Dairy farming

The Dairy/Beef/Veal Industry

VEGA's campaigning

VEGA’s recent campaigning on behalf of the dairy cow and her calves includes:

  • Funding research into the effects of early separation of calves from their dam (see associated press-release - NEW SCIENTIFIC REPORT DAMNS ROUTINE PRACTICES IN THE DAIRY/BEEF/VEAL INDUSTRY), and research into the stresses of livestock markets, both at Bristol University.

  • Discussion with both the FSA and with manufacturers on improvements to the nutritional content of plant milks.

  • Encouragement to other animal welfare organisations to provide plant milk for tea and coffee at meetings.

  • Encouraging campaigners to ASK for non-dairy alternatives at supermarkets and coffee shops (See our Veganizing Ingredients page).

  • Encouraging distributors/sellers of plant milks to use separate jugs with labels and supplying them with dairy free labels.

Milk yields

Cows single suckling their calves in beef herds need to produce a ton of milk a year, much of it from grass.

Todays milker in the dairy herd averages six tons a year, and yields attain ten tons are not uncommon; targets of fifteen tons are being set, thanks to mineral and vitamin supplementation of feeds, fertiliser use for grass and grains for the rations and to imported proteinacous sources such as soya, fishmeal, and gluten.

Some organic dairy farmers are now claiming yields exceeding seven tons a year.

Diseases and stresses

The dairy cow succumbs early to "production diseases" among which are mastitis, lameness, metabolic disturbances, waning fertility, dropped udder, and calving problems (dystokia), so she becomes an early victim in the workings of the dairy/beef/veal industry.

The stresses of separation of a calf from its dam, transport and marketing inflict greater pressures for Pharmer Giles's (abetted by the vets) to use vaccines and antibiotics as surrogates for tender loving care and raising levels of immunity.

The above picture displays the grossly distended udder that results from combining repeated pregnancies with high levels of milk production (Picture © The Thylazine Foundation Pty Ltd)

The processes attract a battery of needleworks with vaccines and antibodies and opportunities for a spread of zoonotic and specific diseases.

Neonatal mortality in calves runs at ten times or more than the toll for newborn human babies.

Milk for humans or for calves?

Lifelong consumption of cow's milk is unnatural for grown-up cattle. For human milksops its even more unnatural and is a relatively recent evolutionary quirk to which our species has not adapted fully. Lactose and allergenic proteins and other factors upset many human consumers in various ways, unless the milk is modified by processing such as heat treatment (e.g. pasteurization) or fermented, converting the milk-sugar into lactic acid as in cheese and yogurt.

Bovine TB is emerging as a spreading threat, requiring a return to the meat inspection procedures introduced 70 or 80 years ago and examinations for lesions on udders sliced off in the slaughterhouse.

We now have the technology to create acceptable milks from pulse, cereal and leafy crops, with simple machinery. How much better to produce them in gleaming stainless steel vats than to stuff such materials into miserable mucky cows bewailing the loss of the babies we have snatched away.

Milk consumption and EU grants

In 2002 milk consumption was given a £1m boost by a grant from the European Commission that was match-funded by the Milk Development Council (MDC). The money was intended for a one-year promotional scheme extolling the nutritional benefits of milk and will be managed by the Dairy Council. "It will be a welcome shot in the arm for the White Stuff Campaign that suffered a setback last year when funding was withdrawn for a trial period by the Dairy Industry Foundation" reports Farmers Weekly (6 September 2002). A spokeswoman for the MDC said: "The campaign is definitely back on track" and "some really good initiatives are in the pipeline."

Making a statement to farmers of consumers likely and increasing interests in the dairy-industry, Tom Kelly, head of Genus Management, warned of threats arising from the BSE crisis. "We used to have one fairly tolerant buyer for our milk, the Milk Marketing Board, where the issue was how to avoid the penalty. Now we have direct buyers demanding quality milk. The emphasis is now on providing that quality to secure a higher price and a guaranteed buyer. Added to that, milk has got to be traceable," he said (Farmers Weekly, 31 May 1996). Further, he told farmers that "he believed they would eventually have to keep detailed records on issues such as lameness or calf mortality as part of a practical animal welfare code."

While VEGA applauds signs of a hardening of the Treasury attitudes over compensations for further national scandals in the farming and food industries - which is in accord with VEGA statements to various official bodies, from the BSE Inquiry on - it is less pleasant to be reminded in a report from the Chief Veterinary Officer of DEFRA that plans for the Department's expenditure on animal welfare and health are set to decline. This confirms an untoward trend, the shortcomings of which were obvious in the progression of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. The allocations year by year were as follows:

Year 1998/99 1999/00 2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04
Amount (£m) 146 259 769 584 173 168

Although Government money must be allocated for independent auditing and control, VEGA hopes the figures indicate an insurance and policing system paid for by levies on the live/deadstock trade that would become a fund to indemnify the industry against claims from injured parties among the populace and producers and retailers with grievances and claims. Such a policy would remind consumers of the true costs of the products by rises in prices, which would have manifold advantages, not least to reduce sales.

Such moves would increase the split of horn versus corn in the ranks of the NFU: arable farmers seek to extricate themselves from the discredit the live/deadstock industry has brought on farming in general. The mutterings of secession are muted because many arable farmers are implicated in the objectionable practices by growing cereals and other crops that are used in feeds for intensively-reared animals.


VEGA caught at the British Veterinary Congress annual meeting in October 2001 a lecture by R J Sibley BVSc MRCVS on Veterinary checks on farms - added cost or added value? as part of the Food Production seminar. Mr Sibley is an official of societies involved in cattle keeping and production and he has forceful views. He referred in his lecture to opinions that "differing obligations may suggest conflicts of interests. Indeed, some farmers see the interference of a veterinary surgeon as an impediment to their production efficiency, and an avoidable cost… The profession's role in the efficient production of safe food has been confused."

