Why Mega Farms Might Not Always Be Bad for Animal Welfare

Large scale cattle farms are on the rise in Britain, much to the worry of animal welfare groups. But is keeping huge herds in part-indoor conditions always bad news for cows?

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Jun 30 2016, 11:00am

Tim Gue's Sussex dairy farm looks pretty "mega," if you didn't know better. He keeps 400 cows, which sounds like a lot and is almost triple the UK average. They are milked three times a day and spend most of their lives in a barn, not in the field munching grass.

But Gue's herd is fairly typical, on national and global scales. He loves his ladies too: they are pampered like high-end hotel guests with every need met.

Gue walks beside a long, high-ceilinged shed. It's a calm, summer evening and the cows are peaceful too. They potter between the rows of freestalls, stopping to stare at their (most likely annoying) visitors.

Cow trio 1

Cows at a Sussex dairy farm. All photos by the author.

As Gue shows me around his farm, he starts listing the perks of Hotel Cow. Five staff are dedicated to the herd. The cows lie on soft foam mattresses topped with sawdust and walk on rubber pathways. Their locomotion (how easily they walk) is scored each month. Their hooves are trimmed regularly by experts. Each cow is fed a carefully tailored diet (the grass stops growing here in June). A huge, rotating milking parlour is at one end of the barn, so the cows' feet don't suffer trudging on tracks or loitering on concrete.

I ask about scale. Gue says the hundreds of cows are split into four social groups that aren't changed often. Every cow is treated as an individual: she has her own name and number, and is tracked on several computer systems.

READ MORE: This Farmer Is Using a Drone to Spy on His Cows

It's all quite cushy.

"Nobody milks cows unless they love cows," Gue says. "It is hard work and antisocial hours. If a farmer has got a fiver in his pocket he will spend it on something that will make the cow's life better, rather than a holiday for his wife."

Most people don't know that. "Mega farms" are high on the press agenda right now. The issue stirred recently thanks to a spring edition of BBC show Countryfile, the network's second most popular programme, watched by six million people. Viewers were stunned by a 1,800-cow herd that was kept indoors all year.

Sussex dairy farmer Tim Gue with some of his cows.

Then, last month, welfare NGO World Animal Protection warned of the "stealth introduction of intensive indoor dairy farms" in a report. It claimed that there were more than 100 such units, some keeping 2,000 animals.

Every mega building proposal causes an outcry. Plans for a 3,770-cow dairy in Derbyshire had to be withdrawn in 2011 after environment officials objected to risks to groundwater quality and possible smelliness. More than 72,000 people signed a petition, along with celebrity supporters like Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs and model Twiggy. The campaign against a 24,500-space pig farm in Derbyshire, which was halted last year, had a true A-lister: The Wire's Dominic West.

Now it's cows causing a storm. Perhaps the way in which they live and the farm's sizes are linked. Perhaps because they're really big beasts.

Cow trio 2

"A mega farm is of a size that cows cannot get comfortably to pasture," says Phil Brooke, of welfare charity Compassion in World Farming. The central milking parlour forces farmers with big herds to keep animals indoors, he says.

Brooke adds: "Getting all the rules right about the best possible housing, [cows] are going to be walking on a slippery surface plastered with urine and manure, and lameness is an issue."

It sounds vague, but a mega farm definition, with numbers, is hard to pin down. The Soil Association tries not to use specific figures, but says they might be close to ten times the national average.

"We do not necessarily have a problem with large farms," says the charity's head of policy Emma Hockridge. "We think it is much more important to look at how the farms are managed."

For her, animals should live as close to a natural life as possible: feeling the sun on their back and running in herds of a limited size.

We need some context. Dairy herds have definitely been growing: England had 13 herds with at least 1,000 cows in 2014, up from five in 2011, according to industry body AHDB. But the average herd size is still only 145 and two thirds of cows live on farms with fewer than 250.

Gue's cows taken out to graze.

