Milk Monday: Mothers and Calves

I thought for this Milk Monday I’d share a couple of YouTube clips depicting the life of a dairy cow.

Thanks to YouTube and the work of a number of animal advocacy groups, there is no excuse for ignorance about where milk and cheese come from and what the animals that provide it have to endure. After several minutes of trolling through the clips, I am, once again, so disturbed and upset that I’m not sure I can put together a coherent and balanced post on the subject. Some of the footage available depicts now well-publicised abuse of cows on dairy farms. Thankfully, in most cases, this is illegal and the perpetrators of the cruelty have been punished. However, although illegal abuse of animals does go on behind closed doors and occasionally comes to the attention of the public, the practice of commercial dairy farming seems to be inherently cruel and totally legal.

I’m not going to post the most upsetting footage that is readily available but I don’t apologise for highlighting the realities. I believe that it is a moral given that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak and not to exploit them and in this we humans fail spectacularly several million times a day.

There are a wide range of approaches to dairy farming (from intensive zero-grazing factory farms to spacious organic family farms) that have differing effects on the welfare of the animals. However, it is an inescapable fact that it is simply not commercially viable to preserve the lives of male calves which are useless for milk production (they, therefore, have to be considered dispensable) or to allow females to live beyond their useful span of 4-5 pregnacies/lactations.

As usual, the offer is open for anyone with informed views on dairy farming from any perspective to get in touch about doing a guest post or response for another Milk Monday.

A YouTube playlist of the dark side of dairy

Previous Milk Monday posts


Milk Monday: Thoughts on a Calf Killing, Carbon Footprints and Consumerism

Calf roping

Not to mislead you, this is a calf being roped at a rodeo, not shot at a dairy. (Image via Wikipedia)

Last week was interesting …

For a start, the Daily Mail published a story about a deformed calf being taken from its mother and shot on a farm in the Bristol area that supplies milk to Cadbury’s. It was just one of the many cruel details uncovered by a Viva! investigation. This was “shocking” enough to make national news, heart-rending pictures of a helpless baby animal being dragged away from its mother and killed. However, as many commenters on the article pointed out, this sort of thing happens every single day and it is an unavoidable practice, necessary to the continuing production of milk, cheese, yoghurt, and chocolate that our nation is so addicted to.

Implicit in the practice of taking milk from cows for human consumption is the need to remove their calves. The fate of these calves depends on their sex. If they are males, they will be slaughtered in one way or another. If they are females, they can look forward to a fraction of their natural lifespan which will consist of 4-5 pregnancies before they are exhausted and only good for pet food – either way, it’s “shocking”.

Comments on the original article in the Mail have been locked, as I imagine it quite quickly descended into a shouting match. I got to read a few on the day it was published and they certainly seemed to be going in that direction with the same tired views being wheeled out. It is certain that issues such as this have an extraordinary potential to bring out very strong feelings. people commenting on the article seemed to fall into one of three categories:

The Compassionist

This is a meat and dairy consumer who is outraged, “I think it is awful, how could they do that to the poor calf, this has to be stopped“. This person may or may not change their buying habits and seek out “ethical” sources and they may or may not seek to apply pressure on producers and retailers by political methods. They hope that things might change so they can continue to consume with a clear conscience.

The Farmer

These are the people who I have personally had the most anger from, “you have no idea how hard it is to make a living out here, you city people are so soft and sentimental, we love our animals, you have no right to comment.” This is like a shop keeper shouting at a customer, “you have no right to ask stupid questions about my wares, just shut up and buy them and leave the selling to me!” At the end of the day I know farming is a hard way to make a living and our farmers are like public servants, working against the odds to keep the country fed, but I’m the customer. In some ways it doesn’t matter if the producer agrees with what I do or don’t want, nobody is obligated to buy the product if it disgusts them, and everyone has a right to know about and hold an opinion on where something they are going to eat or drink comes from.

The Vegan

Smug sometimes but generally exasperated in tone, “yeah, this is the exact reason why I don’t consume animal flesh or secretions, there is no way round this except to stop consuming as I did 20 years ago.” This person is likely to believe that putting pressure on suppliers through various means is a waste of time and that the real power lies in reducing demand through abstension and educating others so they can make reasoned choices.