Turning to mastitis, he said that "this affliction affects over one third of all dairy cows each year. It severely compromises milk quality and wholesomeness, and is a major loss to the industry. The disease is a major welfare problem, and is also the reason for the majority of the antibiotic usage in dairy cattle. Extraordinary systems and protocols are employed to ensure that antibiotic residues are avoided after the high-risk procedure of infusing antibiotic directly into the food-producing organ of the dairy cow. This leads to a massive loss of milk to the farmer, expensive security arrangements at the processor, and the inevitable breaches with consequential loss to the industry as a whole."

He cited figures for reduction of cell count from 571 000 in 1971 to 250 000 in 1994 and clinical incidence of 110 cases of mastitis per 100 cows in 1970 to 35 cases per 100 cows in 1995. He also cited some data for diseases of economic importance recorded for a review of 90 herds in 1992 to 1993, as follows:


Disease or Condition Average Top 25% herds Bottom 25% herds
Calf mortality: Calves dead per 100 calves born 7.8 3.8 11.6
Dystokia. Cows requiring aid per 100 cows calved 8.7 1.0 18.8
Retained foetal membranes. Cows retaining placenta per 100 cows calved 3.6 1.1 7.8
Milk fever. Cases per 100 cows calved 7.7 2.4 14.0
Mastitis. Clinical cases per 100 cows in milk 33.2 10.1 67.3
Lameness. Recorded cases per 100 cows in herd 24.0 4.7 47.4


Cost of disease in dairy cows (based on 1995 prices in £)
Total cost, including overall lost production per affected cow

Direct cost,including time drugs, milk, and deaths per affected cows

Total cost to 100-cow heard with average disease incidence Total cost to 100-cow herd with average incidence of top 25%
calf mortality 310 142 2,449 1,178
Retained foetal membranes 298 83 1,134 328
Milk fever 220 59 1,651 528
Mastitis 183 118 6,858 1,852
Lameness 246 94 6,205 1,157
Total cost of disease and subsequent losses due to these diseases in a 100-cow dairy herd 18,297 5,044


Slaughterhouse waste

One reason for the present scarcity of home-produced beef is the "widespread practice of killing dairy calves on the farm, not necessarily illegally, but as a reflection of the economic pressure on the milk industry. Now comes a stronger incentive for producers to keep the young animals in the meat-production chain. Dairy farmers should be aware that EU legislation will outlaw the farm burial of fallen stock from January 1 next year. And in areas where knacker or hunt cover is thin, disposal collection charges of up to £80 per head are already being made for calves under 3 weeks old," says Mr Robert Robinson, of the National Beef Association (The Grocer, 25 May 2002). "The delivery of at least 300 000 of the 450 000 dairy-bred calves that are currently being shot by labour-strapped milk producers each year to beef-rearing and finishing farms is critical to the stability of the beef-industry." VEGA adds this to its testimony to the milksops' plea that "you don't have to slaughter animals to get milk."

Adoption of the impending guidelines by the European Commission is worrying the British slaughtering industry in several ways. The changes affect state aid for disposing of slaughterhouse waste, fallen stock and victims of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), notably BSE. "BSE legislation has significantly altered the economics of slaughterhouse waste," says EC Commissioner Franz Fischler (Meat Trades Journal, 5 December 2002). "What was a valuable product in the past is waste now, to be disposed of at high cost. In order to allow the sector to adapt, the Commission has so far authorised very high amounts of state aid. However, we have found that this could lead to serious distortions of competition. Some member states grant a lot of aid, others do not." The Meat Trades Journal notes that "exceptionally, member states may be granted 50% aid for the disposal of specified risk material (SRM) and meat-and-bonemeal (MBM) with no further commercial use produced in 2003. Mr Peter Scott, general secretary of the British Meat Federation descries threats to the British industry, which have "further cost implications to the slaughtering sector which are bound to increase slaughtering costs. At the moment in the UK an estimated £18m a year is paid by the Government for the removal, storage, and disposal of SRM alone.

Editorialising, the Meat Trades Journal accepts "the need to tighten up on the way unfit food and animal waste is disposed of. In recent years there have been a number of very serious criminal investigations into how unfit meat and poultry found its way into the food chain, resulting in prosecutions." The editorial foresees more unwelcome developments: "It sounds like moving more of the cost burden on to an already overburdened meat industry. The bottom line is that this is a first-class matter of public safety and should therefore come wholly out of public funds." VEGA objects that the trade and customers should carry the whole cost, and thus be reminded directly at the till rather than muted in the taxes they pay for damage and injury they inflict on animals, health, and the environment.

We redouble our assertions, as in VEGA REVIEW 3, that it's better to turn crops in gleaming stainless steel vats into milks and "dairy-products" rather than stuffing them into miserable, mucky, and mastitic cows, whose mammary secretions are denied to their calves. The dairy/beef/veal industry has escaped the contempt and objection it deserves and it rightly suffers the current disadvantages it has been complaining of. Animal welfarists and rightists have performed lamentably in preaching and practising effective aid for the cow and her calf. VEGA continues its campaign on their behalf and on the corollaries.

Scandalous Approbation

Connivance at the animal welfare and hygiene.phpects of "the milk of human blindness" has been widespread. How loudly foodies would object if milk had to be routinely irradiated, rather than pasteurised. The Vegetarian Society bestows approbation on products without reservations on the origins of the milk and the conditions of the cows and calves. Compassion in World Farming recently awarded honours to Marks and Spencer, notorious among animal welfarists for "buttering everything up" and resolute "wheying-in" (that's how the by-products of skimmed milk and cheese-making receive value-adding). Two cheers for the Soil Association and one for the RSPCA in showing some regard for some of the evils of commercial milk-production. And the Real Meat Company refuses to sell dairy-produce because it cannot find sources practising the welfare requirements it and its vets demand. But what do we make of the British Indians sanctifying mother-cow and the principles of ahimsa while indulging as accomplices in the rape of this abused animal (and her calves) in the excesses of commercial production?

