Cheap milk from the Tesco supported dairy – at what price?

There is a story-line in The Archers at the moment about “Open Farm Sunday”, a scheme where certain farms are opened to the public for a day a year, to allow us to see how farms are run and our food is produced. By coincidence, on driving home from walking the dog this morning, the large dairy farm, owned by the University of Liverpool, and heavily sponsored by Tesco, was taking part in the scheme today. After lunch, I went for a visit, just to satisfy the curiosity generated by driving past the place twice a day for over twenty years.

Now, I am not naïve when it comes to food and how it is produced. I knew before I went that this farm is one of the new, modern agribusiness dairies, whereby the cows are kept inside for the most part. I knew that this was a “milk factory”, for want of a better phrase. This is not some cosy, ambrosian vision of farming – this is big business. Having holidayed on farms as a teenager, and visited open farms before when the children were little, and having worked at Unilever’s research facility near Bedford, where all sorts of experiments were done on the dairy herd, I was expecting to see a slick, “factory” atmosphere as far removed from the natural environment of a cow as one could expect. What I found was something different.

There are some 200 cows in the herd here. I don’t know if that’s a large herd or not (I have just had a look and 134 seems to be “average”). We were told this afternoon, that dairies in the US with 3,000 cows are not uncommon. Between this 200, according to the manager who was showing a small group of mostly middle aged people around, they produce a staggering 2.1m litres of milk per year (that’s nearly 10,500 litres per year, for every cow). Now, according to this website, a pedigree Holstein cow typically produces 8600 litres per year. These look like Holsteins, or Friesians to me (they’re black and white) so, if these numbers are correct, the Leahurst cows are producing roughly 1/3 more milk than an average cow. But, that’s only if they produce consistently the same amount of milk, every day, all year round. I am sure that this cannot possibly be the case. Averages are a dangerous thing, of course, but the manager was proud of the fact that these cows produce at least 15% more milk than a typical, non-intensively reared and maintained cow. This is a “good thing” apparently – for those of us who want to buy four pints of milk for a quid, as opposed to the cow, I suppose…

I was watching some of the herd in their shed. They were dirty. The floor was dirty. The stalls in which they bed down are dirty. I was surprised at just how dirty. Cows are usually pretty clean when they’re in the fields – these were far from it.

We were then shown into the milking parlour, where these cows are milked three times a day. The parlour takes three hours to work its way through the whole herd and runs from 05:30 to around 23:00 every day.

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In my admittedly limited experience of these things, this looks like just about every other milking parlour I have been to. However, I was struck by just how thin the cows look. most of them have protruding ribs. All of them have incredibly boney hips, with the bones clearly visible. I was immediately thinking of cows in sub-Saharan Africa that one sees on the TV whenever there is a famine.

We left the parlour and I headed back to my car to leave. And then turned back.

I asked the manager about the condition of the cows, expressing my concerns and surprise at how thin they are. His response was that this is how the breed is suppose to be, comparing a greyhound with a labrador. If you had a greyhound as big as a labrador, there’d be something wrong with the greyhound. (Or labrador, I suppose, but I get his drift). I was only partially convinced by this approach. Certainly, I cannot recall seeing a whole rib-cage on a dairy cow in the UK before and the hind quarters were noticeably boney.

He stated that the farm, as sponsored by Tesco, adheres to their highest welfare standards (I need to find out what these entail, now) and, being part of the University, they have access to any number of vets just across the road. All this is, of course, true and fine as far as it goes. But, it did get me wondering even more than usual about the food we eat, how it it is produced and what is really going on behind closed doors on farms in this country. If this particular farm is one of the very best there is, I would hate to see one that does not reach these standards. But, perhaps I should. Perhaps we all should.

The milk from this factory goes to Arla (a subsidiary of a Swedish/Danish food giant and one of the largest food businesses in the UK). I will think about this, next time I buy my Cravendale milk. At Sainsbury’s.

I don’t know what the answer is. Even if you buy all of your food from local farmers’ markets and farm shops, there is no guarantee that the animals’ welfare is any better than the inhabitants of these sheds. But a conversation with the farmer’s wife at our local farm shop this afternoon, pretty much convinced me that her family’s ideas about animal welfare are much more closely aligned to mine than Tescos.

One thought on “Cheap milk from the Tesco supported dairy – at what price?”

  1. Interesting article Andy.

    It’s funny but when I moved up north to the ‘back of beyond’, I noticed the cows in the area were also very thin, with protruding pelvis’s, ribs and shoulder blades etc. I’d lived in a rural area in South Wales before and the cows there were big and healthy.

    I thought ‘that can’t be right’, so I quietly had a word with a local vet one day. He said that whilst not ideal, that is the way it’s always been. As it’s now an accepted practice, there’s nothing anyone can do about it anyway, nor would want to.

    It’s all about minimising the cost of what goes in and maximising what comes out.

    Incidentally I’m looking out the window at some cows in a field round the back. Not so bad this year but some years it can look like a scene from Auschwitz.

    However, don’t even get me started on the sheep. 😦

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