Those numbers are not terrifying globally. The USA had more than 1,800 herds over a thousand in 2012, containing over half of cows, the country's agriculture department says. The biggest unit, in Oregon, has more than 32,000. In China, a company started work on a 100,000-cow farm last year, more than doubling the current record (also in China). Saudi Arabian company, Almarai, milks 93,000 cows in the desert, split across several huge farms and waited on by 2,750 staff.

Worries about intensity, with cows living inside, might also be inflated. The data is not often collected but two studies by AHDB Dairy and Scotland's Rural College, suggest that 6 to 8 percent of farms keep their cows indoors all year.

So, Britain is not as mega as other countries. But should we be worried about the upward trend?

"It is all about husbandry and stockmanship keeping pace with the extra numbers," says John Blackwell, senior vice president of British Veterinary Association, when I put the question to him. "Farmers are really tuned into the needs of their animals. If they are not, they are not very economical."

Blackwell says he has seen huge shifts in welfare over his career. Thirty years ago, he worked on a farm where 50 cows were tied by the neck. Today, big herds are kept in well-planned spaces, monitored on all kinds of metrics, using all kinds of tools, even thermometers, step counters, and CCTV. Those changes keep coming.

"What was considered 20 years ago as good welfare is now considered sub-optimal," Blackwell adds.

He suggests perceptions are the problem: most people mistakenly think that all cows live in buttercup-filled meadows and that big, indoor herds immediately mean poor welfare, which is also not entirely true.

The herd sign outside Tim Gue's farm

Public opinion is split and muddied by a lack of awareness. The majority (60 percent) agreed that British dairy farmers do a good job looking after their animals, in YouGov polling for AHDB dairy.* Half said they were not concerned about the size of the farm. But there's fogginess about where animals spend their lives. Only 16 percent agreed with cows being kept indoors all year, without access to grazing. When those polled were told how most cows spend the summer at grass and the winter in comfortable barns, more than a third said they would buy milk from cows that lived in sheds year-round. A little information could go a long way in convincing people.

READ MORE: A New Report Says Some British Dairy Cows Have Never Seen Sunlight

Amy Jackson explored this as part of her Nuffield scholarship report, titled Can we learn to love the mega dairy? She travelled around the world, asking if the public can stop worrying about big-scale agriculture. She says "mega farm" is a pointless term.

"It is some non-defined baddy which does not have a set of criteria," Jackson says.

Welfare groups play on that intuition people have about indoor cows, she says. One way of taking off some pressure, Jackson thinks, is labelling.

Cow face

The idea for "free range" dairy has arrived. It's been used for chickens, for which there are EU laws, and to an extent for pigs, which have different welfare schemes. But, until now, cows have never had differentiation.

Organic farming requires cows to have access to pasture. Waitrose launched a "grazing pledge" in February, promising that all their supplying farmers would keep cows in fields at least 100 days a year. A farmer-led initiative, the Free Range Dairy Network, asks for 180 days for milk that carries a "pasture promise" label.

The network's founder, Neil Darwent, says big business is to blame for the idealised image of cattle farming in people's minds. "That has been deliberately upheld by the retailers and dairy companies," he says.

Darwent brings up natural behaviour. He makes no claims about better free range welfare, but wants freedom for animals to do what they are born to do: eat grass.

"The public do not believe for a minute it is natural for cows to be indoors all-year-round," he says. "It is no good saying that you're going to convince them otherwise with science. That is a cultural thing that is ingrained in their minds."

The mega farm debate rests on the one word everyone brings up.

A farmer like Gue gives the animals he loves the best care in the world. But that's irrelevant if people won't accept such a life—in big numbers and not always in the field—as "natural."

In 2016, there are three centuries of revolutionary agriculture behind us and billions of animals are farmed around the world. Do we really know what that word means?

*AHDB Quarterly Consumer Tracker conducted by YouGov, Fieldwork April 2016 with a sample of size of 1,039 respondents.