There is a lot of variation in the way milk is produced and a lot of negative press coverage about dairy farming. The life of a dairy farmer is very tough and more so during recent years, due to a global excess of milk supplies, super market price wars and increased livestock animal feed prices. Our part as the consumer is to recognise good farming practices and support those farmers to protect our dairy industry. In this post I focus on organic dairy specifically. Buying organic milk is the easiest way to be sure that you are buying a higher standard of milk.
Let’s be honest milk is cheap, in most cases too cheap, it is a product we should value more. Organic milk is much better value when considering the quality of the product and cheaper than a lot of bottled water! At around £0.81 per litre (based on 4 pints).
Organic milk accounts for around 5% of all milk sold in the UK with 1 in 4 homes buying some organic. All large supermarkets offer an organic milk option. Switching to organic milk would cost the average family of four just £1 a week.
Remember dairy is all products made from milk; cheese, butter, yogurt etc. The same applies choose organic. The same also applies to goats and sheeps milk, it is all mass produced.
Organic dairy is the premium standard, with farmers commiting to follow and be inspected according to strict guidelines concerning all aspects of production. Think of it as a guaranteed standard. There are several different organic standards in the UK but all fall under EU organic standards as a minimum. In this post information is from the organic standard set by the Soil association.
What makes organic different?
- Free range – By law, cows must be at pasture whenever conditions allow, over 200 days on average
- Fewer pesticides & no artificial fertilisers used on pasture
- Cows fed a grass-rich, GM free diet (minimum 60% grass-based)
- Routine antibiotic usage banned
- More consideration for the calf, to create milk a cow has a calf once a year.
- Highest levels of nutrients, e.g. Omega 3 fatty acids
- Higher wildlife benefits
- Average yields in organic milk production are around 20% less than in intensive production. A more natural rate of milk production. A system designed not to push the cow to their milk producing limits
- Cows get more time in a natural environment, outdoors, eating grass
The differences in more detail:
Truly free range, organic cows spend much of their lives outdoors where they can graze naturally on a diet of grass and clover. On average, organic cows spend, 215 days per year outside, which is more time outdoors grazing than the average amount of time spent outdoor grazing by ‘free-range’ cows.
Keeping cows indoors all their lives, is banned under organic standards. When they go indoors because of bad weather, all cows must be housed in well-bedded spacious yards.
Organic through and through, organic dairy cows eat a 100% organic diet. Soil Association farmers must always feed their cattle at least 60% fresh or dried fodder, roughage or silage on a daily basis. Most non-organic British chickens, pigs and cows are fed with imported GM crops. GM animal feed is banned under organic standards.
No routine use of antibiotics, Use of antibiotics remains more than twice as high in animals as humans. Soil Association standards ban the routine use of antibiotics and organic, free-range systems encourage healthy animals avoiding the preventative use of antibiotics. The use of growth hormones to increase milk production is banned in the European Union, and organic farmers are permitted only to treat animals with antibiotics when they are actually sick, not as a routine, preventative measure. We also know that high welfare, pasture based systems have reduced rates of infection and so less need for antibiotics in the first place.
A better life from birth Soil Association standards have never allowed the sale of calves to continental style veal systems, and since 2010 our standards have specified that licensees must have a plan to end the practice of culling new born male calves.
Dairy calves There are some practices that are inherent aspects of dairy farming. For instance, while under normal circumstances a calf would never be removed from its mother immediately after it is born, it is true that calves and cows are separated. This is normal practice across the dairy industry in order that milk is available for us to drink.
Organic dairy calves are always kept in groups after their first week, outside when conditions allow and always with good housing and bedding. Organic farmers are permitted to house calves individually for the first seven days, provided they are able to see and hear other calves. Contented, healthy calves need companions, a healthy environment and plenty of milk, and our standards guarantee that these needs are met. Organic farmers feed their calves plenty of organic milk – preferably from their mothers – or use ‘nanny cows’ to suckle calves until they are weaned. Soil Association standards prohibit farmers from weaning calves until they are at least 12 weeks old.
Dairy farmers are often faced with a dilemma about what to do with male calves, as they cannot be used for milk production. Some dairy breeds, such as British Friesians, can also produce meat, which means that they can be reared for beef production.
Unfortunately, killing male dairy cows is something that happens on both organic and non-organic dairy farms, but it raises difficult ethical concerns. The Soil Association has long discouraged this practice, and we want to see an end to the unnecessary slaughter of male dairy calves.
CIWF have a very good page about buying dairy – https://www.ciwf.org.uk/your-food/dairy
Parting thoughts – regardless of the dairy you choose there are a few important things everyone should know and think about:
- Drinking milk is not natural or necessary. We don’t need to drink milk or give milk to our children for health reasons. See https://wp.me/p7RDjy-77. Milk is naturally intended for babies, human milk for baby humans and cows milk for baby calves. All of us are weaned from milk when we can digest solid food.
- For humans to consume another animals milk in most cases cows, the cow has to have a calf. This calf becomes a byproduct.
- A dairy cow has a calf a year, her gestation period is 283 days, meaning that she is pregnant 78% of her adult life, and milked whilst she is pregnant. At the rate cows are milked in modern systems, this is considered equivalent to running a marathon on a daily basis.
- There are currently three main methods of milk production; organic, free range and intensive (mega or zero grazing dairies). Free range milk labelling is on the increase so consumers will have further choice. I will write a separate post on this.
- Good alternative dairy products are available, for example read https://wp.me/p7RDjy-8U and https://wp.me/p7RDjy-8Y