Not that the dairy.phpect of the live/deadstock industry has done badly from EU handouts, as our attached survey of CAP expenditures and forecasts shows. In Europe two thirds of the beef originates in the dairy industry and much of the cereal harvest is used for feed, not food, so it is difficult for these and environmental reasons to calculate the full measure of the dairy industry's benefits.

Veggie trends

The vigorous veggie trend of the 1980s has yielded to the organic and anti-GM crusades, with dubious free-range assurances and red-tractor schemes to distract from the effects of overweening consumer demands. (The red tractor is probably a Renault, and British meat, milk, and eggs are derived from animals fed on imported concentrates - probably GM - are as British as a Rover car assembled with imported components). However, a developing population of meat-reducers and dairy-frees bids fair to approach more effectively the aims true veggies should campaign for: a feasible national shift of 10% in demand for animal-derived foods will at present do more good for animal welfare, health, and the environment than a doubling of the population declaring themselves - somewhat loosely, it must be said - to pollsters as vegetarians. VEGA's testimony to the Curry Commission and thus to the Government (in fact, the Cabinet Office) set forth a feasible way of accelerating and extending this trend. (Our submission is available on our website or from the Cabinet Office). VEGA is now assessing the Government's response, published in mid December, to the Curry recommendation.

The alternative market has benefited meat-reducers as the meat trade has travailed through the aftermaths of BSE, vCJD, and FMD; now the dairy-frees are receiving support from commercial enterprise and competition from the retail market in milks and dairy-produce, "fresh" and UHT, derived direct from plant-sources, without exploiting the cow and calf and using leguminous nitrogen-fixing crops (such as soya and peas) that may be grown within the EU (including the UK).

The Devil is Sick…

We have to admit that the dairy industry's own commercial concerns are doing - as we shall show - more for animal welfare - if only to counter the costs of "production diseases" than the protestations of Britain's animal "lovers". Competition from producers of plant-milks comes usefully - but on a commercial appeal aimed at the health of consumers. We reviewed in VEGA REVIEW 3 considerable penetration of alternatives in the tremendous sales of milks in supermarkets and own-label brands. Now, after all these years, we can congratulate Plamil, whose products find another place in some supermarkets, in sections catering for special diets. A niche in the supermarkets is a lot bigger than a rut in health-food stores. Many of these sales will be on a like-for-like basis, the alternative ousting the animal-derived products. Switches post-BSE and foot-and-mouth from meat have yielded statistics that matter but bring little joy to veggie campaigners who perceive corresponding replacements with poultry and fish. VEGA has just submitted comment on the Department of Health's revised policies on welfare foods for mothers and their young children (see our website).

So what's new in the industry analysing for itself the shortcomings VEGA tries to expose? The dairy/beef/veal business is the major concern in British farming and policies.

Chewing, Comfort, Cudding, and Coliforms

"Large dairy cows do not fit easily into small cubicles designed for their predecessors over 20 years ago, and many are uncomfortable and lame. Redesigning such cubicle-housing is often expensive and difficult and so the alternative of deep straw-bedded yards, where cows lie down for longer, has been promoted, reducing the risk of foot lesions. The incidence of environmental mastitis in housed cows is a serious problem, with Escherichia coli and Streptococcus uberis being the major pathogens. Straw beds have been associated with an increased incidence of mastitis, and it is generally accepted that the risk of mastitis caused by E coli and S uberis becomes greater with increasing exposure to faecal challenge… There is evidence that coliform counts below 106 coliform-forming units (cfu)/g are safer than those above 106. The traditional view is that under certain conditions E coli and S uberis, derived mainly from faeces, multiply in straw-bedding and eventually produce an overwhelming challenge to the udder. Recent research suggests that E coli and S uberis can persist within the udder for longer periods than was previously believed, suggesting that dry cows also need to be kept clean."

These words introduce a report (Veterinary Record, 17 August 2002) from the Division of Farm Animal Studies, University of Liverpool, Veterinary Teaching Hospital. It claims that "one way to control this environmental infection might be through the management of the cows' beds, but there has been surprisingly little research into the physical and bacterial conditions that prevail in them. There is also general uncertainty about the standards for stocking density and the quality and quantity of straw required for high-yielding cows. Accordingly, the report is entitled Observational study of temperature, Moisture, pH and bacteria in straw bedding and, faecal consistency, cleanliness, and mastitis in cows in four dairy herds.

"It is generally accepted that cows should be kept clean, but there have been few studies of the cleanliness of housed dairy cows; and there has been surprisingly little research into the relationship between the cleanliness of cows and the incidence of mastitis," state the authors of the report. "This study set out to observe in four herds the range of conditions in the straw beds in yards housing early-lactation and dry cows during the winter months, and to record the cows' cleanliness and the incidence of mastitis. A fuller report has been presented to the Milk Development Council." The authors acknowledge funding from the MDC and thank the MDC's project manager.

The survey covered "a variety of breeds, milk yields, housing and management systems, stocking densities, and systems of bedding. The authors comment that "the temperature, moisture content, and pH values recorded in the straw yards leave little doubt that they were potentially conducive to the multiplication of S uberis and E coli. It is not surprising therefore that such yards have a reputation for promoting mastitis." (VEGA observes that in some respects straw yards could be seen from a cursory glance to be better for welfare).

