28 March 2000
Dairy crisis hits cow welfare

ONE in five dairy cows is suffering from over-work as cash-strapped farmers push them ever-harder to produce more milk, claims a leading vet.

Exhaustion and emaciation are the price the animals pay for producing up to 80 pints of milk a day, says Professor John Webster of the University of Bath veterinary school.

To achieve such output, this “ultimate exploited mother” needs a high-quality diet, and when this is unavailable, its health starts to suffer.

Based on recent research on lameness, Prof Webster estimates that 20% of dairy cows in Britain could be affected.

A system which rewards good welfare instead of pushing farmers to produce ever-cheaper milk is needed to tackle this problem, he says.

“Farmers are under severe pressure, and when farmers are under pressure, it is cows which essentially pay,” Prof Webster told the Radio 4 Farming Today programme.

“I would hugely applaud any system that rewarded farmers for increasing the tender loving care to their cows, and so would farmers. Theyd be delighted.”

Prof Webster says everybody could be a winner if this strategy were followed, and called for supermarkets to consider it.

The public would get higher welfare standards, supermarkets could sell higher-welfare products, farmers would no longer have to squeeze out “dirt-cheap milk” and cows would have better lives.

Farmgate prices have fallen to their lowest for 30 years in real terms, while supermarket prices have remained steady.

Lancashire dairy farmer John Loftus, who heads the Federation of Milk Producers, admitted the current slump would ultimately affect welfare.

“Those under serious pressure will have to cut corners to decide which bill you can afford to pay. The pressure on the farm will eventually get through to the cattle as well.”

Farming Today conducted a straw poll asking supermarkets if they would force their processors pay farmers more for milk.

Tesco and Sainsburys said they had no plans to change amount suppliers get, Asda said it would not accept a fall in the amount farmers receive and Waitrose said it would give the same price to farmers until the end of April.