Guest post by Jason Smith. We need to get over the childish, Disneyfied view of farm animals as people with feelings and recognise that they exist to provide us with food. The more efficiently that is done, the better. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe large-scale farming will be at least as good for welfare as smaller farms, if not better.

I wrote an article some months ago on spiked about a campaign against a super-dairy planned for Nocton in Lincolnshire. A planning proposal for an 8,100 cow operation at Nocton Dairies was being considered by North Kesteven District Council. A campaign against the proposals was also getting underway, initially started by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and local residents who didn’t feel included in the decision-making process. Conservationist Bill Oddie, comedienne Jo Brand and actor William Roache (Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow) had signed up against the scheme. 

Since then the plan for Nocton has diminished in ambition and scale and now plans facilities for 3,770 dairy cows, an 80-cow milking parlour, and special care, maternity and isolation units. While this would still make it the biggest and most efficient dairy farm in the UK, the downscaling of the plans is an example of how today’s environmentalist groups hold back developments in the farming industry from which we would all otherwise benefit.

CIWF’s campaign manager Pat Thomas said: “Every child knows cows belong in fields. Hundreds of residents objected to the initial plans for a ‘mega-dairy’ earlier this year, but now that a re-submission of the plans is imminent, Compassion is encouraging the local communities to, once again, do all they can to contest the plans … If this huge dairy gets the go- ahead, there would be more cows kept indoors for most of their lives… It would also open the floodgates for similar factory farms all over the country”. 

The group Campaign Against Factory Farming Operations (CAFFO) says of large specialist farms, these “specialist unit(s) would be ‘specialist’ in nothing but inflicting an unprecedented amount of agony on thousands of animals at a time. Factory farming animals on this scale will guarantee nothing but a massive rise in levels of disease, infection and injury”. 

While it is true that the amount of time a farmer has to be concerned about the welfare of cattle is linked to how intensively he farms, it is the intensive farmer who is best able to prioritise welfare. The subsistence farmer in Africa is so caught up in the trials of everyday survival that mostly he is unable to look after his own wellbeing. His animals are more likely to be diseased, produce sub-standard meat and less nutritious milk. 

A standard-size British dairy farm with around 120 cattle will fare much better. The farmer can look after the herd because it is small enough an operation for him to notice any problems with individual cows, even if the herd is mostly a one-man operation. However, financially he is unable to invest in the latest technology. He cannot grow his herd because that would require more labour to handle them. His business is less able to take advantage of efficiency savings because his turnover is too low. Vets fees are a big concern for him and, like any frugal businessman, he must limit such expensive utility bills.

By contrast, the factory farm has dedicated full-time vets, is able to benefit from the latest scientific research and can become ever more efficient in its operations. The larger the farm, the more developed the division of labour; having specialist slurry removal and housing managers, for instance. This means that animal welfare is planned and organised on an industrial scale. There is much less room for unexpected problems occurring because looking after the health of the animals is built into the farm’s operation to a degree unimaginable by the subsistence farmer in Africa. The amount of specialist knowledge and research available to farmers increases as the size of their operation increases. The very largest farms are also the farms with the healthiest, best looked after livestock. 

While it is true that all farmers benefit from new developments at the top end of the industry, the small farmer has much less capacity to implement such research. He is less likely to hear about new techniques and less able to afford to try them out even if he has. More efficient operations are likely to have staff dedicated to keeping abreast of new ideas. 

In the United States, for example, most dairy farms are required to develop nutrient management plans to help balance the flow of nutrients and reduce the risks of environmental pollution. These plans encourage producers to monitor feed, forage, animals and fertiliser coming onto the farm and the products, crop, animals, manure and so on leaving the farm. A precision approach to animal feeding results in less overfeeding of nutrients and a subsequent decrease in environmental excretion, such as phosphorus.

In recent years, nutritionists have realised that requirements for phosphorus are much lower than previously thought. These changes have allowed dairy producers to reduce the amount of phosphorus being fed to their cows with a reduction in environmental pollution. Such schemes are more easily implemented on efficient, modern farms. The small farmer is more likely to view schemes such as this as just more bureaucracy, for which he has no time.

The notion that ‘cows belong in fields’ comes from the same set of ideas that lead supermarkets to put a picture of a farmer on meat packaging. He’s leaning on a farm gate surrounded by happy cows, it’s summer and the sun is shining. Factory farming conjures images of big business, evil corporations who care only about profits. We need the picture of the farmer to assure us of our ethical righteousness. We are prejudiced against factory farming because of juvenile anthropormophism. The sentiment behind this prejudice – ‘Surely cows shouldn’t be kept indoors with no natural light for months on end? I’d be miserable if they did that to me!’ – is understandable but misguided. 

If keeping cows indoors affected their emotional state then it is also likely that milk yields would be affected. Factory farming would not have become the most productive and efficient way of producing milk. Observation of large groups of cows in the US at Central Sands Fairy in Wisconsin has shown that large groups are less affected by social consistency than small ones. In small groups of cows (less than 100), changes in the makeup of the group appear to have a big impact on the cows, and this is shown by a fall in their milk yields as they struggle to adjust to new social orders. In groups of over 200, little impact on milk yield has emerged. 

Common diseases that affect cattle are also better prevented in larger herds, the ‘closed herd’ system acts as a quarantine for diseases which might otherwise be picked up from neighbouring farms or from badgers. Milking machine teats can be decontaminated more systematically to prevent mastitis.  Factory farmers are more likely to be able to afford the services of a qualified, registered foot trimmer to prevent lameness, the most common ailment to effect dairy cows.

Prejudice against factory farming needs addressing. Small-scale farming is inefficient and, despite popular belief, no better for animal welfare than larger units. We cannot continue to view the countryside, farmers or livestock in a sentimental way. Large-scale farms like the one still planned for Nocton in Lincolnshire are not, as Zac Goldsmith has said, “squalid” and “take farming to a new low”, rather they are the future of the industry. Without efficient, modern and profitable operations like the one planned for Nocton, farming in the UK faces becoming a lifestyle choice, a hobby, rather than being about feeding the planet.

Jason Smith is convenor of Birmingham Salon

See: In defence of factory farming (Spiked)

Also: Protesters hand over petition against ‘mega dairy’  (BBC)

First published on The Free Society.