The results of the study "show that most of the straw, including the surface straw, was well above the target of 75% relative humidity. In addition to the initial moisture content of the straw bales, considerable quantities of water are added daily to the straw in the cow faeces and urine, and from water troughs. High-yielding cows produce up to 30 litres or more of urine daily and a similar amount in faeces. In addition, wet winter weather and suboptimal ventilation give little chance for the surface of the straw to dry. If the relative humidity of the air inside the house exceeds 75%, as it frequently did on these farms, it seems unlikely that the straw will remain dry and absorbent for any length of time. It may be difficult without air-conditioning to keep the relative humidity of the surface of the straw below 75%, but the results of the study suggest that using adequate quantities of dry straw and spreading it mechanically may be helpful measures," state the researchers on the conditions of the bedding. (VEGA notes that the high-yielding cows' daily excretions of 60l a day are accompanied by secretions of 30l or more, voided as milk - not including expirations in breath and sweat).

The report continues: "The results suggest that E coli might not survive in the alkaline pH of the deep layers, but that both E coli and S uberis would tolerate the pH in the top layers of the straw, the layers in contact with the cows' udders and teats. In the single small trial lime did not raise the pH of the bedding to the levels required for control (above pH9.5), except for a short period when 0.4 kg/m2 was added to the top surface after rebedding. However, spreading the lime at this rate was considered to be intolerable and too expensive, although it appeared to have no harmful effect on the cows' teats. In the yards of both the early lactation cows and the dry cows the results indicated the potential for infection by E coli and faecal streptococci in the top layers of the straw. The numbers of E coli and faecal streptococci never fell below one million colony-forming units, even in the treated straw. The straw beds in the yard of the early-lactation cows had a greater potential for infection because they contained about twice as many E coli and faecal streptococci as the beds of the dry cows, despite bedding being added daily to the early-lactation yard (VEGA notes that sodden urea-laden materials at alkaline pHs would be sources of atmospheric ammonia, which would have harmful effects on the animals' respiratory systems).

"Many of the early-lactation cows were unacceptably dirty. Taking scores of over 3 to be unacceptable, very many of these cows were too dirty, being heavily and persistently contaminated with faeces. If the incidence of environmental mastitis is related to the level of faecal contamination, then the early lactation cows of farms 2 and 3, and to a smaller extent those on farm 4, were at considerable risk. However, the study did reveal that the cows should be kept clean, as was the case for most of the dry cows and for the early-lactation cows on farm 1. These cows had a ration that rarely caused them to produce large quantities of loose faeces a satisfactory clean surface could not be maintained," state the authors.

They conclude: "The significant relationship between faecal consistency and the cleanliness of the udders, flanks, and legs of the early-lactation cows suggest that farmers could improve the cleanliness of cows' udders by feeding them so that their faeces are drier. A faecal challenge can arise from loose faeces splashing in passageways on to the cows' legs, from their lying on wet, dirty feet and beds, or by the direct contamination of the tails and udders. Loose faeces and damp straw make a sticky daub, which clings to surfaces, including the cows' coats, and makes it difficult to keep the cows clean." They continue that "faecal scoring would be a useful management skill for farmers, veterinary surgeons and nutritional advisors. The results from farm 1 showed that a score of 3 was achievable in lactating cows, but the average milk yield on this farm was only 5700 litres a year," which, VEGA observes, is below the national average of about 6000l - and some herds, organic included, are working towards 10-tonners (10 000l/yr) or even more.

The authors also observe that "high-yielding cows and recently-calved cows have a higher incidence of mastitis; 30% of cases occurred within one month of calving and 44% within 2 months. In this study the early-lactation cows were exposed to the greatest faecal challenge, and it is tempting to draw parallels between the incidence of clinical mastitis on these farms and their environmental data. Farm 1 managed to maintain clean cows and had little mastitis, whereas farms 2 and 3 had many more cases and the results from farm 4 were intermediate."

Farm 1 had a substantial arable area, which provided all the wheat straw for its needs. The straw was baled cylindrically and stored in stacks covered with plastic sheets. In a subsequent year the straw was harvested in particularly wet weather and storms damaged the plastic sheets.

Farm 2 purchased all its straw, mostly barley, in large rectangular bales weighing about 300kg. They were stored under cover. During the first year some cheap damp wheat straw was purchased occasionally, but in the second year the farmer bought barley and oat straw of better quality at higher cost.

Farm 3 purchased straw in large rectangular bales weighing about 300kg, which were stored under cover. During the first year good-quality barley-straw was used, but at the beginning of the second the farmer purchased cheaper bedding-type straw, "which tended to be coarse, discoloured, mouldy, and wadded. Difficulties in handling persuading the farmer to change back to good-quality barley straw."

Farm 4 grew most of its own barley straw, but the quantity was limited and some was harvested in wet weather. The straw was made into large rectangular bales weighing about 300kg, which were stored under cover.

VEGA notes that mouldy and dusty straw presents a hazard to the lungs and breathing of animals and stockpersons.

Mucky Milk and Manky Meat

The Meat Hygiene Service has been acting in the last year or two to prevent animals going for slaughter filthy and, with clagging weighing 10kg or more, carrying an extra load of muck into premises that serve the dual purposes of food-factory and latrine. The contamination also damages hides, so MHS vets have powers to turn away from slaughterhouses animals arriving at the premises with a high score of coated muck. VEGA is concerned about the fate of rejected animals. It is less likely nowadays that they can be taken away with any likelihood of acceptance at another slaughterhouse, but they need to be looked after. They may be kept in a strawed lairage for a while to get dry and less dirty, but then they may need feeding and watering. They can be shaved alive along the brisket just along the line of the post-slaughter saw cut. (VEGA is currently involved in the State Veterinary Service's audit of the MHS's variable performance on control of hygiene and animal welfare - for more information see our website).

