The Ethical Dairy is a Scotland-based dairy farm with a focus on the welfare of its cows and calves. Here, Wilma Finlay of The Ethical Dairy explains their concept, how they make it work and what it means for the farmers, their animals and their customers.
We have been concerned about the intensification of dairy farming for a long time, for lots of different reasons. After going organic twenty years ago, we started to explore going one step further by leaving the calves with their mums to suckle naturally. So we began the journey to cow-with-calf dairy farming in 2006. We were under no illusions about how challenging this would be, and we were correct. It nearly bankrupted us.
In almost every dairy farm in the world, calves are separated from their mum within a few hours of birth. It’s how dairy farms have been run for decades, and it’s one of the main criticisms of the dairy industry – it’s certainly the most emotive one. Leaving the calf with its mum sounds like a simple change, but changing this one thing changes everything else entirely.
While cow-with-calf dairy farming has been done on a small scale before, no one had made it work at a larger scale, such as our traditional family farm size. We had to build a brand new dairy shed, with space for the calves to stay with their mums, and we redesigned our entire milking system.
We ran a pilot in 2012 which taught us a great deal, but which was financially disastrous. Bruised but not beaten we remodelled the system and in late 2016 gave ourselves a three year deadline to either prove cow-with-calf could work, or to quit.
Those three years are up, so did it work? Slowly. It was stressful and financially painful, but it did work.
The way we farm now isn’t just about keeping calves with their mum – although that’s the most obvious difference. It’s about rethinking our entire farming system from an ecological point of view. Ultimately what we are trying to do is create a circular, regenerative dairy farming system that has a positive environmental impact, delivers nutritious food, provides good quality jobs and works to the highest possible standards of animal welfare.
The benefits are clear to us and we have committed to farming this way permanently. The cows have experienced a marked reduction in stress, improvement in health and higher than expected levels of productivity. The calves thrive being reared by their mothers, growing twice as quickly as before.
It also works for us and the farm staff, with reduced costs and a highly motivated farm team. Over the past 20 years we have cut our antibiotic use by 90%, doubled the life expectancy of our cows, cut our greenhouse gas emissions by more than half and increased our farm diversity by a factor of five.
The main financial challenge is we get around a third less milk than we did previously. If we were located near a city then without a doubt we could sell the milk at a premium price to members of the public to offset that loss in volume.
However, being based in rural south west Scotland means it’s not logistically practical for us to sell fresh milk, so what we have done is go back to our roots – cheese making. Before the rise of industrial food production in the 1960s and 70s, making cheese was what small dairy farms like us did with most of their milk. Over the last ten years we have invested in cheese making facilities and started making traditional artisan cheese with the milk we produce. Why? Quite simply, because cheese is much easier to courier than fresh milk.
We now sell our cheese direct via our website to customers throughout the UK, and we supply outlets such as farm shops and cheesemongers, and organic retailers like Abel & Cole. It’s taken a long time and a lot of investment to get to this stage, but we are delighted with the feedback from our customers.
Coincidentally, we launched our cheese range at a time when interest in vegan diets is surging, and we have had several waves of attacks on social media from activists. However, vegans have also been some of our strongest supporters. Around 20% of contributors to our crowdfunding campaign were vegan, and we have regular orders from people who may not eat our cheese themselves, but who buy it for their partner or children. Ultimately people want to know they’re making positive choices in the food they buy for themselves and for family members, and people are absolutely right to question how their food is produced.
The changes we have made to our farming system have not gone unnoticed by the industry either, but then again, we’ve been fairly vocal about our approach. We always knew we’d get a backlash from those in the farming industry who favour a more intensive approach. Food production and farming are complex, highly politicised topics with huge vested interests – doing things differently will inevitably attract comments, but despite the backlash there is growing interest in our approach within the industry.
Earlier this year the Scottish Government provided funding for an academic researcher to study data from our farm to look at how our system could be scaled up and made transferrable to other farms. We are looking forward to seeing the results of that analysis, and we are hopeful that it will begin the process of proving to a cynical industry that it is possible for others to farm this way too.
We fully appreciate and acknowledge that many people believe livestock farming can never be ethical, and we respect that point of view, but all human food systems are imperfect. Plant-based systems, particularly monoculture, also have negative impacts. For us ecological, regenerative farming systems seem the best approach for the landscape of the UK; low-impact livestock farming complementing arable farming.
Any form of farming will involve compromise, but this model can potentially deliver adequate amounts of affordable food while also delivering substantial public benefits and not necessarily at any extra cost to society.
Every time we buy a product we are investing in the system that produced it. We are pleased to be able to give people who want to buy cheese the ability to invest in a dairy farming system that prioritises the welfare of the animals and the environment.
Will our approach become more widespread? Who knows, but what is abundantly clear is that the public are increasingly concerned about conventional dairy farming practices. It is the duty of the food and farming industries to address those concerns and provide information and produce that people can feel good about eating.
Some cheeses sold by The Ethical Dairy carry the Vegetarian Society Approved vegetarian trademark. To buy these, or for more information about The Ethical Dairy, visit www.vegsoc.org/theethicaldairy
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