I’m sorry, it’s obvious that I am biased here. I love vegans, I admire them and I feel at home with them. They frequently strike me as people who don’t have time for excuses and who are prepared to change themselves before they try to change others. They come from all faiths and no faiths and all walks of life, they are (in my experience) generally pretty unsentimental about animals, too, believing that non humans don’t need our pity, they just need their dignity.

In Other News

The Environmental Working Group  published analysis of the “food footprint” of the western diet, based mainly on US data, revealing (not unexpectedly) that lamb, beef, cheese, and pork have the most extreme carbon footprints per kg produced. The analysis included production and processing costs for these foods. Dried beans, milk, tomatoes, and lentils found their tiny way into the bottom of the graph.

The report states:

By eating and wasting less meat (especially red and processed meat) and cheese, you can simultaneously improve your health and reduce the climate and environmental impact of food production. And when you do choose to eat meat and cheese, go greener. There are many environmental, health and animal welfare reasons to choose meat and dairy products that come from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals. It may cost more, but when you buy less meat overall, you can afford to go healthier and greener. (A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health: by Kari Hamerschlag, EWG Senior Analyst)

It’s a shame that this report was very much aimed at promoting the “go on consuming, folks, just make sure you do it greenly” approach. It makes me aware of a growing discomfort I sense in myself over the whole “ethical consumer” thing; and I am just about to unfashionably question everything in this area from “happy” eggs to Fair-Trade, so cover your ears now …

The Jugular

What if the answer is not to try to swing the whole consumer paradigm around to something that is more “ethical” but to actually boycott the game and find something that goes a lot deeper. When I “went vegan” I suddenly found that I had not escaped this, I had just transferred myself into another niche market and suddenly I was the recipient of, “BUY this, it’s vegan.” As a Christian, I am likewise a nice little category of consumer, “BUY this it’s Christian, it will change your forever and revolutionise your spiritual life.” As someone who wants to be ethical, I haven’t bucked the system at all I’ve just made myself open to “BUY this, it will enable you to continue to live as you always have but with a clearer conscience.”

BUY fair trade coffee and bananas? Shouldn’t I be asking, “do I really need coffee and bananas in my life” and “do the people who grow them need my nice money so that they can become consumers like me?”

I’m thinking out loud, here, so please don’t shoot me down. Constructive engagement is appreciated if it will help me (or us) to work these things through.

Milk Monday: Molly is Missing!

Molly the cow is missing. The Chickens have temporarily taken over her twitter account while the nationwide search is taking place, fuelled by social media. Tweeters and Facebookists are being encouraged to spread the word in the hope that Molly will be found before long. Molly rose to fame on St. Valentine’s Day earlier this year when she released her first Moosic video, “Our Love is in Your Cornflakes”, capturing the nation’s heart in a duet with comedian, Kevin Eldon.

Those who join the search by raising awareness of Molly’s plight and the horrors of factory farming will be added to the Not In My Cuppa Campaign’s “Search and Rescue” Team.

However, it seems that if your name is “Molly” and you are of the bovine persuasion, your chances of making a bid for freedom will be well rewarded as we also learned recently of another “Molly” who bounded free from a slaughter house in Montana in 2006 and managed to evade the cops and a SWAT team for six hours before being recaptured and earning a reprive and a place in the Badass of the Week hall of fame for sheer badassery!

Milk Monday: Not in my Cuppa receives recognition for creatively changing the face of British farming

On June the 1st, The World Society for the Protection of Animals’ (WSPA) dairy campaign, “Not in my Cuppa” was unanimously voted as a winner in the Public Affairs category at the The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) 2011 Excellence Awards.

Through the Not in my Cuppa campaign, WSPA UK has seen some great successes over the past 18 months.

Springing into action in early 2010, following Nocton Dairies‘ proposals for a massive 8,100 cow mega dairy in Lincolnshire, the Not in My Cuppa crew brought the issues at stake to the attention of MPs and the British public with a thoroughgoing campaign on all fronts. No less than 50 elected MPs got on board to oppose the intensification of the UK dairy industry and the issue was very much on the agenda for the rest of the year.

The judges praised the campaign for it’s creativity and said that, “It would not be an overstatement to say that their work has changed the future of British farming and established WSPA’s reputation as a force for the future.” It is also remarkable how the campaign proved able to grow support through social media and the formation of a powerful alliance with other organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Compassion in World Farming, 38 Degrees, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.

