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.

Animal Welfare Commissioner, Labour’s not so new idea.

Just a case of maintaining standards or championing their rights and interests?

The Labour Party’s new animal welfare manifesto has been welcomed and praised by all according to press reports and its content  makes gratifying reading, but unfortunately most of it has been visited before and has never been implemented so what chance now. One of the main proposals is to introduce an Animal Welfare Commissioner. This is not a new concept and many countries have implemented a commissioner, minister or Ombudsman for many years. We continue to lag behind as always. I have been arguing that England should have one and have written on the subject before.

There has been debate for several years on whether it is time for the UK to have some form of official legal representative or watchdog solely responsible for representing the rights and welfare interests of animals. Noel Sweeney, a Barrister and well-known advocate of animal rights has lectured and written about the need for an animals’ ombudswoman for a decade. He has suggested that such a person could represent all animals in Court and Parliament where any action affects their welfare and future and meet with the Law Commission to introduce a new Act with the paramount principle of granting animals a legal personality.

Furniture counts higher than living animals.

It is strange that we haven’t had such a person years ago particulalry as we have an ombudsman for virtually everything else including various industries and state organisations like communications, energy, finance, the motor industry, health, housing and even ones for the removal trade, estate agents and the furniture industry. Obviously bits of furniture count higher than living animals, but there is nothing for the pet trade industry which appears surprising particularly as it brings over £7 billion to the UK economy.

We can complain to our heart’s content when we feel we have been hard done by, but animals literally cannot voice their concerns and complaints and even if they could there is no ombudsman representing them. As owners or keepers of animals we cannot put their case for them either.

A case of maintaining standards or championing their rights and interests?

The role of the Animal Welfare Commissioner is to ensure:

“that animal welfare standards are always considered as legislation is introduced and as Britain takes part in international bodies, trade deals and obligations”

and also

“responsible for gathering the latest scientific evidence on animal sentience and animal welfare” and “work alongside Government to assist in the promotion of best practice in animal welfare internationally”.

Of course, maintaining “animal welfare standards” is a far cry from taking into account the rights and interests of animals which is not mentioned.

Many people feel it is a silly idea and taking things a bit far, but we have already taken a step towards this by establishing ‘independent’ Committees such as the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) and the National Companion Animal Focus Group (NCAFG) who supposedly safeguard animals’ interests.

Impossible to be independent

The main problem is whether such a person would be allowed to remain independent on many of the issues presented to them, particularly those that effect human interest as we all know that human precedence is the creed when it comes to laws protecting animals. When any new policy, regulation, law or amendment to an existing law is considered by the Government all the vested interests that it might affect have their say in lessening the impact it might have on their livelihood or on what is called ‘legitimate human interests’. Governments consult with all these different interest groups such as agriculture, commerce, industry and science and consider their objections and suggestions.

But when the policy, law or issue affects the rights and well-being of animals, such as in the case of culling protected badgers, there is no one to speak up for them. Animal charities and campaigners can put their points forward, but there is never a truly impartial person to speak up for them with the power to investigate and research all the evidence and decide on the validity of any proposed actions. An animal’s commissioner or ombudsman or woman could do this.

What about a actual Minister for animal welfare?

Although the UK has a Minister for almost every area of commerce and industry including a Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which covers mainly livestock issues, there is no specific Government office whose sole purpose is to look out for the interests of animals, so it could be argued that we also need a Minister for ‘animal affairs’ who could intervene in issues that might affect large numbers of animals.

Dog in kennel, sad dog
Can any Government official ever be truly independent and stand up for their welfare and rights.

Many countries, cities and industries already have them.

Australia has shown some interest in the concept and there was a petition at one stage and Austria is one of the few countries which actually has an Animal Welfare Spokesman and an animals ombudsman service following a referendum there. Each State elects an independent, non-governmental representative and although not a perfect system it is pioneering in its intentions and beyond anything most counties have.

The City of Lisbon in Portugal appointed a ombudswoman for animal welfare in January 2018 who was reported to have made fast work of getting stuck into her job” by immediately announcing a plan to solve the overcrowding in the city’s dog pounds and making an appeal in Parliament for the country’s policymakers to create laws that better meet the needs of animals. At her swearing in ceremony she stated, I want to seize this opportunity to reach out to the population and raise awareness of the issue of animal welfare.

Back in 2014 the DPZ German Primate Centre in Göttingen, which houses 1300 research primates, appointed an “outsider” ombudswoman which the 43 animal keepers can go to with any welfare concerns instead of the in-house animal welfare officer and welfare committee. The fact that she is a scientist makes it debatable how impartial she is, but it shows that industry, science and governments are not averse to the idea of ombudsman or women.

Who could fulfil such a role and be truly independent?

It is definitely time for this nation of animal lovers to have an ombudsman or woman or commissioner, whichever you want to call the role, but we want a person with the power to consider and argue the rights and interests of the animals on their behalf and the legal power to defend this right in court or parliament if necessary otherwise the role has little meaning. Animals need an independent legal representative and a spokesperson with the ear of the Government to investigate suspect decisions, conflicts of interest and policies on the well-being of animals and if necessary instigate prosecutions of any institution that by its actions cause unnecessary suffering.

But any person who takes on the role must have the interests and rights of the animals as their first priority and will need to be able to withstand all the lobbying and economic considerations which presently impeded animals getting a fair deal. It is doubtful such a person would be considered as it is odds on we would end up with a scientist, a barrister, a politician, a businessman or an academic who will toe the line. Lets hope not.