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The grass is greener – the plight of UK dairy cows

News Section Icon Published 22/04/2016

Dairy cows in field.jpg

It’s that time of year again, when cows are let out of their winter housing onto pasture for summer grazing. Sadly, though, this traditional springtime ritual is in decline, as intensive indoor systems gain ground the world over.

Since prehistoric times, cattle have shaped our lives and landscape, providing us with food, clothing and fertiliser for our soil. And nowhere is this more the case than here in the UK, where abundant, lush grassland has provided the perfect habitat for generation after generation of these grazing beasts.

Today, a mighty two-thirds of UK farmland is occupied by grassland, much of which is too hilly for growing crops – in other words, it’s the ideal terrain for keeping livestock. However, despite ample opportunity for using pasture in this way, there’s been an alarming move towards intensive systems for farm animals in recent years – in particular, vast sheds packed with dairy cows who are fed protein-heavy diets in order to boost production.

Although, in the UK, many of these farms do allow cows some access to pasture for part of the day in the summer months, a growing number operate all year round, meaning that the animals inside have never seen, nor tasted, a blade of grass. This set-up, known as “zero grazing”, reportedly now accounts for around 20% of dairy farms in the UK.

The move indoors

So why is this shift happening? There’s a complex web of forces at play, but one of the main reasons for the recent intensive dairy boom has been the plunging price of milk.

For several years, headlines have told of dairy farmers going bust and milk becoming cheaper than water – both sorry symptoms of a global dairy crisis. And this driving down of prices has made many farmers feel that the only way forward is to intensify; to pack in more animals, push them harder and produce even more milk.

But this is a common misconception. Surprisingly, UK dairy industry figures show that pasture-based systems are actually highly competitive financially – in fact, on a litre-for-litre basis, farmers can expect to make more profit from a litre of milk in extensive rather than intensive systems.

Furthermore, as we know, a prerequisite for good-quality food is the compassionate treatment of the animals who produced it, using fair, safe and sustainable farming practices – words that cannot necessarily be used to describe so-called “mega-dairies”.

Greener pastures

Here’s a quick rundown of why cows really do belong in fields.

Better for people – pasture-fed cows produce more nutritious milk (and beef)

  • Produce from pasture-fed cattle is known to contain lower levels of saturated fats and higher levels of omega-3s, antioxidants – such as vitamin E – and the remarkable compound CLA, which protects against disease in humans, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and many cancers.
  • Meat and dairy from grazing cattle also contain a healthier ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s, therefore reducing inflammation in humans that can lead to diseases like arthritis.

Better for animals – pasture-based systems are fairer to cows

  • Not only do cows enjoy fresh air, sunlight and room to move about, but they can choose their own social groups when grazing. Furthermore, fresh grass, clover and other herbs make up their natural diet, which is easier for them to digest than protein-rich feed crops, which include cereal grains, maize and soya.
  • And here’s evidence that cows love running free on pasture after a season indoors.

Better for the planet – grazing cows are good for the planet

  • Although ruminants produce methane, arguments slamming cows for their GHG emissions fail to consider that grazed pastures actually store carbon in the soil. Moreover, they tend to ignore the fact that GHGs are produced by crop farming, including the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides, and the heavy use of diesel fuel – inputs the intensive-farming industry relies on for animal feed.
  • Extensive cattle farming offers a far more sustainable and secure supply of healthy food, thanks to the nature of mixed farming, where cows make the soil more fertile for crops to grow (without the need for fertilisers and pesticides).

Media attention

So there you have it. There can be little doubt that keeping cows in fields is best – for their wellbeing, human health and the sake of our precious planet. And now, thankfully, this important issue is finding its way into the mainstream media, from Countryfile’s recent cattle special, which explored the issue in detail, to the latest advert from Waitrose, which champions the benefits of milk from cows who have had access to pasture for a minimum 100 days per year.

As Phil Brooke, our Welfare and Education Development Manager, said on the recent Countryfile episode:

“The public expects cows to be kept outside; they’d be horrified if they were kept inside all the time. But it doesn’t say so on the label, so they don’t know.”

What you can do

As always with animal products, until the label really does tell us how the animal was treated, the only way to avoid complicity in the cruelty is to look out for trusted terms – such as organic or free-range – if you buy meat, eggs and, in this case, dairy.

Here at Compassion, we work with global food companies and consumers to encourage the provision of fair products that people want to pay a fair price for, including milk. It’s a goal we believe is entirely achievable, just as soon as people know what life is like for the countless cows who exist in sunless, grassless sheds – a place in which they definitely don’t belong.

Help us spread the word by always asking for higher-welfare options and by sharing this feature!


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