This is unpopular with slaughterhouse staff who are in danger of powerful sideways kicks from cattle even when they are penned for the purpose. The whole process of splitting the carcase risks dispersal of fragments of spinal column and of particles likely to spread the risk of spongiform encephalopathies.

Mr Hugh Black, a dairy-farmer and "producer" of milk, has improved "cow-cleanliness" on his Herefordshire-based unit by "changing from straw cubicles to mats and fitting automatic scrapers. Before the changes "there was extensive pooling of urine and dung… Many cows had wet tails causing problems with cow cleanliness and mastitis." Cubicles were upgraded from straw bedding to mats and sawdust. "Sawdust is used to keep mats dry, while mats provide comfort. Cows are now visibly cleaner and somatic cell counts average 170 000 cells/ml with no more than 2 active cases of mastitis at one time." (VEGA reminds readers that the cell count represents debris shed from inflamed linings in the cow's udder - hardly "approved" fare for veggies).

"To minimise damage," Mr Hugh Black calves all his cows and heifers in straw yards at his Wharton bank Farm, "to provide a soft surface, which minimises pressure on their feet." "Damage" to hocks was also "a common problem when cows were housed on concrete cubicles bedded with straw. No matter how much straw was used, cows constantly kicked it off the bed into the scraping passage to reveal a hard surface," says Mr Black, who switched to cubicle mats last year for his herd of 170 cows. The "more comfortable" cows now suffer less: "hock damage and sole ulcers are no longer seen."

"The reason why cubicle cleanliness is so crucial is modern cows are 12 times more susceptible to infection," observes Roger Blowey, a vet famed for his knowledge of the dairy-job. "Cows have been bred for greater milk flow rates. This has doubled over the last 20 years, resulting in a larger teat-opening through which infection can gain entry." (Farmers Weekly, 29 March 2002).

Another common problem is milk leaking from teats on to cubicle beds and providing the perfect conditions for mastitis-causing bacteria to grow. Mr Blowey rates sand as an ideal bedding material as it is inert and doesn't support bacterial growth. Unfortunately few contractors are willing to handle slurry containing sand: it damages the machinery for disposing of the slurry.

Mr Blowey recommends maximising cow comfort around calving as "the secret to minimising cases of lameness during the first 3 months of lactation," the hoof being "more susceptible to infection and damage at calving." Most cases of lameness occur 2 to 3 months into lactation and are blamed on stress at peak milk production, but Mr Blowey states that "what is being observed may have happened about 2 months ago." It takes a couple of months for lesions occurring inside the foot to reach the weight-bearing surface of the foot and cause of sole ulcers. Mr Blowey believes that "the main cause of these ulcers is the pedal bone pinching the soft inner corium area of the foot on to the hard sole beneath. The corium can also be infected due to white line disorders. The white line is a cemented junction between the wall and sole of the hoof and is a point of weakness which allows infection to gain entry into the hoof."

Mr Blowey says that cows are more susceptible to foot damage at calving because horn growth is severely disrupted at this time, resulting in the sole becoming thin and the corium being at a greater risk of damage. "The ligaments supporting the bone in the hoof are also more relaxed in the last 2 weeks of gestation and first 4 weeks of lactation, increasing pinching of the corium by the pedal bone," states Mr Blowey.

The type of housing at calving will affect the incidence of lameness later in lactation. Mr Blowey condemns calving heifers outside and then bringing them into the herd on that same day: "they are transferred from an ideal soft surface on to hard concrete."

Assessing cubicles for comfort, Mr Blowey gives farmers this advice on their cows: "Do they look comfortable? Cows wriggling forward while lying down is a sign of poor comfort." He explains: "When cows stand half out of the cubicle with their back feet in the slurry passage it can be due to having open-fronted cubicles with cows on the other side. Cows prefer to have nothing in front of them." The automatic scrapers fitted at Wharton Bank Farm, clear passages every 2 hours directly into a slurry lagoon outside the housing area. Mr Blowey regards this as "crucial for controlling digital dermatitis." He adds that: "mixed urine and slurry presents a greater risk of digital dermatitis than unmixed. But cows must not be forced to walk through pools of scraped slurry deposited at the end of the building."


Farmers Weekly sums up precautions for reducing lameness as:
1. Hoof fragile around calving;
2. Calve on straw;
3. Train heifers in cubicles.

It is the year 2002. VEGA deplores the obvious need after all these centuries of farming and involvement by the veterinary profession of abuse inflicted on a food-producing animal kept in conditions of confinement, restriction, and filth that would arouse the RSPCA and attract litigation if an owner kept dogs or cats likewise. Farmers can't be surprised that their reputation is sullied, DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency have to be impressed by VEGA's insistence that farmers and owners and handlers of animals must be trained and appropriately licensed by a veterinary profession with much more commitment to its vows; and consumers must be prepared to pay more for according mercies that decency commands. Farmers and "producers" have to work hard to lose the cowboy sobriquet.The nation must ponder on the origins and sustainability of BSE and its consequences and the blunders that overtook the industry in the retribution of foot-and-mouth.

Mastitis, Milk and Misery

There have been no national surveys of the causes of clinical mastitis in cows in the UK in the past decade. Evidence that the pattern of disease has changed over the past 20 years has accumulated, indicating that Streptococcus uberis and other environmental pathogens, such as Escherichia coli have been "reported to be more prevalent than the contagious pathogens, for example Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus agalactiae, as causes of clinical mastitis in recent years."

