That cows eat grass is one of those age old truisms, but for how much longer? This basic fact of biology is coming increasingly under threat from the march of factory farming. The proposal for an 8,000 mega-dairy in Lincolnshire, where the cows will be ‘zero-grazed’, has highlighted the move toward cows being brought inside, permanently, in the same way as has already happened with intensively farmed pigs and chickens.
Over the weekend, I pondered why anyone would want to keep cows inside permanently? What would be the motivation? What I found out was more chilling than I’d expected.
I read the excellent chapter by John Webster, renowned dairy cow expert and Professor Emeritus at Bristol University, in the new book, ‘The Meat Crisis’. Webster describes how the modern dairy cow now produces so much milk that she cannot eat enough grass to keep up with her over-producing udder. Instead, cows are fed concentrated feed with high levels of cereals and soya, for example. When cows are pushed to produce extreme milk yields, Webster explains, it “makes it unprofitable to turn cows out to pasture where they simply cannot take in nutrients fast enough. This then leads to the practice of zero grazing, whereby cows are confined through most or all of lactation and may be allowed out to pasture (if at all) during a period of about two months at the end of lactation and before the birth of their next calf.”
So the industrialisation of our dairy production is resulting in breeds of cow that can no longer eat enough grass and are being denied the outdoors. But it doesn’t end there. No matter how concentrated the diet for these genetically driven prolific animals, they still cannot eat enough during early lactation. As Webster puts it, “She ‘milks off her back’.” She experiences ‘metabolic hunger’.
And then there is the tale of the highly qualified applicant for a job at University in the United States who was reportedly turned down for suggesting that cows eat grass. The applicant apparently said that meat should be “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on land suitable for grasses and perennial crops.” Both beef and dairy cows can be zero-grazed.
So, who benefits from zero-grazed dairy cows? Is it the average dairy farmer? Webster again: “There can be no doubt that the industrialization and intensification of dairy production has pushed dairy cows to their limits without bringing any obvious benefit to dairy farmers.”
What about the environment? “The sheer size of the [dairy] industry has also placed great strains on the environment, mainly through the destruction of forests and permanent pastures to create vast tracts of maize and soy bean grown for livestock feed” Webster comments.
Thankfully, there is an alternative to industrial milk production based on mega-dairies. Extensive, more balanced dairy farming could, and should, have a place within a sustainable farming future. And the current reality in the UK, for example, is not so far removed, with the average herd size being about 100 cows. A vast difference from the 1,000 cows proposed for a mega-dairy in Wales or the 8,000 cows of the Nocton proposal.
History can remind us of the perils of getting too far away from basic biological facts. Turning natural herbivores, cows, into carnivores through feeding them meat and bone meal is widely blamed for causing BSE, or ‘mad cow disease’ which was a disaster for the dairy industry. This preventable disease brought terrible consequences for the cows, was responsible for agonizing deaths for the humans affected and continues to threaten public health.
Compassion in World Farming is campaigning hard to stop the proliferation of mega-dairies. We want a better future for our dairy cows, our food, and our farming community. We are determined to win the battle against the further industrialisation of dairy farming. You can help our campaign. The future of the grazing cow may depend on it.