- Soil Association
- Organic Dairy
Organic Dairy - the highest standards of animal welfare
Organic farming systems have the very highest animal welfare standards. Organic standards cover living conditions, food quality, transport and slaughter. At the Soil Association, we work closely with our dairy farmers to ensure that all organic dairy cows benefit from these high standards. We also have close links with animal welfare organisations – such as the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming – to develop and promote higher animal welfare standards across the whole farming sector.
Organic dairy calves
The feeding of calves must be based on natural milk, preferably maternal milk for a minimum of three months. A calf may only be weaned when it is taking adequate solid food to cater to its full nutritional requirements. Calves cannot be weaned before three months of age.
There are some practices that are inherent aspects of dairy farming. For instance, while under normal circumstances a calf would never be removed from its mother immediately after it is born, calves and cows are separated. This is normal practice across the dairy industry in order that milk is available for us to drink. If dairy cows kept their calves with them until they were weaned, almost all dairy farming would end, and milk would be very scarce and expensive. However, separating a calf does not mean that it is not properly cared for by the farmer.
Organic dairy calves are always kept in groups after their first week, outside when conditions allow and always with good housing and bedding. Organic farmers are permitted to house calves individually for the first seven days, provided they are able to see and hear other calves. Contented, healthy calves need companions, a healthy environment and plenty of milk, and our standards guarantee that these needs are met. Organic farmers feed their calves plenty of organic milk – preferably from their mothers – or use ‘nanny cows’ to suckle calves until they are weaned. Soil Association standards prohibit farmers from weaning calves until they are at least 12 weeks old.
Dairy farmers are often faced with a dilemma about what to do with male calves, as they cannot be used for milk production. Some dairy breeds, such as British Friesians, can also produce meat, which means that they can be reared for beef production.
Unfortunately, killing male dairy cows is something that happens on both organic and non-organic dairy farms, but it raises real ethical concerns. The Soil Association has long discouraged this practice, and we want to see an end to the unnecessary slaughter of male dairy calves. Our standards require farmers to have in place a plan to prevent the slaughter of unwanted calves, and we support our farmers to take measures – such as rearing bull calves for rose veal or beef, or selling them to other organic farmers with these systems – so that the killing of these male calves can be avoided. Male calves raised for veal are reared to 6 – 8 months of age. They enjoy plenty of space and light inside suitable buildings over winter and outside at pasture for the rest of the year, a varied diet and the care of a foster cow when available.
Truly free range
Unlike many other farming systems, organic cows spend much of their lives outdoors where they can graze naturally on a diet of grass and clover. On average, organic cows spend 215 days per year outside, which is more time outdoors grazing than the average amount of time spent outdoor grazing by ‘free-range’ cows.
Keeping cows indoors all their lives is banned under organic standards. When they go indoors because of bad weather, all cows must be housed in well-bedded spacious yards.
What makes organic different?
- Free range - By law, cows must be at pasture whenever conditions allow, over 200 days on average
- Fewer pesticides & no artificial fertilisers used on pasture
- Cows fed a grass-rich, GM free diet (minimum 60% grass-based)
- Routine antibiotic usage banned
- No system of farming has milk with higher levels of nutrients, e.g. Omega 3 fatty acids
- No system of farming has higher wildlife benefits
Organic through and through
Organic beef and dairy cows eat a 100% organic diet. Soil Association farmers must always feed their cattle at least 60% fresh or dried fodder, roughage or silage on a daily basis.
Most non-organic British chickens, pigs and cows are fed with imported GM crops. GM animal feed is banned under organic standards.
Organic dairy cows are generally not pushed to their milk producing limits in the same way other cows can be. Average yields in organic milk production are around 20% less than in intensive production.
No routine use of antibiotics
Use of antibiotics remains far too high in animals as well as humans. Soil Association standards ban the routine use of antibiotics and organic, free-range systems encourage healthy animals avoiding the preventative use of antibiotics.
The use of growth hormones to increase milk production is banned in the European Union, and organic farmers are permitted only to treat animals with antibiotics when they are actually sick, not as a routine, preventative measure. We also know that high welfare, pasture based systems have reduced rates of infection and so less need for antibiotics in the first place.
A better life from birth
Soil Association standards have never allowed the sale of calves to continental style veal systems, and since 2010 our standards have specified that licensees must have a plan to end the practice of culling new born male calves.
Organic farmers tend to rear their beef cattle as non-milking suckler herds. This is where a cow suckles its calf until it is weaned at around nine months of age, then fattened. The cattle are usually kept in family groups up to weaning. This means they can follow their natural herding instincts and reduce stress.
No system of farming is perfect, and there are always improvements to be made. We are at the forefront of this, working with farmers, researchers and policymakers to drive progress in the right direction. Through the AssureWel partnership, we are working to improve the welfare of all dairy cows through the use of Welfare Outcome Assessment. These assessments are now carried out across the dairy industry to highlight when management is not delivering good welfare. We are also a partner in Labelling Matters, a campaign to ensure that all milk and dairy products are labelled clearly so that consumers can make an informed choice at the supermarket.
For organic dairy farmers, the health and welfare of the cows is their key concern. Our dairy farmers do a brilliant job and by choosing organic dairy, you can be confident that the milk you’re buying is from healthy, well-cared-for cows.