To remedy this lack of hard evidence a veterinary survey by the Division of Farm Animal Medicine and Production, Department of Veterinary Clinical Studies, University of Glasgow Veterinary School, with vets from a practice in Tiverton, Devon, was mounted, the results of which have been recently described under the title Prevalence and Etiology of Clinical Mastitis on Dairy Farms in Devon. Pfizer Animal Health, a drug company, provided financial support.

Devon was chosen because it is "one of the 10 counties in Great Britain that has a density of more than 60 dairy cows per square mile." The report (Veterinary Record, 24 August 2002) yields many illustrative facts. The average herd size on the farms studied was 94 cows (range 30 to 346). Most (69%) of the herds were composed of Holstein Friesian cows; in a further 16% of herds there were mainly cows of this breed, with others, thus: pedigree Holstein, Ayrshire, Jersey, brown Swiss, Meuse-Rhine-Ijssel, and Simmental-Friesian cross. The remaining herds were British Friesian (9%), pedigree Holstein (4%), Guernsey (1%), and Ayrshire (1%). The survey was conducted between October 1999 to February 2001, that is, before the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. VEGA draws attention to some facts that the Countryside Alliance overlooks: the population of "British" cows looks as "British" as the exotic bugs they have acquired. Absence from the cows of native Devon breeds, once famous as sturdy dual-purpose cattle, can be explained by their segregation into a relatively small proportion of the less-intensified purely beef-producing herds.

Bacterial cell counts are much quoted in sales of milk and as indicators (with some reservations) of the prevalence of mastitic infections. In this investigation the median 3-month geometric mean bulk milk somatic cell count (BMSCC) for the herds during the study period was 142 000 cells/ml (range 70 000 to 300 000 cells/ml) (in sales of milk figures of over 150 000 cells/ml are liable to attract penalties; below the figure premiums may be collected). The median milk yield for the herds during the investigation was 8000 litres per cow per year (range 4750 l/yr to 12 500 l/yr). Most of lactating and dry cows were housed in cubicles bedded with straw or straw plus mattresses / mats.

The most prevalent bacteria isolated from 2257 samples of milk from 1657 cows on 130 dairy farms in Devon were S uberis (37%) enterobacteriae (which would include E coli) (23%) and coagulate-negative staphylococci (10%); others included Streptococcus dysgalactiae (4%), Staphylococcus aureus (3%) and various other bacterial species, including bacilli, Corynebacteria, Arcanobacter pyogenes, other streptococci, Prototheca, Enterococci, Pasteurella, yeasts, moulds, and mixed infections. A Devonshire cream tea will never taste the same again! There was sufficient information from 60 of the 130 farms to allow the herd incidence of clinical mastitis to be calculated. It varied from one to 73 cases per 100 cows per year. The median and mean number of cases for the farms were 13 and 17 cases per 100 cows per year, respectively. Analysis of various studies over the years puts this incidence on the low side and the between-herd variance is not unusual although it indicates how much depends on management, facilities, and breed. Earlier surveys have indicated an increased incidence of clinical mastitis during the winter period, but this was not replicated in the Devon study: "this may be due to the year-round calving patterns of the herds, as it is recognised that clinical mastitis is more common in cows within 30 days of calving."

The vets conclude the report of their study with the comment that the results "agree with the literature that environmental pathogens, including S uberis and coliforms, are now more commonly isolated from cases of clinical mastitis than contagious pathogens." VEGA comments that the whole subject needs scrutiny by scientists, animal welfarists, environmentalists, organics, and the pharmaceutical industry. It laments also another example of a survey reported from a veterinary school with no mention of the word welfare - for animals or for people who look after them. Productivity rules, OK?

Cows yielding 12 500 l/yr (i.e. 12.5 tonnes) are secreting annually milk weighing about 17 times their own bodyweight. And in that year of forced productivity they are producing and give birth to a calf. No wonder they "burn out" with "production disease" at an early age, perhaps surviving only 3 lactations and calvings; then they are rewarded by the care of vets pledged by their professional vows "to do the utmost for the wellbeing of the animals in their care" - which means culling.

A letter entitled Clinical Mastitis in British Dairy Herds in the same issue of the Veterinary Record by a vet of the Dairy Herd Health and Productivity Service, University of Edinburgh covers ground similar to the study relating to conditions in Devon. The author of the Scottish survey comments that "mastitis looks to be getting worse again after an apparent period of gradual progress."

Farming Factors

Recalling a year's farming on a 370 ha (915 acre) mixed farm in Oxfordshire, with the main enterprises involving 230 million cows and followers, 270 Mule ewes, 50 beef cross stores and winter wheat, barley, oats, and beans grown for the organic market, Miles Saunders described the summer as "reasonable and the hay was made in good weather. Plenty of silage was also made, although quality could have been better. Grain harvest was below average but the organic price held up well. Lambs are doing well now, averaging £50 each. Cows are improving their milk yield to average 25 litres/day and they seem to be holding in calf quite well at 61% to first service." (Farmers Weekly, 19 January 2001).

Needs must when the devil of price drives, and Miles Saunders is not daunted by warnings that the pressure on his cows, stockpersons, and facilities might be excessive. "The coming year should be exciting with the plan to increase the dairy to 300 cows. There are many hurdles to jump and the aim is to be in a position for efficient milk production for many years, hopefully producing organic milk. The prices are stable for a while, which should enable the capital costs to be recovered fairly quickly", he reports.

However, things weren't good on the dairy side (although not unusual, on many counts). "Over the past year there have been 35 cull cows, which represents 16% of the herd. Nine cows were culled because of fertility problems and another 9 for mastitis and high cell counts. Two cows went because of lameness and 4 others were casualties. One cow died of bloat, although there were some close shaves with 5 other cows. Five others were culled for yield, lying in the passage, and potential arthritis in 2 older cows."

