Thursday, 4 January 2018

Much Ado About Dairying

The domestication of cattle occurred around 20,000 years ago.  Humans learned how to make the exploitation of other living creatures more efficient by keeping them in captivity.  The growing of grains, fruit, vegetables and the keeping of livestock opened up a whole new range of possibilities for production of surplus and trade which laid the economic foundations of the global phallocracy – but that’s another story.

To be able to colonise the colder regions of the planet, early humans had to have clothing to protect them and foods that could be stored through the seasons when plants could not produce.  In areas where building materials were scarce they needed shelter.  Animals provided all of those.

The vagaries and the dangers of the hunt and the gathering of natural foodstuffs were replaced by the relative certainty and safety of the settlement and agriculture and animal husbandry. Subsistence farmers always hunted and gathered to supplement what they could grow and raise.  The trapping of birds and mammals, catching fish, gathering wild fruits, roots and berries provided essential supplements to early agriculture, ensuring a wider variety of nutrient rich foods as well as a buffer against domestic animal deaths and/or crop failures.

This continued right through until the emergence of forms of social organisation that extended the notion of private property into the commons and denied people their traditional rights to hunt and gather.

Central to many societies was the cow - raised for its meat, milk, skins – and when neutered, used as a beast of burden. Humans learned to breed their domestic animals for certain physical characteristics – and most importantly – for tractability.  An animal too attuned to the call of the wild is dangerous to its handlers and disruptive of the herd.

Traditionally in our culture the cow has given up the milk intended for her young to be used by us as a drink and to make cheese, butter and yoghurt. Her male young and any unwanted females have been raised to varying ages to be killed for meat and other products such as leather and gelatine. 

Because the male or bobby calves are not wanted – any that are full dairy i.e. sired by a dairy breed bull – are killed before they’re a week old.  Some are killed at birth. Producers who put their dairy cows to a beef bull – e.g. Angus or Hereford - will feed the calves for a few weeks and sell both neutered males and heifers to be raised for veal or beef.  

Veal production involves keeping calves locked up so they do not develop strong muscles, and killing them very young.  Traditionally, beef production involved feeding a cattle beast until aged 4-6 years before slaughter and hanging the carcass for 3 weeks or so before butchering. These days most beef sold in supermarkets is from immature beasts – aged 14-18 months - i.e. slaughtered well before they are fully grown and not hung for very long before being butchered.

Dairying has changed out of all recognition in the past few decades.  People who could afford a cow would sometimes also keep the calf at foot – allowing it to suckle until old enough to be weaned. They’d take what milk they needed and maybe sell some to neighbours. Some farmers would keep a small herd and sell milk locally. 

As all dairy products go off very quickly unless kept cool, it was with reliable refrigeration that dairying began to grow in scale. It took off into the industrialised, intensive and large-scale process we see today with another sea change in production – the increase in the production of infant formula and of processed foods using milk solids as a filler and protein booster. 

New Zealand went from an economy geared to the needs of the British consumer to catering to the needs of a global market in milk solids. 95% of milk produced here is exported, most of in the form of powder. 

Despite being contributors to the infrastructure that enables large-scale milk production, NZ consumers of dairy products pay international prices – often paying as much for milk, butter, cheese etc as a person buying the same product in Australia or the UK.

Dairying contributes to the NZ economy but most of the money generated by it goes into the pockets of a relatively small number of people domestically; to the overseas banks which hold the milk producers’ mortgages, and to the overseas companies which produce most of the equipment – the tractors, trucks, pumps, irrigators, milking machines, and the vast array of chemicals on which the industry is almost wholly dependent – the artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and anthelmintics.

Apart from how much of the money generated goes into private pockets and overseas – there are the environmental costs, the true scale of which are not calculated or made public let alone be factored into the industry’s production costs – and most of which are, or will be socialised, i.e. paid for out of the public purse.

Like all of the boom industries – from cocksfoot seed production through wool, lamb, apples, kiwi fruit, wine – dairying will reach peak exploitation and crash, leaving behind it a landscape altered to a  greater degree than its get rich quick predecessors.

