D e a r

C o w

A year long search for Daisy,
a cow with flowers in her hair
Words & Photos by Christian Doyle

  I imagined that your average British dairy farm was a straightforwardly benign producer of delicious products. I’d always bought organic butter, a little cheese and loved any treat which involved double cream. I didn’t know the reality of our dairy system, believing the imagery on my milk carton of a happy cow (let’s call her Daisy) depicted in flower strewn meadow with a buttercup in her mouth.

Organic Dairy Farm, Devon

    One of our first visits was to a dairy whose website featured just such a cow, a calf at her side with reassuring words concerning the care of each animal, the pasture she grazed on and a blurb about the farming pedigree of the owners.

“We have divorced ourselves from the fact that the plastic wrapped frozen pink protein was once a living breathing animal.”

    I had high hopes as we drove into the yard just before dawn for the early morning milking session. There must have been over a 200 cows standing silently waiting to take their turn to be milked for possibly two hours before being let out to be fed on dank silage and to stand ankle deep in slurry. I kept up an argument with myself about the fact that this is the way it is; who am I to judge, it’s not my role here. 
Boy Calf, Cotswolds Organic Dairy
Beef Bull, West Sussex Farm - out all year round,
free to forage and to roam

    Most of us understand that a calf has to be born for the mother to produce milk. What I didn’t know was that when that calf is born, and after receiving health-giving colostrum from the mother (also creating a bond between mother and newborn) the calf is noisily and distressingly removed at a few days old. At the higher welfare farm it is put into a pen with others of the same age, able to call to the mother and touch her, but not to feed on her. It will be bottle fed with lower quality milk or with formula.

    The mother cow goes back into production to be milked twice a day until the next pregnancy/birthing cycle. The worse case scenario (but entirely routine) is that the calf is put into a solitary ‘crate’ like a dog kennel away from the herd and denied the most basic need for a young animal; to sleep with its family for warmth, comfort and protection. Many boy calves are merely shot immediately after being born as it is believed that this is a less cruel practice as the mother will not have had time to bond with it. If kept for veal he may have a few months longer to live or even be exported or sold on for fattening.

Young beef calfs, West Sussex

Calf and mother kept together until weaned.  
At The Calf at Foot Dairy, Somerleyton, Suffolk.  
Milking by hand, one at a time

    The natural age span for a cow is around 20 years old - in the dairy industry she is usually finished at 4 when she ceases to produce the required milk yield - and as an ex-dairy cow will be processed into burgers and sausages or dog food. Then there is the castration of bull calves, de-horning with acid or burning, ear puncturing for tags not forgetting branding numbers on dairy cows back sides. In case we hadn’t entirely done enough. I’m not sure how much more you could do to an animal without it dropping dead, in a writhing heap of agony.

Rescued Dairy Cow at Ahimsa Cow Sanctuary, Rutland.  
She will be allowed to live out her life - about 20 years -
free to roam and to forage.

We have divorced ourselves from the fact that the plastic wrapped frozen pink protein was once a living breathing animal with its own needs, loves, friendships, place in a hierarchy, strong maternal instincts and fear of death. As somebody pointed out when an animal jumps free from a lorry destined for the slaughterhouse (as in the Tamworth pigs’ story some years ago) they become overnight celebrities, but hundreds of thousands of equally characterful animals are sent off every year without a second thought.

    Current figures from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs state that in December 2017 alone there were over 200,000 cows, bulls and calfs sent to slaughter in the UK. Some old, some very young, some pregnant .

“a small number of Jersey cows
are left to roam and forage, to lie down and ruminate 'in pastures green' and to visit and to groom each other.”

    Even in the most humane of micro dairies with small herd sizes, the same primary cycles apply. Where there is a massive difference is in the keeping together of mother and calf, the method of milking and the level of personal care and empathy. At the Calf at Foot Dairy in Suffolk, a small number of Jersey cows are left to roam and forage, to lie down and ruminate 'in pastures green' and to visit and to groom each other. They are called in individually once a day for milking by hand, with their calf being allowed to stand beside them. The cows know their own and each others’ names. When ‘Daisy' is called in, the other cows look at her and as she trots obediently accompanied by her calf. No slurry, no shouting, no fluorescently lit shed, no clanging bars and chains just the gentle whir of the milk pump.

Right | Mother and son - West Sussex Common -
grooming is part of the bonding process between adults
and young
Left | Calf at a few hours old.
Many aunties paid visits to check all was well.
Cotswolds Organic Dairy

    The milk from this dairy is expensive by supermarket standards, at around £3 a litre; this is the actual cost of milk from a clean, calm and high animal welfare, low stress dairy. And there is precious little profit. My local newsagent sells ‘British Milk’ (with dancing, smiling cow of course) for £1 for 2 litres. Where does that milk come from and under what conditions has it been produced?

    ‘Pasture Fed’ or ‘Organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean that animals are in that fabled meadow all year round. They need to be housed over winter for months on end and fed hay or silage, the price of which needs to be passed on to the customer so that the farmer makes a decent living. One farmer pointed out that she is getting less for a litre of milk than the cost of its production. Farmers have the right to a stress free life too and should be rewarded for the hard work they put into their animals’ welfare.

The cow who started it all.  
Family pet, Midhurst West Sussex

I’ve made a reluctant choice to give up cheese, butter, cream and meat, but I buy raw milk as a luxury supporting that little dairy in Suffolk with its whole-hearted commitment to proper animal welfare. In the end, I did find Daisy, foraging in a hedge of chestnut leaves tended to by people who care about their animals and who want to change the system, while barely scraping a living for themselves.


The Sustainable Food Trust
AHDB (Agriculture, Horticulture Development Board)
Dairy Co The Structure of GB The Dairy Farming Industry
The Farmers’ Guardian
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
House of Commons Library ‘UK Dairy Industry Statistics’
Gov. UK ‘Cattle, Sheep and Pig Slaughter’
Rosamund Young ‘The Secret Life of Cows’