Where will our milk come from: 'battery' farms or free range cows?

| 11th November 2011
Bottle of milk
The recent axing of the Nocton 'super-dairy' renewed interest in how our milk and cheese is produced. The Ecologist visited two dairy farms - an indoor, intensive unit and a year-round outdoor operation - to assess their very different approaches

Deep down in Dairy Country, there’s a divide developing; the divide between old and new. Driven by consumer preference and government subsidies, farmers are choosing to throw in their lot with either more natural, traditional farming methods, or more technologically advanced, intensive methods.

Nowhere is this divide better exemplified than on two farms in Somerset, on the opposite side of the same lane, but operating centuries apart. As an environmentalist and ecologist I felt certain I knew which side of the lane my preferences fell. But on visiting these farms, my preconceptions were challenged.
Anyone with the vaguest understanding of the natural world usually comes to the conclusion that 'nature knows best.' How many times have we heard stories of humans blundering into disaster when trying to control an ecosystem? (Weevils in North America, rabbits in Australia, and Bullfrogs the world over to name a few). The complexity and interrelatedness of all things means that such manipulation is beyond us: nature is not for the taking.

It is this understanding which makes ecologists, environmentalists and greenies everywhere (including me) often balk at anything overly interfered with by humans.

So on hearing about these two farms side by side, one an intensive, technologically advanced system, the other an entirely outdoor system, I wanted to see for myself how the two compared. I was expecting an easy win for Mr Marshall-Taylor’s agriculture al fresco at Volis farm.

Bucolic bliss

Having farmed the same land for almost 40 years, it was both economic and environmental considerations, as well as his daughter’s advice, which persuaded Mr Marshall-Taylor to adopt an all-outdoors method. Previously, he’d been operating the modern day norm in which cows are outside for roughly half the year and inside for the rest. Although this saves the winter’s wet ground from being paunched by the cow’s hooves ('worse than stilletoes'), feeding the cows inside requires a lot of silage and feed concentrate. Both require oil, which is bad for the environment as well as the farmer’s pocket.

But for the past seven years, Mr Marhsall-Taylor has been keeping his cows outdoors the whole year round. Come sun, rain or 20 inches of snow – the majority of his herd are outside. Whilst the ubiquitous Holsteins would have trouble in these temperatures, Mr Marshall-Taylor’s cross-breeds are smaller, sturdier and more resilient cows. He even milks the herd outside, using an outdoor milking parlour, fashioned after the old-hat milking 'bails' first introduced in the UK in 1922.

On visiting, we wandered around in the sun watching the old girls being encouraged into position, fifty at a time, into the outdoor parlour. They’d spent a morning mooching around the fields and according to the statistic weren't just looking contented; they were physically a robust crowd.  Compared to Mr Marshall-Taylor’s previous system, the cows were now healthier and living longer, he reports. His milk has significantly lower bacterial counts (by almost 30 per cent, he says), and his carbon footprint has been dramatically reduced through his lower use of nitrogen-rich fertiliser and carbon costly feed concentrate. 

I was surprised though that while Mr Marshall-Taylor’s fertiliser use was reportedly half of what it had been – it was still surprisingly high at roughly 280kg per hectare. (I also learnt of concerns that some cows housed outdoors can succumb to alarming levels of mud, leaving them caked with the stuff and existing in less than ideal conditions.)

As I left though, in general, all seemed well down on the farm.

I now made my way across the lane to the techno touted Pyrland Farm, where I knew that the cows only spent two months a year outside. The term 'battery' hung in the air, and the robots awaited.

Automated autonomy

After a few minutes pottering in a pleasant foodie farm shop, I was greeted by the owner, Mr James Read. With giant strides across a well-kept yard, he took me onto a platform overlooking a large, light filled open barn with cows standing or lying in capacious cubicles on straw. On closer inspection, I noticed machines, not dissimilar to automatic lawnmowers in appearance, following cows on their occasional wanderings across the slatted floors.

Mr Read explained that these were pushing any dung through the slats into a slurry pit below. This slurry would then be used to fertilise the fields, saving on oil-based imported fertilisers. Even more intriguing were the three automatic milkers sat at one end of the barn. Every now and then a cow would stroll into one of these booths of their own accord. Once inside, their centre of gravity was automatically detected by a metal plate on the floor. Suction cups then located the udder and attached. The absence of human interference was conspicuous. No one was herding the cattle. The cows decided when and how often they wanted to be milked. The cows were in control.

The effect of this autonomy on the herd’s health has proved significant. The rate of mastitis (a prevalent udder infection) has diminished to one third of even Mr Marhsall-Taylor’s herd. Compared to even the outdoor system, the cows here were living longer, their milk was cleaner and they were producing more milk. And while increased yield was of course a source of pride for Mr Read, it was the animal’s welfare that he cited as the single greatest benefit from his new method of farming.

But of course, there were downsides – some potentially insurmountable for the carbon conscious.  For example, by keeping his cows inside all year, Mr Read needs to feed them almost nine times as many concentrates as that used in the entirely outdoors system. Moreover, the whole system is based on cows staying indoors for ten months a year. However happy the cows seem inside, is our milk worth consigning the life of a bovine beauty to a shed?

So which system won? Well, it was by no means an easy victory for the au naturel outdoors system – it was actually a draw.

Because while we may feel that nature’s not for the taking, farming has already taken it. Long ago, the land was conquered, the beast tamed and the natural equilibrium disrupted. The reality is we’re operating in a false system, and our objectives should now be to ensure that this system is sustainable, and that animal welfare is prioritised. Although the carbon cost and 'unnaturalness' of the indoor system are certainly negatives, the innovative approach to animal welfare is worth investigation by environmentalists.

The divide between old and new styles of farming should dissolve and the best of both integrated. In Holland it seems that they’re already doing this, by taking the automatic milkers outside. Perhaps we could speed up such innovation in the UK by lending the green movement’s weight to backing the case for technology in promoting animal welfare?


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