- Soil Association
- Statement On Organic Dairy Farming
Statement On Organic Dairy Farming
No other farming standard delivers higher animal welfare than organic. 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 of the farming sector.
Organic cows are free range and always have been. They spend as much time in fields as possible – on average 215 days per year[i] – where they can graze naturally on a diet of grass and clover. 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.[ii]
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, it is true that 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 can be faced with a dilemma about what to do with male calves, as they obviously 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. However, there are some circumstances – such as when calves cannot be sold or moved due to restrictions to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis – when male calves may be shot shortly after birth. The Soil Association has long discouraged this practice, and we want to see an end to the unnecessary slaughter of male dairy calves. Our organic dairy 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.
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.
[i] Independent survey conducted by OMSCo in 2016