Suzi Morris, WSPA UK Director said “We are seeing an increasingly concerned wider public in speaking out against factory farming and are optimistic that together, we can make the right choices for the future regarding how we get our milk in this country.”

This is all great news. Standing back from it for a moment, I am impressed and heartened that it is possible to enlist the hearts and minds of a large proportion of British people to take a stand on their values and make a clear statement about how much we care about where our food comes from and how it is produced. The multi-faceted campaign elicited a firm “No!” to mega dairies on this island that will hopefully be a stance that weathers the future. There will undoubtedly be more battles to fight to keep US style factory farming, that treats animals as machines, out of Britain. I’d like to think that this approach to food production is broadly considered “unbritish” and that we, as a nation, will look for creative ways to meet our needs in the future that are not purely based on turning a big profit with no regard for our traditions or the enslavement of animals.

However, the ultimate withdrawal of the Nocton Plans in February this year was the end of the first skirmish in a continuing battle. In April, the WSPA publicly opposed Welsh mega dairy plans and worked with the Ecologist on their ‘what’s in your cuppa’ expose. A joint report with the Soil Association on the effect of intensive farming on small farmers has also been released.

Well done to the Not in My Cuppa team and I wish you all the best as you and your partners hold the line!

Source: WSPA; Not in My Cuppa

Milk Monday: The Ahimsa Dairy Extends the Availability of Slaughter-Free Milk

Milking dairy cows

Hand Milking

I have written before about the herd at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire where milking cows are allowed to suckle their young normally and to live out their entire natural lifespan on the farm. Many of the cows have, themselves, been rescued from slaughter and even the male calves are allowed to mature as oxen and have a role to play in the life of the farm.

The herd at Bhaktivedanta Manor was described by the Daily Mail as having the nation’s most pampered cows back in November 2010 when the new facility was opened. While the proposed mega-dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire was looming in the consciousness of Britain’s concerned consumers, the Lotus Trust seemed to be offering a very different alternative based on the ancient principles of “ahimsa” (non-violence) that are common to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. They were also looking for ways to carry these principles to a productive model that would make slaughter free milk more widely available.

Ahimsa Milk was cleared for commercial production on the 6th of May and launched with due ceremony in the newly built barns at New Gokul Farm. In collaboration with the Commonwork organic farm in Kent, the small herd of some dozen cows will be expected to produce about 50,000 litres of milk a year for distribution in the London area and parts of Hertfordshire. At this dairy, Commonwork will be taking responsibility for the milking cows and a newly formed trust, the Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, will be caring for the non-milking animals including the calves, bulls and retired females. Although the herd will be milked by machine (unlike those at Bhaktivedanta manor) there will be a minimum standard for the care of the animals:

  • No cows, calves or bulls will be slaughtered
  • Cows will be able to graze freely on open pasture
  • Cows will be cared for for life

This means that calves will be naturally weaned and cows will be retired after approximately 5 birthing cycles at about 13 years old.  This has to be an improvement on the lifespan of the average dairy cow which is about 5 years, during which she will be forced to give birth and lactate about 4 times before being culled at the end of her “usefulness”. Furthermore, The Ahimsa Dairy Trust, will be seeking gainful employment for the males that have extremely short and miserable lives under traditional dairy systems. At Bhaktivedanta manor, for example, male cattle play an important part in ploughing and transportation.

Available on the market from July, the milk will cost £2:25 a litre with an additional 15p for doorstep delivery; it will be available by subscription only. It will be interesting to watch the progress of this pioneering project and see if there is sufficient demand for slaughter free milk to drive a growth and proliferation of expertise in alternative approaches to dairy farming.

I don’t know what I think of all this. I don’t think I could be persuaded to go back to using dairy products even if they were produced in a pure atmosphere of ahimsa. I don’t think I am comfortable with any use of animals for our own gratification, especially when going dairy free is so easy, fun and healthy. I’m still teetering between the more watertight ethical system of the abolitionists and the pragmatism of everyone else. However, Milk Mondays are about prompting the reader to think about their own choices and options and find their own answers – as much as I’d like you to all be like me …

If anyone would like to guest post on a Milk Monday and put another point of view, please get in touch.


