The Dairy Industry in Britain | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

The Dairy Industry in Britain

Size and Numbers

There are currently around 1.8 million dairy cows living on the UK’s 14,550 dairy farms (1, 2). As cows must give birth to a calf in order to produce milk, there are also around two million dairy calves born in the UK each year. Cows are kept in an average herd size of 125 but this varies hugely – from small family farms to big intensive farms; however the average herd size has more than quadrupled when compared to average herds of just 30 in the 1970s (3, 4).

Ninety per cent of dairy cows in the UK are the Holstein-Friesian breed (the black and white cows) and other breeds include Ayrshire, Guernsey and Jersey cows (5, 6). Dairy cow milk yield (the amount of milk a cow produces) has increased from an average of 3,750 litres per cow per year (12 litres/21 pints per day) in the 1970s (5) to 7,445 litres (24.5 litres/42 pints per day) in 2012 (1). There has beenan almost eight per cent (530 litres per cow) increase in the average yield per cow per year just between 2007 and 2012 (1). Over the last 40 years milk yield has more than doubled due to selective breeding (genetics) and the intensification of herd management. The figures above reflect only the average per cow, some individual cows may produce significantly more but either way it equates to seven to ten times more than a cow would naturally produce to feed her calf (7).

The unnatural physical demands placed on modern dairy cows result in a large number of the national dairy herd being killed every year due to lameness, mastitis (udder infection) and infertility. In most high production herds, cows are worn out and sent for slaughter before their fourth lactation – at only five years old (5) – when they can naturally live to be at least 20 (7, 8). There are even cases of dairy cows in sanctuaries living into their 30s.

Dairy farming is the single largest agricultural sector in the UK at £3.8 billion (the value of the whole industry), with annual milk production around 13.5 billion litres (9). It accounts for around 17 per cent of UK agricultural production by value (10).

Although the UK is largely self-sufficient in milk, the value of UK exports of milk products is much lower than the value of imports. In 2012 the UK had a trade deficit of about £1.5m in dairy products (9).

With an annual turnover of £10 billion, Dairy Crest is the biggest UK dairy company, whose profit in 2012 was £50.6 million (11). Müller-Wiseman Dairies is another giant company with £40 million profit in 2010 (12), followed by First Milk’s £13.3 million profit in the financial year 2011/2012 (13) and a gigantic European company Arla, whose UK profit was £8.4 million in 2012 (14).


The British dairy industry spends millions on advertising every year – in 2012, it was £124.2 million (15). Yogurt products account for the largest proportion of dairy advertising – with 44 per cent (£54.2 million) of the total amount. And the amount of money spent on dairy promotion keeps growing – between 2011 and 2012 it increased by £17.5 million (15).

The UK dairy industry is supported and promoted by the DairyCo, the Dairy Council and Dairy UK. DairyCo is a levy-funded, not-for-profit organisation which is a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). It works on behalf of Britain’s dairy farmers, with an annual income of £6.5 million coming from a statutory levy paid by dairy farmers on their milk sales (16). One of their four main strategies is ‘promoting the positive perception of dairy farming with the general public’ and during the three year period 2013-2016 they’ll spend over £8 million on promoting dairy and making its production more effective which includes numerous breeding programmes (17). DairyCo also created a special website ‘This is Dairy Farming’ so that people can ‘find out about life on a dairy farm and how milk is produced’ (18).

Dairy UK is the ‘Voice of the Dairy Industry’ (19) covering the whole supply chain, bringing together farmer representatives, dairy co-operatives, dairy manufacturers, bottle milk buyers and milkmen. Dairy UK also owns British Cheese Board and The Dairy Council – both essentially serving the purpose of dairy products promotion and defending the dairy industry’s interests.

The Dairy Council is funded by Dairy UK and its only aim is to promote milk and dairy products through a range of educational materials on supposed health benefits of dairy for consumers, health care professionals and schools (20).

Targeting Children

Realising the importance of getting people hooked on milk while they are young, the dairy industrybombard British schools with propaganda thinly veiled as ‘educational’ materials. DairyCo run various projects, including ‘Food – A Fact of Life’ which provides ‘educational’ resources for schools presented to be about healthy eating, cooking, food and farming for children and young people aged three to 16 years (21) and inevitably teach children that dairy products are an essential part of their diet.

Through the European School Milk Scheme, the European Union provides subsidies to schools so that they can provide their students with milk – either free for young children or substantially cheaper (than usual price) for older children. The aim, as they say, is: “to encourage children to consume milk and milk products and develop a lasting habit of doing so.” In the school year 2010/2011, almost 27,000 tonnes of milk and yogurt had aid paid on it which cost over £8 million (22).

There are several school milk suppliers such as Cool Milk, School Milk UK, Dairy Link UK, that facilitate free and subsidised milk supply to schools and all of them also offer ‘educational’ materials.

The huge ‘Make Mine Milk’ campaign employing celebrities to promote milk to young people is run by The Milk Marketing Forum, a joint venture of leading British dairy companies and milk co-operatives (Arla Foods UK, Dairy Crest Limited, First Milk, Milk Link and Müller-Wiseman Dairies). Of the £7.5 million total spend for the campaign, a third comes from European Commission funding (23). However, just in 2012, the Milk Marketing Forum received a subsidy from the EU of over £840,000 (24).

All these campaigns and materials avoid mentioning the unappealing practices that dairy farming is based on, are very simplistic and offer a rose-tinted view of what goes on at a dairy farm. The extensively exploitative nature of the industry is completely played down, suggesting that farmers assist the cows in their natural life and getting milk from the cows is done without inconveniencing the animals. And the simple facts that humans don’t need cow’s milk to survive, that cow’s milk is linked to many diseases and that we have evolved to consume human breast milk until weaning, are also conveniently omitted.

DairyCo’s website ‘This Is Dairy Farming’ paints an idyllic picture when talking about the lives of dairy cows: ‘they have access to nutritious feed, the best healthcare and spacious pastures and barns. Dairy cows are social animals that live and graze in herds and they need exercise as well as rest.’(25) And when talking about separating the calf from the mother just one day after birth, they claim it’s best for both the mother and the calf completely failing to admit that breaking the bond between them causes immense stress and that in nature, the calf would suckle from their mother for eight to twelve months. And of course there is no mention of unwanted male calves being shot in the head at a day or two old (see page 17).

More Subsidies

In 2004 EU dairy farmers received a total of €970 million in direct aid from the EU, with UK farmers receiving €119 million (26). Since 2005 records for funding have changed which means it is not possible to tell exactly what type of farming receives what amounts.