'Super-dairy' may only meet 'minimum' welfare standards

Advocates of Britain's biggest dairy farm, at Nocton, have sold the concept on the basis of its outstanding animal welfare and environmental credentials. But new evidence suggests this may not be possible without public funding. Andrew Wasley reports
these funds come out of taxpapers pockets

The company behind the so-called Nocton ‘super-dairy’ has admitted that without taxpayers' money the controversial mega-farm may only meet ‘minimum’ welfare and environmental standards, documents obtained by the Ecologist reveal.

In a preliminary funding submission to the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA) Peter Willes, a director of Nocton Dairies Ltd, acknowledges that without public funding ‘certain elements of the scheme look less economic and may be delayed or may not be progressed at all. In essence a scheme which meets minimum welfare and environmental standards would be adopted. The funding enables the additional systems to be adopted.’

The ‘expression of interest’ form was submitted to EMDA earlier this year by Nocton Dairies seeking an undisclosed sum to part-fund the development of an 8,100 cow dairy unit at Nocton, in Lincolnshire, which will become, if approved, Europe's largest dairy farm.

The proposed farm has met with fierce opposition from animal welfare campaigners and local residents. The company has insisted, however, that the dairy facility will operate to high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.

The application to EMDA is for money administered under the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), itself funded by the European Union and DEFRA.

State of the art

In the document - uncovered during investigations by pressure group Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) - Willes states that the RDPE funding would allow 'superior systems to be adopted' at the ‘state of the art’ facility that will incorporate 16 dedicated cattle houses, two rotary milking parlours and two maternity/hospital buildings, in addition to an anaerobic digestion unit for handling waste generated by the intensive farm.

Those behind Nocton have consistently maintained the dairy is designed to a level 'beyond the highest environmental and animal welfare standards ever seen in the UK'. They have promoted a number of benefits from the project including slurry from the farm being be fed into an anaerobic digester – producing power for the plant and 2,000 local homes – water sharing arrangements which would see resources managed in conjunction with neighbouring farms and reused, and the creation of a visitor centre, as well as facilities for schools and training. As many as 85 new jobs at the dairy, many filled by local people, have been mooted.

But in the EMDA application the Nocton Dairies director admits that if no or reduced levels of RDPE funds are obtained, ‘enhancements to cattle housing and parlours such as honey comb grooving to concrete floors would not be adopted; water abstraction rights sharing arrangements may not be adopted; waste handling could revolve around lorry based movement and spreading of untreated slurry. At the very least the anaerobic digester would be delayed to a second phase of development.’

Willes also acknowledges that ‘importing trained staff from the traditional dairy areas of the country rather than training a local force’ would be a consequence of not securing RDPE cash.

these funds come out of taxpapers pockets

Industrial milk

The disclosure that the company has had doubts about meeting its own targets and standards could undermine the company’s forthcoming planning application to North Kesteven District Council for the facility to obtain planning approval.

An initial application was withdrawn earlier this year after the council and Environment Agency raised concerns about its environmental impact.

Pat Thomas from CIWF said: ‘The owners of Nocton have stressed publicly again and again that they aim to achieve high animal welfare standards. And yet behind the scenes they are saying this can only be achieved if the taxpayer supports them. It’s important to remember that Nocton Dairies has made a financial rod for its own back by choosing to produce milk on an industrial scale and it’s not up to the public, or the government, to bail them out.’

Although the precise figure being sought from RDPE funds is unclear, the overall project is expected to cost £50 million. In the ’expression of interest’ form Nocton Dairies state that they are expecting to meet the costs from a mixture of their own capital and bank loans, as well as public funding.

Thomas said: ‘Nocton Dairies is looking for government funding under the Rural Development Regulation…  these funds are intended to promote objectives such as environmental benefits, improved animal welfare and the development of thriving rural communities.  They are not intended to support factory farming. These funds also, ultimately, come out of taxpayers’ pockets.'

Peter Willes told The Ecologist: 'We are committed to showing that dairy farming on this scale can and must be carried out to the highest welfare standards... and the highest environmental standards as decreed by the Environment Agency and the net environmental gains such as reduction in carbon footprint per litre of milk.' 

He added: 'Applications for funding for farming enterprises are standard in the industry.  There will be no compromise because the whole point of the farm is to demonstrate it can be run to these standards; so if funding is not available from an RDPE grant, we will be seeking funding elsewhere.'

Nick King from East Midlands Development Agency said that Nocton Dairies 'has not received any money from EMDA.' The body declined to comment on whether funding would be granted in the future for the proposed dairy or answer questions relating to whether any assessment had been made over the Nocton project in relation to environmental, social or animal welfare issues.

Unfair claims

An Ecologist investigation into US 'mega dairies' published today raises a number of questions over the sustainability and ethics of such farming systems.

Nocton Dairies Ltd has consistently denied its operations will be detrimental to animal welfare – and accused campaigners and the media of making unfair and inaccurate claims.

‘We have been to some of the biggest units in the US and the idea that so-called ‘intensive dairying’ is inherently bad for the welfare of the cows is not right. It depends on how you look after those cows and the welfare standards at some of these places is higher than on many farms much smaller in size’, Willes recently told Farmers Guardian.

‘We are not saying that all the units in the US are brilliant but the very best units are looking after their cows so much better and we want to learn form them and improve what we do.‘

‘Unless we thought we could build a dairy that is good for cows we wouldn’t be doing it. This is an improvement on what we have been doing before, I firmly believe that,’ he said.

Andrew Wasley is editor of The Ecologist

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