Ahimsa Milk

The Lotus Trust


Milk Monday: No Respite in the Battle against Mega Farming in Britain

I thought it was poignant this weekend, as our transatlantic cousins celebrated their “Mother’s Day”, that some took the opportunity to consider “motherhood” in the widest sense of the word and, fittingly, took the opportunity to highlight the plight of the dairy cow. I have had people tell me that dairy cows don’t have mothering instincts and habitually reject their calves anyway. But I feel that, if this is true, it only reflects the extent to which the practice of using cows as machines to feed our own tastes has become a fundamental assault on one of the most primal instinctive bonds in nature (that of mother and child). I have also been told that animals are purely creatures driven by instinct and that it is wrong to read emotion into them. Not only is this unscientific but if it were true, it would still seem to me to be a good reason not to interfere – if all the animal has is instinct, how can we justify setting ourselves against it? (I’m talking about an instinct to nurture young here, if I was faced with a hungry lion’s instinct to kill and eat me I would fight very hard against that.)

A couple of mugs

A couple of mugs, can you tell which one is me?

I’m not a mother and I never will be, I can’t protest a mother’s rights with anything approaching true empathy but in another of those genteel conversations I have with people about why I abstain from dairy (usually while they are tucking into their ice cream) I asked a friend if he was comfortable with a cow being milked two or three times a day so he could drink what was meant for a calf. His wife, who was nursing a sprog at the time, rolled her eyes and said she had some idea of how that might feel.

Well, in light of all that … it just seems to have a rightness about it when I hear this week that the WI (Women’s Institute) in Britain is to vote whether to join the campaign against mega dairies at their June Annual General Meeting. Of course, we’ll have to see how the vote goes but I am expecting that these human ladies will choose to stick up for those non-human ladies?

If they decide to, the WI will be joining a strong coalition, which includes the WSPA’s “Not in my Cuppa” campaign, CIWF (Compassion in World Farming), 38 Degrees, and the Soil Association, that is vigorously opposed to the introduction of industrial scale farming in the UK at the same time as holding out for a viable and sustainable agricultural future. These organisations proved very successful in activating and focussing the efforts of concerned consumers (the public) earlier this year to produce an “overwhelming” public response against the proposals for a factory dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire. As those plans were finally withdrawn, there was a strong sense among campaigners that the battle had only just begun and that, in the shadow of dark whisperings about a looming food crisis, there were still many others who saw further industrialisation of animals as the only answer for Britain.

Plans are now being made for a pig factory at Foston in Derbyshire, housing 2,500 and 25,000 young pigs and facilities of this scale are unprecedented in the UK although virtually “the norm” in the US. I can only expect that there will be more proposals to be faced down in the coming months so I do hope the WI gets on board, too.

If you are new to Milk Mondays, you might like to read some of my previous posts on the topic of dairy, ranging from factory farming to ancient methods of storing milk. I obviously feel strongly about milk and I write as a concerned non-consumer of dairy products in the hope that readers will give some thought to where their food comes from, the ethical and environmental dimensions of that, and decide whether it is something they want to be a party to. These are my own opinions, although I try to be as informed as possible, and the offer is always open for anyone involved in “milk” to do a guest post from their perspective.

Milk Monday: Happy Valentine’s Day and Meet Molly!

“Our love is in Your Cornflakes”, a bovine love duet between a cow and a farmer is vying for the top spot in the Valentine’s Day charts this week. The crooning couple have been separated when Molly the cow is sold down the river to a factory farm but the farmer is struck with regret and wonders, “who is milking her now?”

Readers may recognise the comedian Kevin Eldon in role as the the farmer and Ruth Bratt as the voice of the cow. The creative handiwork comes from Adam Miller who also pulls the strings on BBC3’s “Mongrels“. In spite of the apparently light hearted approach to the topic, Adam said “I feel pretty sad and not a little bit angry” about mega dairies.

Judging from the comments on the YouTube version of the clip plenty of people feel the same way about mega dairies, but a handful also feel sad and angry about the song, fearing that it trivialises the issue. Well, I watched it a few times and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I was left with an overwhelmingly serious feeling about the whole issue. It has also reignited a whole load of questions for me about what we actually mean when we say that we “love” animals and puts me in mind of the few times I have tangled with people who insist that they feel love for their animals but … er … eat them and stuff.

While the proposals for Britain’s first mega dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire are under review by the North Kesteven District Council and growing in the public conscience through campaigns such as this one from WSPA UK, I can only hope – with many others – that consumers will take an increasingly active interest in what they eat and drink and make ethical choices.