The conundrum of the caring dairy farmer

Recently I posted my thoughts about the dairy industry in “OK, so I’m off dairy too“. This exposed what I’d learned as part of my recent journey of discovery about what our modern food choices mean. In the case of dairy I really was surprised as I’d always thought of it as a rather benign industry – after all, what could be wrong with raising cows on nice farms where they are milked with care and consideration? Well, it seems I was mistaken – it isn’t all sweetness and light.

Since I wrote that blog post, I’ve engaged in online debate/discussion with several dairy farmers and in all cases I’ve encountered a strong sense of pride in the compassion, care and love with which dairy farmers approach their role. Like any industry there are the “bad eggs”, but on the whole, I am assured, most dairy farmers are good people.

And you know what? I think they are. All of those I have spoken with are thoughtful, decent, genuine and hard-working people who it seems truly believe that what they do is an essential and deeply beneficial element in the fabric of our society. And in a real sense, of course, that’s true.

So how do I square what I wrote in that earlier post with what I have found about the farmers themselves? How is it that people can engage in a business whose very nature requires the exploitation, harm and ultimately death of those upon whom it depends, and yet argue that they are providing an essential service whose hallmarks are care, compassion, love and a deep integrity in ensuring healthy and honourable outcomes?

I think the answer is simple. Dairy farmers, just like pretty much everyone else, are convinced that we HAVE to eat animals to survive. Our erstwhile dairy farmers – decent, hard-working and caring people – operate under what I believe is a complete misapprehension about modern life and natural needs. If a dairy farmer truly believes that milk is an essential and critical part of our diet, he (or she) he can more easily accept the cost of dairying as an unfortunate but necessary cost. Indeed, as a compassionate person, he will ensure that he gives his animals the best care possible, and he will convince himself that what suffering happens is transient, is in some way not especially meaningful. And he will similarly look on his charges rather like missionaries once looked upon native peoples – as simple folk who cannot understand the deeper importance of his own purpose and behaviour.

So I think there’s a certain commonly held Weltanschauung at play. As a society, we simply have held in mind the notion that we are caught up in a natural system beyond our control, a system we simply must participate in. Perhaps it is rooted in some masculine attitude to the world – after all, carnivores appear more alpha than herbivores, and it seems somehow less powerful to identify with peaceful beings than the dominant beings. All other animals fear the carnivore…

As I’ve said elsewhere, once you actually get past that perspective, once you think about things with a different set of parameters, it completely transforms what you believe. Am I right to suggest that this new outlook is more true to our shared ideals of moral or noble behaviour developed through the process of civilisation? Yes, I think so, and so too it seems do more and more people all over the world.

Perhaps if a dairy farmer were seriously open to giving this question honest consideration, he may change his mind. Here is someone who did indeed do just that:

M Edward King who you see in this video, says this about his choice to live a more compassionate lifestyle:

“These songs and poems began around forty years ago when I was a child growing up on a small beef and dairy farm in the north of England. I had such close contact with the cows and calves that I knew them better than I knew the children at school. Every time those trusting animals had their calves taken from them (so that we could sell their milk), and every time they were sent to the slaughter house (so that people could eat their flesh), my whole spirit cried out: “why did God make a world where this has to happen?”

…The best news of all was that I had the choice of stepping clean out of it, so in the twenty third year of my life I became a vegetarian – for life.

…no person with any sense of ethics or conscience can continue to eat their fellow beings, nor fail to cry out on behalf of those billions of innocent creatures who cannot defend themselves, and whose death cries are so carefully hidden away from all human hearing.”

And here are some more people who’ve turned their back on farming in exchange for a more inclusive and compassionate approach to living:

Of course, we need to be careful here not to overly romanticise our place in nature. Nature IS cruel, and life consumes life. Those people who find themselves in harsh or testing environments, for whom eating an animal is necessary to meet their nutritional and sustenance needs, really do need to do so. We should shed no tears for those animals thus eaten. This is life. I talk here rather about our choice to eat animals in any modern industrialised nation. Because in such places we have the luxury to choose, exactly as all those who argue against veganism defend their decision to eat animals. It is my choice, they chorus in thoughtless union. But such choices have consequences, and our responsibility as the moral beings we claim to be should surely be to consider those consequences according to our moral conscience. If we can survive and prosper on a plant-based diet, then why would we not? And make no mistake, we CAN.

