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How dairy cows play a part in sustainable agriculture

Dairy cows role in sustainable farming

Jerry Alford, Soil Association arable advisor, farmed dairy cows in Devon for more than 20 years. With plant-based alternatives also on the rise, he looks at how dairy cows play a vital role in sustainable agriculture.

The organic market has been in growth for eight consecutive years and is now worth a staggering £2.33bn. The Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2019 revealed that dairy makes up the largest share of the organic market at almost a third (28.4%) of the food and drink sales in 2018. 

The rise of conscious consumerism

The Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2019 revealed a continuing strong demand for organic dairy products across the UK, but the sector is facing more competition from plant-based alternatives, as veganism continues to rise. Conscious consumerism is growing, with people increasingly looking to make more ethical and sustainable choices. However, there is still a place for eggs, meat and milk production, so long as we move away from more intensive systems and work with nature, rather than against it.

Organic methods provide the best model for sustainable milk production. Organic sets the highest standards of animal welfare and always means free-range, with as many opportunities as possible for animals to range and forage. Routine and preventative use of antibiotics for livestock is not permitted in organic farming, with production methods designed to reduce the need for them. Research suggests that one in three purchases by shoppers now are made for health reasons, so this practice can meet that demand by tackling the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance and keeping antibiotic use to a minimum with truly free-range farm systems.

Other benefits of organic dairy

Organic dairy products can also deliver other health benefits. Research carried out by the University of Newcastle found both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products. The study, which is the largest nutritional review of its kind, also found slightly higher concentrations of iron and Vitamin E in organic milk, butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt.

The higher levels of omega-3 comes down to the diet of the cows, as under organic standards their diet must be least 60% fresh grass or hay/silage (conserved grass). Feedstuffs containing genetically modified ingredients are not permitted. The higher omega-3 was therefore attributed to this grass and forage-based diet, which generally contains high levels of legumes, like clover. This reflects the way organic farming works with nature as organic farmers do not use artificial chemical fertilisers, so they instead use clover in grasslands to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Dairy cows build soil health

Grassland like this – which is not ploughed frequently and uses livestock in its natural role of grazing - tends to have higher levels of soil organic matter and supports a wide range of wildlife, whilst building soil carbon and fertility and providing food for soil life like worms. All these measures to improve soil health make soils less at risk of erosion and more able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. By farming in this way, dairy cows are part of a system that helps to tackle climate change. 

But farmers need support to adopt these methods and it is essential that the upcoming Agriculture Bill rewards farmers who are working towards environmental benefits and places nature friendly, ‘agroecological’ farming principles at the centre of the bill. Agroecological systems, like organic, follow environmental principles first and use inputs like pesticides last, allowing for a more diverse range of insects and birds to thrive. The average 50% more wildlife found on organic farms shows how great agroecological systems can be for biodiversity.

A recent report produced by French think tank IDDRi - Ten Years of Agroecology in Europe - found that despite producing lower yields, these farming systems can feed our population healthily, whilst radically reducing greenhouse gases. The report does highlight the need to shift to healthier, more sustainable diets, with less crops grown for animals and more fruit and veg production, but it also shows a true alternative to industrial farming exists. And it’s clear that grass-fed, extensive meat and dairy systems play a vital role in sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable dairy needs your support

Farmers do need support to find innovative solutions to the problems they face and on how to work with nature to efficiently make best use of their land with more diverse outputs from the farm. With dairy making up such a large proportion of the growing organic market, the demand from shoppers is already there for farmers to meet if they have the support to do so.

Ultimately, we all have the power to make change, by supporting campaigns and more simply through how we shop. Only small changes are needed to be made by individuals to make a huge positive impact in securing our future and the overall wellbeing of our farmland and planet.