In the first of a new series of farm-animal blogs, our new vet blogger Zack explores the world of dairy farming. Want to know the truth about dairy cows and their lives, from someone who works with them day in day out? Then read on!


How did it all begin?

The first recorded evidence of domesticated cattle is from Anatolia, West Asia, approximately 9000 years ago. They were initially kept for meat production, but early humans soon realised the value of ‘dual purpose’ animals that could also supply them with milk. As time has passed, selective breeding has resulted in specialised dairy breeds that can produce greater quantities of high-quality milk. As dairy and beef cattle have very different needs, farmers tend to keep only one or another, so that they can focus on providing the very best levels of care for their animals.


Where are we now?

As the human population of planet Earth increases, so has our demand for dairy products. There are now over 270 million dairy cows in the world and 2.7 million of them live in the UK. The milk they produce is generally pasteurised to ensure it is safe for human consumption and can then be drunk raw or processed further to become any number of other products. Cheese, butter, cream, yoghurt, custard and ice cream are all commonly made from cow’s milk. Cows generally need to have a calf once per year in order to keep producing milk. Purebred female offspring go on to become future milkers, or sometimes cows are bred with beef bulls and have calves which can be raised for meat production.


How are cows looked after today?

The modern dairy cow looks very different to her ancestors and has very different welfare requirements. Thinner skin makes them less able to thrive in adverse weather conditions and their nutritional requirements often cannot be met by grass alone. For this reason, many cows need to be housed for either part or all of the year in order to offer them shelter and supplement their diet.

Each animal generally has her own private cubicle to lie in, often with a mattress, and access to an unlimited supply of high energy food. This is essential as many cows produce over 30 litres of milk a day, which is the equivalent of running several marathons! As a result, if they do not eat enough food, they can become run down and ill very quickly. Most cows are milked twice a day, by a human operated milking machine. This is a great chance for farmers to check on their animals and pick up on any health problems at the earliest possible opportunity.


Who is responsible for dairy welfare?

The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards of any country in the world. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 makes all owners and keepers of animals, including dairy cattle, responsible for ensuring they have a life worth living. The vast majority of dairy farmers are also voluntary members of high health schemes such as Red Tractor Farm Assurance. This means they are subject to visits from trained inspectors and have a review with their veterinary surgeon, at least once per year, in order to ensure a high level of animal care is being maintained. The majority of dairy farmers are specialists, who have spent their entire career developing their skills in cattle husbandry. In addition to this, many also utilise experts in nutrition and lameness, as well as vets, in order to ensure their cows are as happy and healthy as possible.


Isn’t dairy farming bad for the environment?

Contrary to popular belief, dairy farming contributes less than 2% to total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK each year. The amount of greenhouse gas produced per litre of milk has also reduced vastly over the past 100 years. Agriculture as a whole produces significantly fewer emissions than the energy, business and transport sectors.


What does this all mean?

The dairy industry has come a long way and ancient Anatolian farmers would barely recognise the farms of today. Even over the past 50 years, there has been a sharp trend towards fewer individual farms with greater numbers of cattle in the UK and worldwide. A common misconception is that this has led to lower levels of animal welfare. In fact, as standards have become more stringent, many of the least diligent farmers have left the industry. Those that remain have increased cattle numbers in order to meet demand and generally employ a team of conscientious, passionate staff who strive to produce high quality milk from contented cows.