Returning to our dairy farmers then. I have previously written of the harm that dairy visits upon the gentle animals it so exploits. This much I think is true and incontestable:

  • Dairy cows exist for our benefit only – we take from them any intrinsic right to a natural life. They exist only because we create them.
  • Dairy cows must give birth every 12-18 months to ensure adequate supply of high quality milk. They get no choice in this. Mother and calf are usually separated very quickly. This is for perfectly sound reasons, however these are artificial reasons generated by the actual situation. It should be clear to all that no dairy cow evolved to be separated from her calf a few hours after birth and this does cause stress to both cow and calf.
  • Frequent calving is of course a significant strain on the animal, but worse, not all of the calves will live for any length of time. I haven’t been able to uncover the correct figures, but at a guess perhaps as many as one half of all calves born will be killed within six months. Industry figures put total calf slaughter numbers at around 4-500,000 per year and the majority die within their first few weeks of life.
  • The veal industry exists because of the dairy industry. Many thousands of calves are slaughtered by 6 months of age to supply veal.
  • Some calves are simply slaughtered immediately as waste. This can be done on farm, perhaps as many as 50,000 calves per year. The balance are transported to slaughter at around 1 week of age. Their body parts are used in low value products and hence they aren’t worth a lot.
  • Cows themselves do not often live long lives despite the protestations of dairy farmers. On average, a dairy cow will live to around 5-8 years of age in Australia.
  • Many cows are “culled” from herds as part of herd management strategies. Around 60-70,000 cows are culled each year.
  • Dairy cows can be subject to a range of negative health outcomes such as lameness, Johne’s disease and mastitis. In some cases this can lead to a cow being culled from the herd. Most farmers will of course provide what treatment they can to ill cows and so they are not simply left to suffer. However, we should note that despite the claims that this is kinder than how they might fare in nature, not one of these cows would suffer anything at all if it weren’t for dairy, for the simple reason that they would not exist. This is not a situation where if not for farmers, the national dairy herd would always have existed, wandering the Aussie bush.

By any measure, this is a great harm. This industry harms, causes to suffer, and kills, well over one million animals every year. Dairy farmers appear unwilling to properly confront this, at least not in my experience. They prefer instead to dissemble, to deflect and to quite simply ignore such facts. I have for example asked a dairy farmer to estimate the average age at death of her herd, yet she could not answer this.

Another farmer attempts to deflect us from this question by highlighting the experience of a cow in her herd. Here we learn that Cheeky Girl might live to be 14 years of age.
The Life of the Dairy Cow

Again on another blog, a dairy farmer encourages more of this kind of comfortable thinking:

I have sought to nail down this question of age at death, but so far unsuccessfully. I do know that cows are culled from herds (the current Year to Date number of cows culled in Australia is some 79,000), and I do know that farmers sell off their cattle as cash flow issues arise. I also learned from research that the average age at death for Australian dairy cows is around 8 years. So, do dairy cows live long and happy lives, on average? I suspect not.

Farmers also appear unwilling to address either the bobby calf issue, or the vealer calf issue. Of the several I have asked about this, all deny being part of the veal industry. One even went so far as to claim his male calves live out their lives in a paddock. That might be possible if his herd is just 10 cows, but I smell a rat on this claim more generally when we consider the numbers I quoted above. perhaps 500,000 calves killed annually, a proportion of which go to veal. Here is some insight into veal:

Note especially these words:
“In the dairy industry, basically you’re milking Friesian cows and Friesian cows, when they have a calf, it’s got a 50 per cent chance of being a Friesian bull. And they haven’t had a lot of value to the dairy or beef industry in the past, so we’re kind of value adding something which had very little value. ”

“Dairies usually send the calves to slaughter when they’re only days or weeks old. Because there is so little meat on them, they’re not worth much. ”

“So, what was happening to these calves before we started the veal was that within a week or two they were discarded or (puts finger to his temple in shape of a gun and clicks tongue to indicate the calves being slaughtered) whatever and suddenly we were grabbing these rejects in those days, worth a lot of money these days, and turning them into animals that led a very, very full and longer life than normally was noticed. ”

How much genuine care, love and compassion can we read into these words? For me, there is precious little indeed. I’m hearing resource, object, product, not a living being. No babies here, ma’am. Just these worthless rejects that I can make money out of now.

