Intensification and Zero-grazing
The Situation in the UK
Dairy farming in the UK has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. ‘Traditional’ dairy farming (small herds with maximum access to outdoors) is the minority and has been replaced with increasingly intensive methods. This includes using selectively bred cow breeds for excessive milk yield, large herds and zero or limited grazing.
As well as the intensification of the industry as a general movement, there is also the threat that ‘mega dairies’ could become common in the UK. These are purpose built large scale farms, common in the USA, factory farming dairy cows. In 2010 a company called Nocton Dairies Ltd sought planning permission to build an 8,100 cow dairy in Lincolnshire. After a year of campaigning and mass objection from Viva! and other animal welfare groups and activists, environmental groups and activists, MPs, local people and the general public this application was rejected on environmental grounds, but there is the worrying discussion and argument from the dairy industry that zero-grazing and intensification has a place in the UK (98).
The fundamental cruelties involved in dairy farming such as forced pregnancy, separation of mother and calf, overproduction of milk and high chances of contracting mastitis, lameness and milk fever cause extensive suffering for the cow. These are still inherent in these intensive systems, but the cow is exploited even further, pushed to produce even more milk in a less natural environment for the convenience and profit of the farmer.
Zero-grazing is feeding cattle with pasture plants or other food in a system that does not involve any time at pasture. But as the report by the European Food Safety Authority stated: “If dairy cows are not kept on pasture for parts of the year, ie they are permanently on a zero-grazing system, there is an increased risk of lameness, hoof problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta and some bacterial infections.” (99)
Essentially zero-grazing and intensive dairy farming are an extension of the winter period where all cows are kept indoors. Cows are kept (usually in large herds) in sheds with rows of ‘bedding’ areas and may have access to go outside in yards. Some intensive farms keep the cows tied in stalls and will only allow them to leave the stall to go to the milking parlour. Dairy cows in farms that operate limited or no time at pasture are deprived of their natural environment for much or all of their lives and endure the physical and mental strain of living indoors. As described earlier, cows have complex needs and this system not only further deprives them of their natural environment and the possibility to exhibit normal behaviour but also leads to abnormal behaviour and aggression. Most of the abnormal behaviours are the direct result of the artificial environment cattle are kept in and are absent in wild or semi-wild cattle (42).
Viva!’s investigation at 15 dairy farms supplying Cadbury showed that zero-grazing is already the norm in the UK. See what we found at www.milkmyths.org.uk/animal-welfare/cadbury.
Why It Is Done
The manipulation of selective breeding for milk yield means that the modern dairy cow produces so much milk that she can’t sustain her body needs on her natural (grass) diet alone. The cows are therefore fed a high protein diet, concentrated feed with high levels of cereals and soya, in an effort to keep the cow alive and over-producing. She will still most likely experience metabolic hunger due to the excessively demanding, over-producing udder and the simultaneous pregnancy. As the cow does not ‘need’ to go out to pasture for food, she can be kept indoors at all times. Effectively, it saves the farmer time (and therefore money and labour) not to let cows out to pasture and have to bring them back in for milking a number of times a day.
“It makes it unprofitable to turn cows out to pasture where they simply cannot take in nutrients fast enough. This then leads to the practice of zero-grazing, whereby cows are confined through most or all of lactation and before the birth of their next calf.” (100)
Effect on the Environment
Intensive dairy farming isn’t just bad for cows but also has a negative effect on the environment. Concentrating the populations of cows in one place by having excessively large herds means millions of litres of slurry to dispose of, enormous amounts of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, risking water pollution, diseases spreading and ammonia damage to wildlife. There will also be increased traffic to and from the farm for milk, feed, cattle and slurry. And producing the feed itself for the animals is also very detrimental:
“The sheer size of the [dairy] industry has also placed great strains on the environment, mainly through the destruction of forests and permanent pastures to create vast tracts of maize and soy bean grown for livestock feed.” (100)
The dairy industry is aware that people are increasingly taking an interest in where their food comes from and the welfare of farmed animals. Many people believe in the idyllic image of happy dairy cows in lush green pastures and so the idea of keeping cows in sheds all year round is appalling. The industry is aware that publicity of their intensive methods would shatter this image. Claims that as long as the cow has food, water, bed, shelter and company she is ‘happy’ are very simplistic. As discussed in this report cows are complex animals who suffer when deprived of their natural environment and farmed for their milk. The dairy cow has been changed to produce an extortionate amount of milk for increased profit and indoor farming is part of the system. Going out to pasture is increasingly being seen as a luxury, but this is the cow’s natural habitat. Regardless of what the industry says, the cow is simply being treated like a unit of production rather than a sentient, individual animal. The nature of zero-grazing and indoor farming means denying the animal her natural food, natural environment (and space to exercise) and natural behaviour (exploration, group size and social hierarchy).
The only reason to zero graze or intensively farm animals is to lower production costs and increase product yield meaning higher profit.