This indictment of stockmanship suggests a performance and breakdowns at about the level of the transport industry's management of its buses and trains, which at least don't suffer pain nor brutal curtailments of those vaunted 5 Freedoms that the dairy industry recites to naïve enquirers after the truth in the activities of the cowboys. Among the other disasters of the year Miles Saunders reports that "the spring was capped by my wife leaving for pastures new."

Failing Fertility

Reasons for removals of cows from herds included in a survey of the fertility of dairy cows in Northern Ireland were "divided into 6 categories (infertility, lameness, locomotion / skeletal, mastitis / injury to teats or udder, other diseases / iilthrift / found dead, individual cow management problems, or general management decisions)", with further sub-divisions, such as "poor production and surplus to requirement" as examples in the last two categories (Veterinary Record, 8th June 2002).

Salient statistics from the survey are:

  • Mean rate of heat detection (assessed by the interheat interval during the main breeding season) in all the herds: 71% (range 53% to 92%)
  • Average conception rate to first insemination: 37.1 (21% to 66%)
  • Average calving interval for the retained cows: 407.2 days (range 359 to 448)
  • Infertility 27%
  • Culling rate of cows that calved: 28%

Of which these were the causes:

  • Lameness / locomotion / muscular / skeletal 14%
  • Mastitis / injury to teat or udder 9.5%
  • Other diseases / illthrift / found dead 7%
  • Individual cow management problems 14%
  • Overall general management decision 22%
  • Unknown 6.5%

Poor fertility is a major and increasing problem on diary farms throughout the UK and has been identified as the single most important problem in dairy herd management in Northern Ireland. In addition to the direct financial cost, estimated in 1998 at over £500 million per annum in the UK, infertility can increase management complexity as a result of the inability to achieve a compact calving pattern. This is a particular problem in seasonal production systems, in which compact block calving is vital for maximising milk production from grazed grass.

Declines in reproductive performance of dairy herds, measured as conception rate to first service, have increased worldwide: in the USA at a rate of 0.4% per year over the period 1973 to 1995; in the UK the comparable decline is about 1% per year over the last 20 years, falling from about 56% in 1975 to 40% between 1995 and 1998.

Reproductive performance is influenced by many factors, such as management practices and nutrition. The decline in fertility in the dairy cow has been associated with an increased genetic capacity for milk production achieved by replacement of the British Friesian by the North American Holstein. During the period of declining fertility, the percentage of Holstein genes in the UK dairy herd has increased from approximately zero in 1975 to about 80% in 1998. Similar experiences have been reported in the Netherlands. However the fall in herd fertility may depend on factors other than the increasing Holstein influence, because conception rates in non-lactating heifers in the USA have remained high (70 to 80%) during a period when milk production per cow has increased by 218%.

The survey in Northern Ireland accepts some evidence of a genetic effect in the declining herd fertility, but raises the importance of other factors, "for example, management changes such as increases in herd size, or the increases in negative energy balance in early lactation associated with higher milk yields and inadequate nutrient intake." Or, as VEGA would put it, bad husbandry. And opponents to GM might appreciate genetic manipulations for which animal welfarists have for years tried to enlist support for their objections.

We summarise below some of the salient features in the results obtained from the 19 herds in the Northern Ireland survey; we give mean values with some revealing ranges.

Milk Production Mean Range
Milk Yield (kg/cow) 3127 2,097-4,232
First 100 days
305-days 7,463 4,871-10,677
Milk Protein (%) 3.13 2.97-3.31
First 100 days
305-days 3.25 3.11-3.45
Milk Fat (%) 3.73 3.43-4.10
First 100 days
305-day 3.78 3.50-4.16

Milk from forage (kg in first 100 days)

2, 598 1,421-3,260

% Milk from forage (in first 100 days)

55.7 30.5-81.5


Stockmanship Factors
Mean Range
Labour units/ 100 cows 1.3 0.8-2.0
Labour units/ million litres 1.7 1.1-2.4
Stockmanship score 43.5 40.5-47.3
Veterinary costs (£/cow/year) 24 15-40

Stockmanship and veterinary costs were not related to the fertility performance, although there are doubts over the validity of these comparisons. The assessments of psychological suitability in the stockpersons could range from 18 to 72; in fact, the mediocre scores of 40.5 to 47.3 provide little contrast.

The conception rate of 37.1% to first AI was 37.1%, 16% less than the rate estimated from the 60-day non-return rate in the same herds. The rate of 37.1% is comparable with 40.9% reported in 1995 for herds in the USA and with 39.7% for 2000 in English herds.

The "removal rate" of 28% compares with 23.8% recorded in 1997, when infertility was noticed as the commonest reason for a removal of cows (36.5%). The authors of the Northern Ireland survey conclude that "at this stage the results show that acceptable levels of fertility can be achieved in herds with cows of high genetic merit, provided that estrus is directed efficiently, that the cows calve in moderate body condition, and that they are fed to minimize the loss of body condition after calving."

The study was conducted by scientists and vets at the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland, the Veterinary Sciences Division, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the School of Agriculture and Food Science, the Queen's University of Belfast, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and AI Services (NI) Ltd. The word welfare did not come into it, although vets were involved in it - unless the word was limited to the farmers' profits and comforts and to human customers insisting on plentiful supplies of cheap milk at a price extorted from the cows.

The Human Condition

A dialog published in the medical pages of the Sunday Times Style Magazine (02 June 2002) gives the question-and-answer view of mastitis, which "occurs when the infection enters the breast through cracked nipples. According to some studies, it is contracted by 25% of nursing mothers.

Q: How do you recognise it?

A: Classical signs are flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, fever chills, pain and a red lumpy area on the affected breast. If these occur, seek medical treatment immediately. Thank God I'm not having a baby then."

