Response to a Vegan

My friend Louisa recently wrote this post following her conversation with a vegan friend.  Her conversation made her think about farming, particularly influenced, as she was at the time, by her pregnancy.  She asked me for my point of view as someone in the dairy profession.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been faced with vegetarian or vegan ideas telling me that dairy is bad, cruel and inhumane.  A vegan has chosen to eschew all animal products so as not to set themselves above another living animal or use it for food.  That is their choice.  I on the other hand believe in being an omnivore as evolution has developed me.  In that context, I should point out, I am not against eating vegetables. Nor am I against eating meals that solely consist of vegetables or grains on a regular basis.  I agree with it.  But I maintain the choice not to.  To convince others to follow the vegan way, dairy farming can be presented as cruel and inhumane.  This is not the reality I know.
The scale of dairy farming that I am connected with is not large scale.  The biggest herd I am aware of is about 450 cows.  In many cases it is considerably less.  To put this in context, there are super farms most commonly in the USA although they exist also in Europe, that contain thousands of cows.  Sometimes tens of thousands.  This is not a world I know. In the smaller scale industry, the herdsman or farmer recognises their cows by their face as you do with pets.  The relationship between people and animals is different of course, but there is affection there in bucket loads.  The farmer, the cows, the milkers, the cheesemakers are a team producing milk and cheese.  The cows work hard, no doubt about it.  They do have to have a calf each season in order to produce milk.  In return they are given the best care the farmer can give.  Are they kept in captivity and forcibly raped each year as Louisa’s friend suggested? No.
Partly this is because the majority of people are basically kind and care about other living animals (human or otherwise).  Farmers are not an exception to this rule.  In fact if you choose to make a living by working with animals, chances are you are a more caring or compassionate person because confronted face to face with another living being, you cannot help but respond with affection or some degree of emotion. At the very least, you feel a responsibility for them.  As a social species it’s in our genetic make-up.  Partly, this is also because contrary to most people’s expectations, it actually makes financial sense as well as emotional sense.  Animals are expensive to buy, rear and look after.  Profits in milk and even cheese production are not very big.  Know anyone who made their fortune from cheese?  Me neither.  You can’t afford for them to be ill, unhappy or badly treated.  It literally doesn’t add up.
However I think it’s worth taking each issue presented in Louisa’s account separately and giving each a response.
 
Captivity
Keeping animals indoors is a more common practice in large scale farming.  I can see how this could be argued as keeping animals in captivity.  However every size of farm is subject to welfare standards and inspected by veterinary officers in the UK to ensure the cows aren’t distressed.   I am not here to answer for large scale farming because it’s not a world I know.  For the record, I am not sure that I agree with keeping animals indoors when nature actually intended them to live in the open.  This actually extends to humans too who in the main are too sedentary and live indoors now much more than is healthy.  However if there’s a decent regulatory system checking that the animals are healthy and looked after, as there is in the UK, I don’t rationally see why it can’t work.
The farms I know and have worked with over 16 years at Neal’s Yard Dairy and more recently as I work more directly as a cheesemaker, keep their animals out in the fields as long as the weather allows.  This means, in the UK, that they are kept outside eating fresh grass from the end of March to the end of October and longer if possible.  During the winter, they are moved into sheds and bedded down on straw that is changed and refreshed several times a day in order to keep them in clean and comfortable surroundings.  It’s in nobody’s interest for the cows either to be up to their udders in churned up mud outside, or for them to be standing in their own shit inside.  That way lies illness and very unhappy animals.
It’s not just an act of basic compassion either.  For the cows to produce milk and work as hard as they do, they need the best possible living conditions.  A distressed or sick animal can’t produce good milk and vets and medicines are very expensive.  Finally, cows cost thousands of pounds each.  If you have either bought in a herd or spent years breeding it up, the very last thing you want is for them to be ill-treated and sick.  The economics and the ethics both go hand in hand on this one.
 
Cow(or Bull) Rape
Louisa’s friend suggested that artificially inseminating a cow in order to get her pregnant is rape.  Furthermore, she stated that in order to collect semen, bulls are encouraged to penetrate another castrated bull all day until enough semen is collected.  It doesn’t quite work like that in my experience.
Cows aren’t always inseminated.  Some people do keep a bull for the job.  It is, however, done in the majority of cases.  It isn’t a dignified process as the semen has to be administered to the animal by the vet using a slim rod that delivers the semen past the cervix.  I have never heard anyone refer to the process as rape as was suggested or the equipment used as a rape pack.  The only term I’ve ever heard used is AI.  Which is what humans have too.
Cows are not inseminated before they are hormonally ready, which they indicate by mounting each other in the field.  They also are inseminated in familiar and stress free environments.  A stressed animal is less likely to conceive.  Given the cost of the semen and the vet’s time, it’s not in the farmers’ economic interest to upset their animals.  Again ethics and economics work to the same end point.
The suggestion that semen is collected by raping a castrated bull did make my eyes open wide and needed a little research.  I have now read many procedures on semen collection (never thought I’d be doing that on a train to London!) and I believe what Louisa’s friend alluded to is a misunderstanding or possibly misinformation of what’s called ‘the artificial vagina method’.  The bull ejaculates into a rubber sheath and cup structure with a hose attached to it.  This may be put on another cow or a dummy covered in cowskin.  The semen is collected from the end of the hose and this is then diluted. Each ejaculation therefore provides numerous samples.  The point being the bull can only keep going for so long.  If the semen is diluted, he doesn’t need to go at it all day.  The participating cow, if a cow is used, is not actually penetrated although I suspect if you watch the youtube videos on the subject (yes there are videos of it and no I didn’t research that far on the train) it won’t look all that pretty.  Animal sex is not human sex and shouldn’t be judged as if it was.  As to how often a live animal is used when a more easily manipulated dummy could be used, I can’t say.  I know what I’d be using if I were in the semen collection business.
 