Look at any dairy conversion – to the untutored eye it looks idyllic, an animal paradise – lots of mates, a once a day trip to the milking shed and the rest of the time chilling out eating emerald green grass and clover.

What’s not to like?

Just about all of it in truth.  There is the inherent cruelty in the process. We take the milk a calf would otherwise drink - the calf is the means to the end of the milk – and very often is surplus to requirements so is killed at, or very close to birth. The same happens with goats in case people haven’t thought about it. All farm animals are taken away from their mothers at some point but only the young of animals used for milk production are removed at or close to birth.

Supporters of modern dairying will tell you the cows don’t really care or repeat stories of cows that attack their own calves.  There are loads of myths and misconceptions to justify what is an inherently cruel process that has been made much worse by being industrialised.

The oldest recorded cow was 48 years old when she died and in good living conditions, a range fed cow should live to 20 or more.  A modern dairy cow is doing well if she makes 9. 

Under natural conditions, calves stay with their mother until weaning at 8 to 11 months.  Beef calves raised by their mothers suckle an average of 5 to 6 times every 24 hours.  A cow will naturally wean her calf gradually at between 8 and 11 months, but she will continue to interact with her offspring, choosing them to graze and groom with for several years. 

Cows have powerful maternal drives – my Dad always told us never get between a cow and her calf as she’s more dangerous than a bull – but they also learn how to be mothers from being mothered themselves and from watching older more experienced cows with their offspring. 

Most modern dairy cows are not mothered; they are removed at birth and raised on the bottle; and they never get to bond with their own offspring. Is it any wonder that some view their offspring as something alien?

We have been selectively breeding – both for increased milk production and for tractability and reduced maternal drive – for generations.  Any cow with a powerful maternal drive may be a danger to the people who want to take her newborn away from her – and – because animals feel others’ stress and anger and will learn from each other – may disrupt the herd. Chances are such an animal will be culled. If they are very good producers they may be dealt to with cattle prods until their production drops off and it’s economic to send them to slaughter.

Cows are naturally migratory; they would move across grazing land away from their own droppings; they would not naturally congregate for long periods on riparian grasses – water holes are where predators also go to drink and hunt.

They would graze and browse a wide range of vegetation. IF able to, a cow will browse tress and shrubs and even such hard foliage as flaxes and cabbage trees, ie they will choose high fibre, low sugar alternatives to the soft, water and sugar rich production grasses and legumes they are mostly forced to eat on dairy units.

Such an unnatural diet is why dairy cows often shit green water.  A healthy cow pat from an animal which can choose what it eats is very different from the diarrhoea that comes out the rear end of many – if not most - dairy cows.

There is a metabolic price paid for that digestive imbalance and for breeding for unnaturally high milk production. The cow progressively loses body condition – to the point of literal emaciation.  Most NZ dairy cows I have seen lack body fat and – more worryingly – a great many lack skeletal muscle. 

A beef cow’s udder is high up between her back legs; it is relatively small and the calf will suckle every 4 to 5 hours meaning the udder does not get distended.  

The huge, low-slung udder of the dairy cow makes it hard for a calf to suckle easily even it were allowed to but it is easier for the producer to milk mechanically - and it can carry vastly greater quantities.  

Milking just once a day means the udder can get painfully distended and heavy. The bulk and weight of the full udder makes the cow move unnaturally – forcing her body weight out onto the outer claw of her hind hooves and creating muscle-skeletal imbalances in the hind limbs and pelvis.  The cow may be at risk of a metabolically induced laminitis because of her diet and relative immobility, and the distended udder can result in an added mechanical stress on the laminar structures of the outer claw of the hind hooves which will not be well conditioned to moving on hard terrain.

Finally, there’s the loss of shade and shelter to facilitate the giant central pivots that pour vast amounts of mainly groundwater onto artificially fertilised pastures - and flush vast amounts of nitrates and faecal coliforms into over ground and underground water systems.

Watch any animal on a hot day – they will seek shade if they can find it; ditto for shelter on a cold windy or wet day.  Dairy cows more often than not are denied both shade and shelter. The stress of over heating in summer, and from loss of body heat in winter must add to the strains on the animal’s metabolism.

Bottom line is there’s not much to like about modern intensive dairying.  

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