John Webster is Professor Emeritus of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol (UK) and has authored a number of animal welfare publications, his latest is Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture, published by Earthscan from Routledge.
He is a Patron of Compassion in World Farming and was one of our first visionaries.
This is the final part in my two part interview with Professor Webster, where he provides his view on the life and future of dairy cows in the UK.
Philip: I recall you once said that dairy cows are the hardest working farmed animal. Do you still believe this to be true and why?
John: This is more true today than it ever was. Genetic selection for milk yield, especially in the black and white Holstein breed has increased daily production from about 20 litres/day to over 50 litres/day in the top performing cows (for oldies this equates to 100 daily pints on your doorstep from a single cow).
To achieve this, the cows have had to be taken off pasture, confined in barns and committed to eating huge quantities of high-energy feed mixtures to keep up with the metabolic demands of their overworked udders.
Relative to body size, such a dairy cow has, during lactation, to eat about five times as much as an adult human, work over twice as hard and sustain this performance for ten months of the year. It should be no surprise therefore that the majority are worn out and culled after three lactations or less.
To be fair, the breeding companies have begun to recognise the folly of simply selecting for more and more milk and are now aiming to produce a more robust, longer lasting cow. The results of this policy change have yet to emerge.
Philip: What do you see as the future of the dairy cow in the UK?
John: The dairy industry in the UK is in deep trouble.
In a free market, overproduction inevitably reduces the price of milk. Selection for individual cows that produce more and more milk means less and less cows. High yielding cows cannot thrive on traditional, pasture based farms so must be accommodated in barns. The economies of scale dictate that these will get ever bigger and ever fewer. I regret to say that this is likely to be the future for most dairy cows in the UK so long as we believe that the sole purpose of dairy farmers is to provide us with cheap milk.
This is why I must return to my theme of Planet Husbandry. I believe that the most important task of those who are the custodians of the land is to conserve the living environment for us all – and by that I don’t just mean us humans.
I absolutely reject the argument that the countryside should be partitioned: some for wildlife, some for intensive farming. In my view this argument is morally suspect and economically innumerate.
For the countryside to thrive, and thrive in a way that is both beautiful and economically sustainable, it has to receive support. It is wasteful to reject food from animals as a vital contribution to this support. Equally it is irresponsible not to recognise that the quality of the living environment cannot be supported from the sale of food alone. The traditional British mixed farm, with healthy cows at pasture (which would not look anything like the modern Holstein) could, with proper support, have a profitable and honourable future.
Philip: Thank you!
John’s latest book, Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture, is published by Earthscan from Routledge and costs £29.99 in paperback and £85.00 in hardback. The publishers are offering Compassion supporters a special 20% discount for online direct orders. Please use the DC361 at the checkout here.