Cows at Eastbrook.jpg

Dairy farming, is organic really different?

organic dairy farming

The worst thing about dairy farming is the need to part the cow from her calf in the first few days of life.

One or two pioneering organic farmers have established systems which allow the cow to rear her calf, as well as providing milk for human consumption, but it is deeply challenging to do this. The cow often refuses to express milk in the parlour, and separating the cow and calf at milking time is logistically difficult, and can be unsafe for farm workers too. Because the calf drinks so much milk, meaning it grows very quickly which is one benefit of this approach, the cost of the milk for humans must be much higher. Despite the public's concerns about welfare, it seems that few are prepared to pay substantially more for milk. And the calf has to be weaned at some stage.

In my experience, the longer the calf is with its mother, the harder this gets. Even at 9 months of age, when the calf is almost as big as the cow, they hate being separated. To be honest, very early removal, before the maternal bond has established fully, seems more humane than at a week, or three months or a year. The cows and calves call for each other for a few hours, but rarely much longer. It is an emotive issue for us, but in the wild, cows would often lose their calves to predators in the first few days, so perhaps they have evolved to not over-invest in the calf until it seems likely to survive.

Benefits of organic dairying

The benefits of organic dairying are that all calves will receive cows milk until they are at least 12 weeks old, be housed in groups after the first week, and will graze at pasture during the warmer months. The cows will also have a more natural, forage based diet, so that they give less milk which reduces metabolic stress, and they will not have antibiotics unless essential for welfare.

cows on Helen's farm

What I found especially distressing in the Coombe Farm footage was the very rough treatment of the calves while they were being tubed with colostrum. It is vital to ensure that every calf gets a full feed of colostrum in the first six hours of life, and if the calf is weak, it is perfectly acceptable to use a tube to make sure that this vital feed is received. But ideally this should be suckled if possible, and if a tube is used, the calf should be fed standing if it is able to stand. In this footage, all the calves look strong and well, and indeed, their mothers seemed in good condition too. Pens were very clean and well bedded, and in many ways the facilities and animal wellbeing look exemplary. The use of shackles on a few cows, to stop them doing the splits if there has been nerve damage at calving, may look inhumane but will be recommended by vets after a difficult calving, and cause no distress to the cows; they will be removed after a week or so once the cow is fully mobile.

Systematic manhandling will not be tolerated

But staff should never treat calves like this. There is no excuse. However busy a farm is at calving, there must be enough people on duty to allow time to encourage calves to suckle naturally, and to tube colostrum correctly if that is really needed. We are paid a little more as organic producers, to allow us to avoid the shortcuts and care for our animals with respect and affection. Yes, something might go wrong, an animal will become lame, or have an accident; we can no more create nirvana for farm animals than we can for the human population. However, systematic manhandling is a serious issue and one that will not be tolerated in organic farming.

We're working directly to ensure this doesn't happen again

That’s why our Soil Association Certification inspectors were at the farm the day after we received the report from Animal Equality and that’s why we’re working with all involved to ensure the best possible outcome for the animals on this and every organic farm. We have clarified some elements of the Animal Equality video footage in relation to organic standards in our statement. No one is saying the animal handling shown in the footage was acceptable. It is not. Farm staff have already started implementing changes to their ways of working to prevent the issues arising in future, including improvements to feeding regimes and the staff identified in the video are no longer working in the area. Our inspectors will continue to ensure that the required corrective actions take place. Suspending a license won’t immediately benefit the animals on the farm but working directly to ensure this treatment doesn’t happen again will.