Lets get things straight….

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Have you read the  ‘Dairy is scary’ opinion piece from the Guardian? I have, and it has left an exceptionally bitter taste in my mouth. I can’t believe that such a poor piece of writing has been published under the Guardians name- albeit as an opinion piece.  The article  has come about after the publication of a video by the animal advocacy group ‘Animal Equality’. I won’t waste space by leaving a link to it here, if you want to read it , its easy to find. Let me save you the bother- in this blog post I’ve summarised the key points from the article and addressed each one with fact and the views/opinions of a real life dairy farmer. However, if you do enjoy reading  work that contains very little truth and a lot of sensationalism then by all means, go check out ‘Dairy is Scary’.

Some truth about calf rearing…..

The article is based on perceived issues associated with the accommodation of calves on a particular calf rearing unit. For those who don’t understand how the dairy industry works  this is a farm where calves are looked after by calf rearers . These are people whose sole job in life is to make sure that the young animals  are fed, watered and kept healthy and happy.  The calves pictured at this particular unit are housed in individual hutches. These are specifically designed for calves and are actually high welfare accommodation. They provide good shelter and excellent ventilation. Young calves are susceptible to lung infections and this style of housing helps to significantly reduce the risk of illness. Also it helps to prevent outbreaks of disease if one calf does become ill.

The author is correct in saying that calves over 8 weeks are not permitted to be housed individually. If you read the ‘code of welfare for cattle’ produced by the UK government you can see this is a legal requirement. However there is no proof that the calves shown are over this age limit, and in fact the photo showing a measurement of a calf being taken would suggest they are younger than the 6 months that Animal Equality have claimed them to be. Trading standards have found no issues on the farm.

A bit about the ‘birds and the bees’……

According to Mr Newkey -Burden , dairy cow reproduction is a brutal event.  This is really not the case. Artificial insemination does play a role in the dairy cow life cycle. However it does NOT happen in the way this article purports.

For A.I to occur, semen is collected from a bull but this is not done mechanically as the article suggests. I’m not going into the ins and outs of artificial breeding, but lets say no bulls are hurt in the making of a straw of semen. In fact most stud bulls live the life of riley, cosseted and cared for as befits an animal of their calibre. The average monetary worth of a young bull going to stud is £20,000. When you have this much financially invested in an animal would anybody not want to make sure they have the best care available

Insemination is not a brutal procedure. No farmer will attempt to ‘impregnate’ a cow before they are physiologically ready- it just doesn’t work. It is simple biology- a cow can only become pregnant for a short number of hours during a 21 day ‘reproductive cycle’. During this  period she will show natural behaviours that are a cue to her fertility. Farmers and vets refer to this behaviour as ‘bulling’. Once an animal shows this behaviour, an AI specialist  will inseminate the animal. This can be done without putting the cow into a handling system (Chas refers to this as a cruel ‘crush’) as she will naturally stand to allow the procedure to occur. Again I’m not going into the finer details of insemination.

Sometimes we do use ‘cattle crushes’. This is a colloquial or lay mans term for a cattle handling system. It does not hurt or harm the animal, as this would not help at all. We use them to safely restrain cows that need veterinary treatment or other procedures that require them to stand still. You have to remember cows are very heavy animals (500kg to 700kg for a dairy cow, 1 tonne plus for a bull). They are capable of doing serious damage to a human unintentionally just by moving their head or foot. Over friendly cows can easily knock an adult over going for a head rub!! As an aside a cows foot can accelerate at 10 metres per second squared. That will seriously hurt on contact. In fact it will break things- human bone shaped things.

Lets go milk a cow….. beginners 101.

Milking a cow is not easy. Any dairy farmer who gets up at stupid o clock in the morning every day of the year to do so will tell you this.  At the same time, no one steals milk from a cow, which Chas suggests. If a cow does not want to be milked, you wont get any. We put the cluster on, the cow doesn’t want to let down her milk, empty milk jar. Its a fact. Milk let down requires oxytocin. Oxytocin is a ‘happy’ hormone. Sad cow, mistreated cow; no oxytocin, no milk. Happy cow-content cow-oxytocin- milk let down. Cows come to be milked- each day on our farm, we call the cows to milk, they get up from their bed or come in from the field. No cattle dog, no sticks, they come voluntarily. In some dairy herds milking isn’t done by a human. They use robotic milking machines. These allow a cow to decide when she is milked. On average, a cow will go to the machines 2.8 times a day. Voluntarily. No pressure from a human involved.

Chas states that the Uk dairy farmer needs to rely on antibiotics and hormones to boost milk production. Uh oh, chas failed to get his facts right! This is not allowed. It is illegal! And just to make sure, milk is tested in milk factories to make sure it is drug free.

The article also refers to lameness being caused by large udders. Yet another inaccuracy. Lameness is usually due to poor food, bad conformation (animals anatomy), infection, trapped stones  or bad surfaces that the cow stands on. Lame cows don’t produce milk. In fact, when a cow is ill for any reason her milk production will decline, sometimes to the point of no milk at all.

