Food and farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick has voiced cautious support for plans to establish an 8100-cow dairy herd in rural Lincolnshire.
Planning officials are just weeks away from deciding whether to give the go-ahead for the Nocton Dairies unit, eight miles south of Lincoln. If they do, milking could start as soon as this autumn, peaking at 250,000 litres a day.
Mr Fitzpatrick said he had been following the debate about the dairy with interest. It was impossible to deny that housing so many cows for months on end would impact on their quality of life, he said. But the dairy would also bring benefits.
“On the one hand people are saying that intensive farming and industrialisation on this scale militates against animal welfare. On the other hand, there are people saying – because of the attention the animals will get – it is good for animal welfare.”
Asked whether he thought the super dairy was a good idea, the vegetarian MP for Poplar and Canning Town said: “I am not in principle opposed to what Nocton is doing – I think I am probably 55-45 with Nocton.”
He added: “If as a society we want quality and volume of milk products, and we accept the principle that animals are being kept and being bred to produce food and nourishment for human beings, then there has to be a trade-off.”
Mr Fitzpatrick’s comments will dismay animal welfare campaigners. But they will boost supporters’ hopes that the dairy will get the go-ahead at a time when almost 100 MPs have signed a motion opposing the venture.
Some 93 signatories to the Early Day Motion include former DEFRA minister Elliot Morley. Retailers and dairy processors should not source milk from large-scale intensive dairy units where cows receive only minimal grazing, it states.
Cows are likely to produce extremely high milk yields – the major factor behind poor animal welfare, claims the motion. Rather than being housed indoors, cows should be farmed using pasture-based systems, it adds.
“The proposed unit is taking farming in the wrong direction,” states the motion. “The way forward lies in the use of healthy robust herds with lower milk yields but higher net margins for farmers.”
A planning permission decision for the dairy is expected to be announced by North Kesteven District Council in early May.