So my question then is simple. When dairy farmers tell us of their love for their animals, when they tell us what a noble industry they partake of, when they suggest that there may just be a few bad eggs but really the majority are all compassionate people, what am I to make of the reality I soon find?

What do I do with the fact that dairy is unnecessary to us but is rather more of a pleasure?

What do I think when I hear of the huge numbers of animals killed, those babies discarded as waste? And remember the greyhound industry in NSW is in danger of being closed down for its poor treatment of a tiny fraction as many animals.

How do I reconcile what I have seen first hand – the everyday hardworking decent Australians who farm dairy cattle – with the kinds of attitudes displayed in that Landline article?

Well, I think for me it shows that when it comes to our food choices, we have simply lost sight of a simple fact. We don’t need to eat animals. They are conscious, sentient beings who feel their world in ways not that dissimilar from us. When we farm them, we are not naturally taking from our world as we need. Rather, we have created an artificial, mass production process of harm. We create our farmed animals to harm them, and we have no need to do so.

For me, this is a question worthy of deep moral consideration. As long as we bury our heads in the sand on this matter, I believe we are contributing to a very real decay in our ability as a society to move forward, to forge a moral landscape in which we, and our fellow animals, achieve some kind of identity that reflects our intrinsic worth as beings in this world. We cannot change how other animals see themselves and behave to each other, but we can change ourselves. We CAN be the change we want to see in the world.

Sam Harris, a well known neuroscientist, suggests that the domain of scientific fact, of rational inquiry, should no longer stand apart from our moral considerations. In his view, we should rather let facts as we have uncovered them guide us in our quest to be more moral beings. And he believes that we are in danger of losing our way morally.

I think when it comes to the issue of farming animals, he is right. How can we stand by and create over 600 million animals a year in Australia alone, the vast majority of which will suffer and die after short lives, for little more than the tickle of our palate? What kind of beings are we, when we reduce other beings to the torn flesh on our plates? How deeply ethical can we consider ourselves when other lives are lauded not for their own value, but for the value they bring to the producers who pride themselves on their ability to take those lives from paddock to plate by increasingly harmful and compassionless ways?

Sam suggests that we might better find our way were we to observe a simple axiom: if it hurts, don’t do it. Over 2000 years ago, someone else coined a similar phrase, one which holds the same power today as it did then. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In my world, this simple moral principle should be extended beyond our human companions to those other beings who share our world. We are the first beings to stand on this planet with the capacity to change all that we see. Is there no imperative upon us to think about how we do that?

Dairy farmers are good people, I believe, but like most of us I think they are hopelessly tied to an outdated notion, mired in an evolutionary past we have left behind. I only wish that more of them could take the step to reconsidering just what they are part of, to think more about what they do and how they do it. But perhaps it’s a step too far.

What they may not do, I can and will. I no longer eat or drink dairy products. I ask you all who read this to think about it and choose the same. And just maybe, one day a calf will not be taken from his mother to die for his pale flesh, a cow will not die young because she has given her all to flavour our coffee, and the blood of almost a million living beings will not be washed into the sluices of our abattoirs every year just because we wanted their milk…

Postscript: Something I should add here is that in Australia we are lucky that our dairy industry is still largely the province of family operators. Overseas, massively industrialised operations have reduced dairying to another production line process in which the animals suffer greatly. On farms with thousands of animals, the kinds of personal care we see here in Australia is simply not possible. Veal calves are treated abominably in some countries, and while their lot in Australia is not exactly wonderful, it is at least a magnitude of degree better. Aussie dairy farmers on the whole do care for their animals as best they can within the context of their industry and they do mostly make life tolerable for the cows in their herds. For that I am, as I said above, thankful.