I’m sitting here trying not to cry.
I’m feeling desperate, will the message never get across, will we never learn?
On the BBC Radio Farming Today programme this morning there was discussion about a new farming project in Lincolnshire. A firm wants to have a farm of dairy cows containing, not the UK average of 120 dairy cows but, wait for it, of 8,000 – 9,000 cows. You have not misread that, of 8,000 – 9,00 cows. Different sources give varying details but it sounds as though they will be kept in individual stalls, at least for most of the time, indoors for their lifetime, fed on concentrates and be bred and fed to give 12,000 litres of milk a year. A ‘normal’ high yielding cow today gives a maximum of 7,000 litres a year. There will be dedicated separate ‘maternity’ buildings. I understand that Kesteven County Council will be pronouncing on their decision, whether or not to allow this to proceed, in the coming few days.
The firm is proud to be the first in Europe to introduce such conditions. Comfy stalls with no adverse weather conditions, bedded down on straw, lovely. It is nicely dressed up and presented. With respect to my US friends, and please do not take this personally, this firm is quoting the way cattle are kept in the US in similar conditions and saying that we in the UK need to catch up. I abhor the way cattle are kept in the US when they are in massive holding pens on bare earth, eating concentrates. Travelling down to to Palm Springs from San Francisco we passed a couple of massive cattle fattening stations and they were appalling to my eyes. Animals are NOT crops or objects on a production line.
The PR states that this will help with the global food crisis and protect the world from global warming since the methane given off by cow dung will be indoors and therefore dealt with before it escapes into the atmosphere.
Where do I begin?
Twenty years ago in the EC there were stored butter mountains, and milk was being poured down the drain because the prices were not high enough. The products never made their way to the starving millions. The producers would rather throw the stuff away than sell or ship at what they considered uneconomic prices. Economics always takes precedence.
The amount of methane contribution to global warming is not a simple statistic. Just to list a few of the other considerations: you have to factor in the environmental costs of treating the slurry – the energy used both for its treatment and disposal and of course, in heating and feeding the housed cattle. Then the energy, nitrogen, weedkiller and insecticide used in producing the concentrate versus allowing grazing on grassland. The energy used in transporting the concentrates, collecting the milk, processing the product and taking it to outlets. The energy and water used by pumping water and cleaning the stalls.
Then there are the side effects of such intensive farming on the cattle. Firstly Veterinary bills: extra hormone growth promoters: extra antibiotics: extra treatment for lameness (if treated): all these have been flagged by EU research as being factors implicit in such factory conditions. These ubercows will suffer from bone weakness, udder infections and foot lameness. Their frames will barely be able to support the full udders and after 3 years their systems will be so depleted that they will be infertile and fit only for slaughter. The usual life span of a modern UK dairy cow is about 7 years which is not good anyway: compared with the older native breeds where, apart from illness and predation the natural life span for cattle is 20-25 years. (The oldest cow on record lived to be 49 years). If we do not care about cows’ physical welfare, what about our own? In such intensive conditions it is hard to control disease without huge amounts of drug control: what will we be feeding to our children, to ourselves?
I also imagine there will be smells and noise for those living close by.
Then last, but definitely not least in my opinion, is the cows’ emotional and psychological welfare. Cows are herd animals: for thousands of years they have evolved to move, eat, breed in groups. They need to be able to perform mutual grooming, to communicate and to support each other, in ways that we probably do not know about yet. It is known, however, that they are a matriarchal society, in which the mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grannies, if allowed to live together, will all cluster around a cow who is giving birth, to protect and support her. Who understands exactly what that kind of close interaction means to a cow? And what the removal of this group activity will do? The distress of a cow separated from her calf is tangible and audible to all in the vicinity: this greater (I use the word ‘greater’ in a physical rather than purely emotional sense here) separation – from the herd- fills me with horror. Cows are notoriously curious creatures: anything new has to be investigated. What will be the emotional and mental effects of this incarceration and separation? No crossing the landscape, grazing, chewing the cud, lying in the sun, following the herd, smelling the breeze, running away in flurry of fear and slowly coming back to check something out, investigating new objects, choosing your friends, gossiping in corners, no fears (not sure about that, there may be plenty of fears in such conditions) but no thrills either, nothing to call a life a life – I cannot bear it.
We are only now moving towards a Europe wide ban on chicken battery farming: it has taken forty years to get the message into legislation. The thought of having to embark on another needless battle fills me with despair. The same arguments are being trotted out again: do we have no memory? No intelligence? Cannot we think?
OK eat animals, use their products, but listen to our forebears, the hunters. Remember the respect due to a living creature on whom we predate. Don’t dress up cruelty as some kind of environmental protection, an altruistic procedure for the starving of the world and the welfare of the planet. Remember that what goes around comes around. There is no such thing as a free lunch.