Customers, Consumers, and Kindness

With the title The Milk of Human Kindness: Is this what the consumer expects? Dr R. J. Esslemont and Dr M. A. Kossaibati, experts on the dairy industry, of the University of Reading, School of Agriculture, Policy, and Development, launched into an indictment of a blindness that besets farmers, consumers, and supposedly animal welfare organizations when the subject of the "white stuff" comes up. They were presenting their views at a conference of the British Society of Animal Science specially arranged at the University of Reading's Agriculture Department in September 2002 on the topic of Dairying: using science to meet consumers' needs.

They stated: "One imagines that the consumer consumes with ignorance. Dairy farming has a good image. The cows are outdoors, they are grazing, they lie down and cud, and appear to not even give you the time of day as you walk by. All must be well."

However, "milk is of course produced by the surviving [their emphasis] cows, and those animals that have not been able to cope with the system are culled earlier. What about the amount of culling of stock that it takes to produce milk? How many lactations does a cow normally produce? (they provide the answer: about 3). How many heifers has it taken to be born and to be reared to keep the herd going? (They answer this question too: 25% are "wasted" in the process). Many of the diseases suffered by a cow are invisible to the consumer. Luckily, thanks to firm conditions laid down about antibiotics and to pasteurisation, the consumer is unlikely to be poisoned. The amount of effort now required to get a cow pregnant and the waste involved in poor production is not obvious to the dairy buyer or the consumer. There are more thin cows around and a lot of cows are lame and have mastitis. The management of body condition by farmers and advisers seems one of the challenges now faced by the industry."

They continue: "Extra profit is gained per litre via the higher yields but only just, and who is paying the cost - the cow? The spreading of fixed costs by raising the litres produced per man by giving that man more high - yielding cows to look after may be the short term economic answer, but what about the mid- to long- term? More disease, poorer fertility, and more culling. The 'accounting' rules need changing: pain and suffering need to come into the equation. More attention needs to be taken of the social behaviour of cattle, particularly dealing with the effect of the early removal of the calf, group size, and the effect on the cow of changing group"(They cite the Farm Animal Welfare Council's latest annual report in this context).

"The consumer would be surprised to hear that the UK is practically the only country in Europe not to have a national disease monitoring system for its cows, nor does it have fertility improvement and disease resistance in its milk-recording and bull-proving ambitions." The experts go on to complain of "Third World" standards in the UK and to the UK's being "just 30 years behind the Scandinavians. We also need an independent, accurate, validated system that scores the farmers' husbandry. To be a livestock farmer, a licence should be necessary. The other side of that coin is for the provision of more training of stockmen". (How often VEGA has called for this and for what follows!)

What the discriminating consumer needs to know (or should know) is spelt out by these dairy experts as:

Rearing phase

  • Calf mortality
  • Abortion rate (and reason)
  • Calves slaughtered due to lack of market
  • Calves lost in rearing period (by age and reason up to calving date)
  • Incidence of dystokia (calving difficulties) (by size of calf and by breed of calf)
  • Proportion of those calved that themselves calve down
  • Age distribution at calving
  • Weight and height at first calving
  • Incidence of disease in rearing period (by age and type)

Calving in the herd

  • Dystokia (difficulty in giving birth), abortion, calf mortality
  • The incidence (in detail) of periparturient disease: milk fever, retained foetal membranes, endometritis, vulval discharge
  • The incidence of lameness and mastitis (by type and severity)
  • The degree of condition score loss post calving
  • Fertility indices: per cent served, interval to first service, heat detection rate, pregnancy rate, calving to conception, calving interval, failure-to-conceive culling rate, culling rate breakdown by reasons, age and whether forced or not

The scientists speak out for the introduction of compassion (their word) in dairy farming: "There is no good reason today why farmers and consumers should not see a pattern of improving health, welfare, and fertility in the national herd (instead of a deterioration). At present the average herd in the UK is (compared, not with perfection, but with a reasonable standard achieved by the top quartile) losing 4 pence per litre in extra cost and lost profit because of excessive culling, too much disease and deteriorating fertility. Both better management, in the short-term, brought about by a determined quality-assurance scheme (i.e. penalties for the pain inflicted, and lameness, mastitis, and premature culling all deliver unnecessary pain), and better breeding, in the long term is needed. This could be brought about by DEFRA, FAWC, MDC and the real new Government (the supermarkets) to deliver cost-effective outcomes. Everyone benefits. The farmer makes more profit (£3 for every £1 spent), the vet (more effective use of his time), and the cow (a longer, calmer, and more consumer-oriented life). The British Society for Animal Science seems to be the one organisation who can lock the right people in a room until they come up with a national dairy-cattle breeding scheme that puts UK dairy-farming into the first division. That way its members at last may be able to produce milk (and sleep) with clear consciences."

What a reproach this indictment from within the industry directs against all those self-styled animal welfarists and rightists who have prevaricated over these persistent evils and even become accomplices to them by buying into the assault on the cow! VEGA goes further than the experts by promoting alternatives produced from plants without exploitation of the cow. VEGA also - after all these years since 1976 when the vegetarian Green Plan for farming, food and health, and the land was launched - urges animal welfare organizations to engage in the opportunities now for fundamental reforms in farming policies. Just as customers and consumers they can act as critical and vociferous purchasers within the supermarket as effectively as demonstrators without. And farmers' demos outside supermarkets complaining of poor prices they are receiving show that they could be much better occupied by improving their stockmanship. (see The Costs of Poor Fertility and Disease in UK Dairy Herds by Drs Esslemont and Kossaibati, agricultural consultants, email Dick@DickEsslemont.co.uk, website www.dickesslemont.co.uk).

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