Zero Grazing. Just battery farming of cows.

A BBC Countryfile programme recently upset many viewers when it featured a form of battery farming of dairy cows called zero grazing, a sign of how out of touch we are with how our food is produced.

There was outrage from many watchers of the BBC television Countryfile programme recently (June 2021), when Matt Baker the presenter visited a farm that used the zero grazing system for its dairy cows. Although most people have never heard of it, the practice of zero grazing has been gradually creeping into the UK farming industry under the fence so to speak over the last few decades. At the moment only 5% of UK farms use it but it is becoming more popular, and it is widely used across the world particularly in poorer regions like Africa. So, what is it and is it just battery farming of cows?

Cows are kept continuously indoors 24/7

UK farmers have used the system since the 1980’s and involves keeping predominately dairy cows indoors 24 hours a day all year round and bringing freshly cut grass to them twice a day to feed on. Most are never allowed to graze or enjoy the outside. The term refers to the feeding practice rather than the housing system. The fact that many people were shocked indicates how little we care how our food is produced as long as it is cheap and readily available.

It is becoming more popular because herd sizes and forage prices are increasing and some farmers are finding they do not have the space to allow them to graze so are turning to keeping them permanently confined instead. Although more labour intensive having to grow and cut fresh grass twice a day farmers find it less expensive and more productive.

Zero grazing detrimental to dairy cow's welfare.

Zero grazing detrimental to cows welfare.

The benefits are that the cows only use their energy to feed and by feeding ‘clean fresh’ grass it has been proven to drive up milk production. Apparently research has shown cows do not like eating dung tainted grass and who can blame them.  Also, they are protected from the vagaries and extremes of weather and it is a cleaner environment for milk production and managing calves. But it is difficult not to see the parallels with battery and continuously confined poultry and other animals.

Various studies have indicated that cows with the freedom to graze outdoors have lower levels of lameness, hoof disease, hock lesions, mastitis, uterine diseases and deaths compared with those continuously kept confined. Their mental health is also obviously better when they are able to show natural behaviours by being outside and they are less aggressive. One review of the welfare of dairy cows kept continuously confined compared to those allowed to graze concluded that there are considerable benefits from allowing cows access to grazing and that continuous confinement compromises their health and welfare.

dairy cows freedom to graze
Research has shown that the mental health of dairy cows is better when allowed to graze.

Although only a small minority of farms use the method at present it is something to keep a vigilant eye on if we are not to slip into a scenario of battery farming dairy cattle. We already have intensive farming of beef cattle known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) gradually infiltrating the UK farming industry in counties like Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk Cattle. The animals are kept outside in unregulated American style grassless stockades to be fattened up in herds of thousands never to relax on pastureland.   

Misplaced concern over farming methods.

There is plenty of evidence that we are heading for an era when all ruminants will be intensively reared to keep up with the demand from supermarkets and rising populations. Recently there has been concern and opposition by animal welfare groups, UK farmers and by Parliament concerning the UK’s post Brexit trade agreements to import Australian and other foreign meat and dairy products. This is based rightly on perceived substandard animal welfare and cruel farming methods and undercutting UK farmers. But perhaps we should we be looking closer to home at our own farming practices before criticising others. More effort by more of us to change to non dairy alternatives would also help reduce this move to more intensive dairy farming to meet increasing demands.

Putting seafood eating off limits.

The UK Government is considering sentience status for lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans which could put some of our traditional seafood eating off limits.

Could it be the end of eating cockles and mussels ‘alive alive oh’ in the U.K.

It now appears that the United Kingdom government might seriously consider declaring decapod and cephalopods crustaceans, and more doubtfully even molluscs, as sentient beings and amend the UK Animal Welfare Act accordingly. For those in our seafaring nation who have historically indulged in eating cockles and mussels and all other seafood, it is bad news as it could put seafood eating off limits. Personally, I have never been a great seafood eater so on that count I will not really be affected, but there are millions who might be.

So can lobsters, crabs, octopuses, squid and molluscs have feelings, feel pain and suffer? We should get an official view soon as there has been a review of scientific findings on whether these animals qualify for the status of sentience and the findings are overdue.

Veterinarians back sentience for crustaceans.

The results of the review are eagerly awaited by many campaigning animal charities such as Crustacean Compassion who strongly feel these animals have the required qualities for this new status. Many people may find it a totally ludicrous idea, but the British Veterinary Association (BVA),  the Animal Welfare Science Ethics and Law Veterinary Association (AWSELVA) and dozens of animal charities are supporting the move.

decapods and cephalopods should be regarded in legislation as having consciousness and the capacity to experience feelings such as pleasure and pain”.

New BVA policy on sentience for decapods.
Live crab in vacuum pack.
Live crab vacuum packed on supermarket shelf to slowly asphyxiate.

Will we stop eating lobsters?

The question is whether this new status would impact our traditional seafood eating habits and increase our respect for the animals involved. Will it curb our desire to eat them? Definitely not, but it will put Pescatarians under pressure, who will have to search their conscience and decide whether to go the whole yard in giving up flesh altogether. And anyway we eat billions of other sentient animals worldwide each year without any real thought to their welfare.

Will it stop them being boiled alive or having their legs cut off? I would hope so. Will it stop live ones being crammed into tanks in restaurants and markets for us to choose. Perhaps. Will it restrict their availability? Doubtful. Will it stop live crabs being displayed on supermarket shelves vacuum packed? Definitely.

But will it really improve their welfare to a great extent? Probably not, as in practical terms it is difficult to police any protection unless we ban their culinary use completely.

Can we really protect them?

Take the case of the poor lobster. Will it be possible to protect their welfare at the point of capture in pots, the transport on fishing boats, their care while being held in markets or storage and their slaughter by licensed persons. Difficult. Will it end the traditional children’s seaside hobby of buying a crab line to yank tiny ones out of the water for no real purpose and then throwing them back often from a great height? Hopefully as it sends the wrong message to children.

Don’t get me wrong I would love to see these higher crustaceans protected as I have always believed they have as much individual character and emotions as any other animal and suffer unfairly at our hands as do larger fish species. As for molluscs it seems unrealistic that we shall ever see protection for them.

If we do join the handful of countries that already classify these animals as sentient, it might encourage North American and European States to take note. Unfortunately, Asian cultures whose eating habits are mainly seafood based will probably never see this point of view, but it will be interesting to see how all this pans out.