The author also states that cows which produce large volumes of milk will get mastitis. Mastitis occurs in any mammal that is lactating.. Mastitis, or inflammation and infection of the udder, is caused due to bacteria, yeast or other environmental or infectious pathogens. In other words, bugs. Not milk volume.  Any cow with mastitis on our farm receives immediate attention, with veterinary care if needed.

Separating a calf and cow…

Yes, this happens. Modern domesticated dairy cows are not wild creatures. They produce far too much milk for a calf to take. If a calf were to be left on, the cow’s udder would never be drained sufficiently leaving her at risk of developing mastitis. Mastitis can kill a cow very quickly- in less than 12 hours from first infection.

The calf gets one on one attention when raised by a human, who makes sure all their needs are met. They are fed colostrum from their mums and follow on with milk.

Chas says calves and cows ‘bellow for days’ when separated. This is completely incorrect. Our cows usually return to their herdmates within 24 hours of giving birth. They don’t notice that the calf is gone. They often don’t understand what a calf is. Modern cows are not always cut out to be good mums. Some cows will actively try and hurt their calves if left with them, and can turn violent towards a human that tries to help the calf.

A question of gender…

Chas says, and it seems to be a popular belief amongst vegans and animal rights activists, that male calves are shot at birth and ‘binned’. This is not strictly true. Some farms may have to euthanize calves full stop if they are prevented from moving them to other farms or rearing units due to Tuberculosis movement restrictions. Other farms keep their bull calves, or sell them on to units that rear them on for bull beef or rose veal. Bull calves that go for rose veal go to abattoirs at 10 to 12 months of age. In fact Rose veal farming is backed by the RSPCA.

The death of a cow…

One phrase in the article really annoyed me, and I’m sure others will find it offensive too. Chas referred to cows being ‘dragged off by a tractor’ when they are too ill or old to be milked, or simply ‘collapsing under agony’. Wrong, wrong, wrong again!!! Any cow that is going to an abattoir must be able to walk soundly onto the lorry that is transporting it. It is not legal to transport a cow that is so poorly it cannot walk. If a cow has become very sick or has had an accident on the farm, a vet will be required to perform an emergency euthanasia (which requires a lot of paperwork!).  Chas also makes reference to abattoir slaughter in his piece, incorrectly. Unless an animal is being slaughtered for halal meat (something which I do not agree with) it will be stunned using a captive bullet. This renders the animal completely unconscious.

In conclusion….

One thing I do agree on with the author is consumer choice. Everyone in the first world has an ability to choose which food they eat. Organic, free range, vegetarian, vegan – choose as you will. But make sure it is an informed choice. One that is based on fact and not fiction. Listen to as many arguments as you need to in order to make the right choices. The argument I have made in support of the dairy industry is based on fact and personal experience. The facts have been checked with a dairy farmer who has over 40 years of experience with cows. Hands on, day to day experience of caring for them, reading their behaviour and making sure they are happy.  Farming and caring for dairy cows is in his blood. Quite literally. He is a 7th generation farmer, with his family farming the same area for 243 years. Safe to say he understands a bit about cows and calf rearing.

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Spring- blossoms and polygamy.

Spring has crept in under the cover of winter, kicking back the blanket of dark mornings and early dusks. Still, sunshine is a fickle beast; weak, and wan, glancing in and out of our days on the farm.  Yet, the garden is waking . Golden daffodils nod their heads in time to the trill of a blackbird perched on a hawthorn branch. A string  of pearl white snow drops trace along the side of the farmhouse , their delicate flower heads outlining long forgotten borders. Buds and new shoots burst up and out, ready for warmer days.

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Bird life on the patch is changing with the coming of Spring. The starlings have left, after a long winter vacation. Their absence is conspicuous. Peace reigns once more, and I do not miss the noisy, whirring, chattering din above our heads.

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The house sparrows have reappeared after their winter absence, and have set about tidying up last years nest sites. For the second year in a row a pair of sparrows have stolen the house martins nest. Calf hair from the sheds seems to be a popular choice of nesting material, and the females busily flit about gathering beakfulls of it.

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The bird feeders are a constant hive of activity, with blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and robin being regulars at the ‘buffet’. Four or five blue tits on a feeder in one sitting is common, suggesting our garden provides for up to 20 of this species. A willow warbler has started to appear, shy and flighty, but his visits are infrequent. A pair of collared doves often come to perch side by side on the swing set, preening and cooing at each other. A dunnock, or Hedge sparrow, now comes to sift through the debris at the foot of the feeders. Last year a single pair frequented the garden, this year I have counted four on one occasion. They are busy, unassuming little birds, similar in size to the house sparrow but with a sleaker silhouette. The population expansion on our patch matches the general trend around the uk;  numbers are increasing, but the species remains on the Amber list. Their ‘plain jane’ appearance hides a rather quirky reproductive trait.  Dunnocks practice monogamy and polygamy. Depending on the territory available to them , their ‘mating’ relationships can be polygynous (one male, multiple females),  polyandrous (one female, multiple males) or even polygnandrous (multiples of both sexes). Quite a lot of nest hopping for such an unobtrusive bird.