Ethical farming – a practical, profitable future for the dairy industry?

AS a food writer, journalist and regular judge for the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards, I receive the Guild’s monthly magazine, Fine Food Digest. It is always a good read, not only for the obvious interest of new products, farm shop and food producer profiles and updates on food festivals and events, but also for the features which address important topics for the food and farming industries.

Last month’s FFD had an article about a dairy farm in Dumfries and Galloway which is following a pioneering ethical approach that offers real hope for this country’s welfare-friendly, small and family dairy farms – the sort of farms that may well be threatened with extinction under the worst “farmageddon” predictions for post-Brexit, free-trade agriculture.

The Scottish organic farm, near the very foodie and picturesque town of Castle Douglas, is the home of the famous Cream O’Galloway ice cream, with a farm shop, cafe and adventure playground. It is not your typical struggling small farm, but it offers a template that suggests that the big is best, cost-cutting, maximise product, minimise human input approach is not necessarily the answer.

It was members of the public who provided the impetus for the changes that the Finlay family have introduced. The farm’s dairy herd is a highlight of the farm tour, but visitors wanted to know why the calves were separated from their mothers. Farmer Wilma Finlay explained that it was industry practice to separate the calves at 24 hours and hand-rear them. The visitors were still puzzled, and their reaction set the Finlays thinking.

The result of that thinking was a radical review that led to a new approach to cattle and their calves – and a new cheese brand, which, appropriately, they call The Ethical Dairy. As you would expect, the new system puts the welfare of the animals first. The calves stay with their mothers during the day to allow them to suckle, but after a month they are moved to separate pens at night, from where they can still nuzzle the parents, but not suckle. The cows are milked in the morning, and spend the day with the calves, a process which continues until the calves are ready to wean at about five months.

The Finlays report that the animals are doing very well on the scheme. Cows, some of which were very distressed when their calves were taken away, are calmer. From a simple financial perspective, the Finlays are getting less milk, but they say that the calves do better on their mothers’ milk and are slaughtered earlier for valuable beef. There is also a reduction in feed costs. And, perhaps most significantly, the farmers have found that the cows are living longer because they are so much less stressed. The cheese is the final brick in the new edifice – it enables a better price to be achieved for the milk. At present Cream O’Galloway is producing four cheeses, all made with raw milk – definitely a product to look out for if you are visiting the beautiful and unspoiled Dumfries and Galloway area.

It wouldn’t work for all farmers, of course, but it offers a way forward, a practical and surprisingly profitable answer to some of the criticisms levelled at the dairy industry. It might even dissuade a few vegetarians from turning vegan – animal welfare is a huge issue and it isn’t going to go away.

There are also benefits in terms of marketing for small farmers to stress the difference in welfare between their grass-fed cows that go out to pasture and the lives of the big herds that are kept indoors, living lives of depressing mechanised boredom. There is nothing anthropomorphic about the idea of cows being bored and depressed. If you have ever watched a herd heading out to the fields for the first time after a long winter, you will have seen real joy, real excitement, real energetic kicking up of heels, even from animals that are normally slow-moving and the epitome of “bovine.”

Just picture we human beings during those brief warm sunny days of April – how much we all smiled, how happy we looked, how much better we felt. The return of rain and cold winds was all the more depressing because we had a taste of spring.

Animals need stimulation, they need fresh air, they need to be able to move around and enjoy fresh food. Most people nowadays recognise that the traditional zoo cage is an utterly cruel and unsuitable way to house wild animals – we know that the pacing of a tiger or the head-shaking of an elephant indicate mental stress. Why do we not demand the same consideration for the animals on which many of us depend for our favourite and nutritious food?

This country is now a leading producer of fine artisan cheeses. Britain currently produces more varieties of cheese than countries across the Channel which lay claim to the world’s finest cheeses.

Nobody wants to be preached at, and many people cannot afford premium artisan products, but the more people understand about how food is produced, and the more farmers who hold to traditional pasture-based farming or convert to a grass-fed system, the more people will seek out their products. With increased demand matched by increased supply, costs will come down – and there will be real benefits in terms of long-term sustainability, enhanced income for farmers and improved animal welfare.

It is potentially a genuine win-win situation – something we desperately need at a time when there are so many uncertainties and fears about the future, and when those of us who care about British food and farming are on high alert for the tactics of industrial agriculture lobbyists.

Fanny Charles