Milkcow blues*

I had two opportunities to get in at Defra Qs today – one as a supplementary to someone else’s question about farm animal welfare standards, and then again at Topical Qs. Predictably useless responses. (You might like, when it appears on to go in and give your opinion on whether or not the Minister has answered the question. Unfortunately there is not a “Is the Minister a patronising ******?” option. And don’t bother counting the asterixes – I can assure you it’s a randomly generated number!) 

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I was very reassured to hear the Secretary of State say that animal welfare standards were important, as well as the British origin of the food. If the application for an 8,000-strong dairy factory farm in Lincolnshire is approved, will she join me in urging a boycott of battery milk by the public sector, and does she support the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ “Not in my cuppa” campaign?

Mrs Spelman: The hon. Lady is talking about welfare standards and examples of planning applications—well publicised in the press—for large-scale units which, to date, have not been accepted. Logically, however, it is not scale that is the determinant of welfare: there can be animal welfare problems at both small and large-scale units. It has everything to do with the quality of the husbandry.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Further to the response that the Secretary of State gave me earlier, does she believe that keeping cows indoors in cubicles for more than 10 months of the year when they are in milk, milking them three times a day instead of the usual two and their having an average lifespan of five years, as opposed to the natural lifespan of 20 years, is compatible with good animal welfare standards?

Mr Paice: I suggest that the hon. Lady should learn a little about dairy farming. In the natural world a calf suckles its mother many times a day, so milking three times a day instead of twice is hardly a welfare problem. Of course I recognise that there are concerns about that issue—that is why DEFRA has commissioned a three-year study by the university of Edinburgh into housing cattle all year round. That report is due next year and obviously we will study it carefully.

At the risk of putting you all off your cornflakes, can I suggest that when it comes to women breastfeeding – and in this case I am certainly not an expert, in fact I’m rather squeamish – there would be quite a difference between feeding a baby on demand several times a day, painful though that often is, and being overfed so that you produce far more milk than is needed, milked by a machine three times a day, and kept indoors in a cubicle for months on end until your milk has run out? Not to mention being culled if your mastitis means you’re no use for breast-feeding anymore? So is it really any different for cows? (N.B. Contrary to popular opinion, cows do not produce milk for our benefit; they do it only because they have babies. No babies, no milk).

* I’ve never heard this Elvis song, but it appears from the lyrics that he might be comparing his woman to an old milk cow. In which case it’s not surprising she’s left him.

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  • Pamela  On September 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I am interested in animal welfare too and I agree with you about keeping the dairy cows inside and other aspects of the larger scale production.

    However, wouldn’t milking cows more often (three rather than two times a day) prevent them from becoming so engorged with milk, relieve pressure and make them more comfortable?

    I remember watching a programme where they were experimenting with a high tech system where dairy cows chose when and how often to be milked and they choose to be milked more often. (The downside of this system was that the cows were kept indoors but I think robotic milking has been used on organic farms with outdoor grazing).

    I’m not defending turning large grazing animals into indoor-only milking machines – only the objection on the grounds of the number of times they are milked.

  • Invictus_88  On September 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    “I suggest that the hon. Lady should learn a little about dairy farming.”

    Ah, politics…so rewarding! Such courteous peers!

  • Leah Blasi  On September 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Mr Paice makes a ridiculous comparison – I suggest he learns a little more about dairy farming himself. In intensive farming, a cow is bred to produce far more milk than a calf can drink – in what way does this Mr Paice consider this mimicks the “natural world”? And this in addition to enforced confinement, inactivity, boredom, increased risk of disease, lameness, high stress levels – this list goes on and on. Mrs Spelman’s answer was no answer at all – obviously neither of these people are even remotely concerned with animal welfare.

  • kerrymccarthy  On September 17, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Pamela, that could be a fair point. I’m in Kenya at the moment with Lord Cameron, who’s an organic dairy farmer in Somerset (though he’s organic because there’s a market for it, and thinks Nocton is a good idea… sadly). He says it’s better to milk cows three times a day because it relieves the cow, but the economics of paying farm workers to do so don’t stack up, because the third milking of the day yields little milk. I need to refer this to WSPA, see what they have to say, but I suspect the answer would be that it’s only because cows are required to produce an unnatural amount of milk that the issue arises. And that it’s not the number of times a cow is milked, but just how much she is milked that matters.

    NB – memo to Jim Paice – as you can see, I’m doing as instructed and learning a lot more about dairy farming!

  • Emily Dunsford  On September 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Are you all mad?

    We already produce more milk than we can consume, I see bags and bags of it thrown away nearly every day.
    Also, is everyone overlooking how CRUEL this is? Keeping cows, any animal, in doors and away from their natural instincts is not fair and cruel beyond belief.
    Also, the infection, the stress? Is all of this worth feeding our greedy lifestyle?

    If this plan goes ahead it will change farming forever. Business’s may turn towards the cheaper option, which will put farmers out of business etc.

    Milk is cheap already. We already have enough. It is not as if we are frantically trying to meet a demand. That is why I think that this proposal is ridiculous and should not go ahead.


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