The way we consume news has changed. With social media and online and 24 hour news channels, we have news, debates and exposés at our fingertips.
Part of this has meant that farming and agricultural methods have been opened up for us all to see. Now, there’s a growing awareness of the truths of factory dairy farms, and how the industry really works. This has coincided with an increasing trend of consumers looking for dairy alternatives.
From using dairy substitutes such as soy, almond and coconut milk, to going vegan, many of us are ditching the dairy. Reasons include animal welfare issues and the unsustainable practices that surround dairy farming.
But there are still many more of us who, whilst they may feel guilty about it, simply love cheese, cream and milk. So, is it possible to still enjoy dairy without the guilty conscience? Are there sustainable dairy farms that we can buy from?
The Reality of Large Factory Dairy Farms
Over the past several years Britain has experienced a dairy crisis. The price of milk has fallen so low that it barely covers production costs for most farmers. This has caused many smaller farms to go out of business. It’s also led to an increase in mega-dairies.
These large, factory farms house thousands of cows in industrial-scale sheds. The cows are then milked around the clock, rarely, if ever, getting access to sunshine or fresh pasture.
This intensive farming leads to many problems for the animals. Lameness, infections, anxiety and aggression from overcrowding are all common. Dairy cows are unable to express natural behaviours and newborn calves are taken away from their mothers who are then pushed to their physical limits to produce the most amount of milk possible.
As well as animal welfare issues, these types of farms are unsustainable in many other ways.
There is a greater risk of disease. The cows experience more health problems and die at a younger age than those on a traditional farm. There’s also the large contribution to global warming through greenhouse gases, and the damaging waste disposal that can contaminate the environment.
It seems there are very few positives to this unnatural form of farming.
New Solutions for Sustainable Dairy Farming
The culture and traditions of local British farms are being lost through this industrial style of dairy farming. As the 9th biggest milk producer in the world, sustainable farming methods in the UK have never been more important.
But there are a lot of smaller farms that are changing the way they farm. They’re opting for farming methods that work positively for the animals and the environment. They’re more humane to their cattle, and more sustainable in their production methods.
These solutions include using sustainable feed. This is grass mixed with feed that comes from the UK rather than imported feed. These farms are also choosing to deliver directly to consumers so they can ensure they get a fair price for their higher welfare milk.
There are also vegetarian dairy farms where no animals get slaughtered. Some farms are weaning calves much later so they can stay with their mothers for months, rather than hours. Many farms are recycling water and using waste to generate electricity, whilst others are creating their own natural fertiliser from composted manure and straw, which keeps the soil and pasture healthy.
To survive through these tough times, some small dairy producers have had to diversify their range. They’re now producing higher value products such as cheese and yoghurt. Many retailers have also put fairer minimum prices in place for milk, making it more achievable for smaller farms to keep going.
With such a great climate for green pasture, small scale farms usually keep their cows grazing outdoors for most of the year. This means happy and healthy cows, which in turn provide better quality milk.
The Good Guys
The more sustainable dairy farms that exist, the more access we have to humane and sustainable milk and dairy products. A selection of farms who are already using sustainable practices include:
The Calf at Foot Dairy
This micro-dairy put welfare and compassion before profit. They believe cows should keep their calves until a natural weaning age. The cows are 100% grass fed to produce natural, raw milk that can be bought at the farm or mail ordered across the UK.
The Calf at Foot Dairy use “holistic management with the intention of regenerating soil and biodiversity on the land”. They also teach children and adults about responsible, regenerative and ethical farming.
As an organic dairy farm, the cows at Coombe Farm have the opportunity to graze freely on large areas of land. The farm takes responsible farming seriously by maintaining the environment, the welfare of animals and the appearance of the countryside.
Coombe Farm use no artificial chemical fertilisers, antibiotics or growth stimulants. They look after their animals, their soil and their farmland to produce superior, better tasting milk, and take care of the environment, people and wildlife around them.
Using a new approach to dairy farming, Finlay’s Farm has based their farming model on cow contentment as well as generating energy. The calves born at the farm stay with their mothers for five months. This creates happier cows producing higher quality milk which goes into their luxurious Cream o’ Galloway ice cream and cheese.
Farm waste is used to generate both electricity and fertiliser. And the farm manages the surrounding habitats, benefiting the wildlife by planting trees and hedgerows, and no longer using pesticides.
Finlay’s have a visitor centre for groups of all ages to experience and learn about the farm, join in activities and explore the scenic countryside.
Ahimsa Dairy Foundation
This revolutionary dairy farm is aiming to make slaughter-free milk a reality. They’re establishing sustainable farms around Britain so more consumers can make ethical choices. They ensure calves stay with their mothers, all cows graze freely on organic pastures and all milking is done by hand.
There is no artificial insemination and bulls, bull-calves and cows are not slaughtered. Their cows all have names, and at the moment produce around 23,000 litres of milk annually.
Ahimsa Dairy milk is distributed to the door in parts of Hertfordshire and North West London. It is also available nationally by mail, and at drop-off points in London and the South-East.
The Future of Sustainable Dairy Products
There are certain signs to look out for to ensure you are buying from sustainable producers. These include:
- Free Range Dairy Network Pasture Promise – assures milk from cows that have had at least six months of freedom to graze throughout the year.
- Pasture for Life – ensures dairy products come from healthy animals that are 100% grass fed. This is better for the environment and for the welfare of the animals.
- Organic Milk certification by the Soil Association – ensures the highest standards of animal welfare, and environmental and wildlife protection. Organic dairy cows must spend most of their lives outdoors grazing on their natural diet of grass.
- RSPCA Assured – assures that dairy cattle have better lives due to higher standards of welfare, health and comfort.
- Good Dairy Awards – winners have been recognised and rewarded for their commitment to higher animal welfare standards and access to pasture.
So, no more crying over spilled milk. It turns out sustainable dairy farms do exist and it is still possible to enjoy the richness of dairy without feeling guilty. Buy directly from a sustainable farm of your choice, or keep an eye out for sustainable producer certifications.