an interactive map where you can enter your postcode to find farms near you and you read about our registered producers and how they farm.

When you buy direct from local producers you may not be able to see what’s going on every minute of the day, but you can ask questions and often see things happening on the farm for yourself. You can buy milk from a single source, rather than an unidentifiable mix of farms hundreds of miles away. You also get to let the farmer know what matters to you, what you are prepared to pay for and seek assurances about specific farming practices.

Buying your milk locally, from the kind of farms you want to support can make a difference for dairy cows. Your money goes directly to producer, rather than them having to take what little is left after the middlemen have taken their required profit. Paying more for milk doesn’t necessarily mean farmers will spend it on improving life for their cows, but it does one really important thing: It helps to make small family farms, where cows are more than just a number, viable for future generations and that is good for the cows and us.

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