The Fate of the Calves
After they have been born, the calves stay with their mother for an allotted period of time.  They need to suckle to get the colostrum which will provide them with valuable antibodies as well as rich nourishment.  After the colostrum is finished, they are bottle fed with a formula or with surplus milk.  It depends on the farmer themselves as to which they chose.  Each cow gives on average 20 litres milk a day so depending on how much is needed for processing there may also be milk for the calves.  In the Auvergne in France, particularly with herds whose milk supplies the manufacture of Salers, calves are left on their mothers until they no longer need to suckle.  The animals are milked out in the mountain pasture.  The calves have one teat, the herdsmen milk from the other 3.
Female calves are reared separately to the milking herd until they are old enough to have their first calf.  Comparing this to a child being ripped from its mother’s breast however is loading the emotional balance.  Animals are not humans.  They shouldn’t be treated like humans.  They should be treated well, don’t get me wrong, but they should be treated appropriately.  A cow is a cow, a dog is a dog etc.  Their mentality, emotions and sense of moral structure is not ours.  My dog sees nothing wrong with dry humping his bedding in front of large groups of people or trying to have sex with other dogs on a walk.  If I did that, I’d be locked up and quite rightly so.  Translated into the mother and offspring bond however, it seems generally proven in mammals that there is a basic bond between mother and young regardless of species.  The length and strength of this is commensurate with how much the young need their mother’s protection.  Humans babies can’t cope by themselves.  They are even unable to support the weight of their own heads at first and the maternal bond is a very strong one out of necessity.  Calves are able to stand up minutes after birth.  They grow to full size and sexual maturity considerably quicker than we do.  Consequently the maternal bond between cow and calf diminishes earlier.
The fate of male calves is another issue and not palatable for vegetarians or vegans.  Male calves are superfluous to dairy production.  AI can give a higher rate of heifers because it is possible to use sexed semen, which while not 100% accurate does give a higher probability of female calves being born.  However, the dilemma of the boy calves remains.  It is a source of distress to many dairy farmers that there isn’t more of a use for them in the UK.
In the 1980s, a campaign against veal crates has tarred all veal with the same brush in the eyes of the public be it white veal (milk fed, very young animals, potentially restrained to prevent movement and toughening of muscle tissue) or rose veal (6 month old animals, appropriately fed and allowed room to move about).   Most people in the UK react to the idea of eating veal with horror and the unfortunate knock on effect of this has been to make things worse for the male calves, not better.  If reared for veal, it is true they don’t have a long life.  They get 6 months or possibly a little more which is not a great deal less than lamb or pork.  If they can’t be reared for veal, they have to be killed at about a day old.  This is heart-breaking for the farmer who in many cases has been up all night with the cow to help her deliver the calf safely but farms are businesses and not charity.  One argument faced with this unpleasant fact, says, avoid all dairy.  As an omnivore, I say eat veal.
 
Cast out at 7 years old with their throats slit
On a small scale farm, this is very unlikely to happen to the dairy herd.  Cows are a huge investment.  Not only that, but, as the farmer, you are intensely aware that they are a living animal to which you have a responsibility.  Again the economics and the ethics go hand in hand.  You want the cow to have a long life.  This means good health and happy animals.  I know farms where the cows are into their 14thor 15th lactations which puts them at 16 or 17 years old at least.  I don’t know offhand of somewhere where the cows are still going at 21, apparently their natural lifespan in the wild, but whether that is down to breeding or the act of being milked & therefore the number of pregnancies, I do not know.  There is also a difference in the lifespan between pedigree dogs and mongrels.  Dairy cows are pedigree animals.  As to the ethics of breeding pedigree animals, that is most definitely another argument for another day.
There comes a point when cows are no longer productive and I’m afraid no farmer is wealthy enough to keep them all on as pets.  When the day comes however, they aren’t carted off packed into crates.  There are UK laws governing how many animals you can transport and how much space they need which mean that they actually travel better than most tube going London commuters.  When they are killed it is quickly and humanely done.
 
Do we have the right to farm?
I believe we are omnivores.  We were born with the ability to derive nutrition from plant and animal sources and have developed the mental capacity to farm animals and cultivate crops.  Does that give us a right to farm as such?  No.  We are privileged and it is down to each and every one of us to remember how lucky we are.
To my mind, farming is a service that is provided for those of us who buy and consume.  The animals and the farmers play an equally important part.  As a consumer, I, in turn, play my part.  I choose to buy from farms I know, where the systems are sustainable and the animals well-treated.  If in doubt or indeed in a large shop or supermarket, I look out for organic or RSPCA approved labelling as providing a certain standard.  If it’s a smaller shop then I ask the shopkeeper.
One area on which Louisa’s vegan friend and I might agree is that you should think long and hard about what you eat and where your food is coming from.  After that, we differ entirely.  I am evolutionarily adapted to be able to eat meat and dairy as well as plants.  I am lucky to be born into this position and I don’t see shopping as a casual act.  Where I spend my money reinforces this privilege, and my food choices have consequences.  Our position in the food chain should not be abused.
A Dairy Shorthorn Cow and new born calf on Holker Farm whose herd currently contains 8 cows.