We have been milking cows here for most of the time during the last thirteen years, making use of the milk here on the farm. We use the milk directly with no embellishments just good old fashioned raw milk, then for cream, butter, yogurt, fromage frais, ice cream and of course cheese. Milk is an amazing food anyway you use it, but it gets bad press for many reasons and most of the reasons are simply ill informed nonsense.
But due to being asked a question by a reader of this site I want to concentrate on one of those issues and that’s the issue of cruelty to animals, the dairy industry is cruel to animals and we should all use milk alternatives. I would take a different approach to this issue and ask people to search for produce that is produced by people who hold themselves to a higher standard of animal and plant husbandry. You wont find a label for this and if you can find a label the principles behind that label will almost certainly be driven by someone’s desire to earn money from the labelling. I mean search for people in local markets that you trust and want to support in their efforts to do a better job of producing your food.
So how do we husband our cows to avoid the cruelty accusations thrown at the dairy industry?
Firstly lets look at diet, ruminants are foragers naturally their diet consists of grass, herbs and leaves and at some times of the year fruits, nuts and large seeds like chestnuts and acorns. Grains do not naturally make up much of their diet, so we avoid this issue by only feeding them their natural diet. This does not give us the industrial sized productivity boasted about in industrial agriculture, but nor does it produce the oversized udders you can witness in some articles you read, we also avoid the udder health issues reported. Our diet is enhanced with high quality dairy produce which has no comparison with industrially produced dairy products. Our products contain higher levels of amino 3 fatty acids and lower levels of amino 6 fatty acids associated with cancer.
Now we will look at reproduction artificial insemination gets bad press but it’s not as cut and dried an issue as some would like to make it, using a bull is our preferred method of reproduction but as small scale producers we don’t always have a bull on site. We do use artificial insemination when we need to, but cows do not object to this process in fact they stand as steadily for the insemination as they do for a bull, the process is quick efficient and mostly reliable once you learn to see the signs of a cows heat. Forced reproduction when drugs are used to bring a cow in to heat and then artificial insemination is used in a timely and industrially efficient manner is less kind and used excessively by industrial farmers. Annual calving is also not necessary many cows will give milk for for considerably longer than a year we have personally experienced as much 22 months of continuous milk production from one cow and consistently more than 18 months from most of our cows, this is less stressful for cows and reduces the overproduction of unwanted or unneeded calves.
Calves are often separated from their mothers within days of birth and this is one of animal rights campaigners biggest complaints about the dairy industry. We choose a gentler approach and a much less stressful approach to this issue, calves need to receive the first milk (colostrum) from their mothers to help support their immune systems and thrive in the early days of life. After the first milk is consumed by the calf we sometimes take some of it for storage in the freezer for emergency use with calves and lambs, then within a couple of days the cow will be producing more mike than one calf can consume. This is the point at which we start to take milk from the mother regularly once or twice a day every day but leaving enough for the calf to thrive and grow well. After four to six weeks the calf is eating grass or hay and would happily drink all its mothers milk, at this point we lock the calf away from its mother overnight and milk the mother in the morning for some of her milk but not all of it. This results in a couple of evening of distress for both mother and calf but both soon realise this is their new routine and settle in to it. After three months calves are separated from their mothers completely, females are kept for replacement stock or sold on to other producers, males are sent directly to the abattoir killed and butchered for local consumption. This produces the least stress for both cows and calves, note I’m not claiming no stress, for humans to eat something has to die, personally I would rather take responsibility for all my own food and know who and what has died to feed me. Pigs,sheep and poultry are all killed and butchered on site by ourselves and our students and then consumed by those people or sold for local consumption.
Milk it is claimed is not a natural food for humans and I’ve even read on vegan websites that calves over a year will die from consuming its own mothers milk, both of these statements are misinformed nonsense at best and out right lies at worst, that do little to help a vegan cause. Milk and in particular raw milk and all its associated products have been eaten by humans for millennia and it presents an important a sustainable source of quality nutrition for us all. As for the claim calves over a year will die from consumption of milk, try a search for information about suckling and self suckling cows and see the plethora of devices produce to stop adult cows from suckling from both themselves and their fellow herd members, we have an adult cow now three years of age who regularly suckle from one of our other cows.