Skeletons in the dairy case


We know we are not perfect, we realise we must do better and we are proud of how far we have come.

Our cows live better lives than they did when I was a girl. Careful breeding has reduced the incidence of mastitis and lameness, while a new understanding of bovine nutrition has reduced the risk of calving trouble and helped us insulate the cows from the impact of both drought and flood. Our first generation of naturally polled (hornless) calves has just been born.

Even so, dairy farmers will one day earn a prime-time feature for all the wrong reasons. It could be someone doing the right thing that looks like the wrong thing:

  • euthanasing a frail calf,
  • lifting a disabled 550kg cow mechanically,
  • inducing an unborn calf to spare the life of its mother,
  • diligently treating an eye cancer or lancing an abscess.

Any of this I could, and would, defend.

It could equally be a “bad apple” doing the wrong thing that no farmer could support or one of the dilemmas that the dairy community must resolve.

An average Australian dairy farmer like me is custodian to more than 400 creatures and each of their big milestones – all the way from from birth through to end of life – are often accompanied by ethical dilemmas. Even tending the land itself requires a well-calibrated moral compass.

We’re not allowed to use GM feeds at the moment but, should we, if it means more efficient use of the land and fewer chemicals? We’re not allowed to use bovine somatotropin, a natural protein produced in all cattle that helps adult cows produce milk but, should we, if it means fewer low-producing cows are culled?

Is it time to have the discussion out in the open? I think so. And not just amongst ourselves or behind closed doors with the lobbyists, for these are things that define us as Australians rather than simply as farmers.




15 thoughts on “Skeletons in the dairy case

  1. I agree that these issues define Australians and not just farmers. But we need to be careful of the slippery slope that right now justifies the indefensible. We need to be paying more for milk if that is what it takes but there are always those who will do astonishing cruel things for a buck and they need to be seen for what they are and excluded from the debate on principle. The way we use animals right now reveals the lack of information and morality within our society right now and I would like to see a more human approach not a less humane one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Melisse,

      Don’t think for a moment that I am advocating either GM or BST – only that we discuss tricky issues more widely. That includes people from both ends of the spectrum.

      Exclusion simply reinforces the status quo. In my experience, there’s no more risky a position than head in the sand and bum up while the crows circle above!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It seems the place to start is around that of ethics. What has happened is that the non ethical approach is implemented and others feel compelled to follow suit for financial reasons. This ends up flushing our personal integrity and morality down the toilet and leaves produces and consumers enmeshed in a system that has overtaken our humanity. So it seems there needs to be discussion around the ethics before any other discussion if we do not want to end up down the toilet ethically and morally … and which is also self destructive for most of us. Obviously practical and financial factors are only then brought into the equation.

        What this approach highlights is the confidence to be creative above being cruel and destructive in the short term and long term.

        There are already many who are seeking to do this as with the break away niche dairy producers who market themselves on their ethics. There is a lot more work and opportunity in this approach. Marketing is a tool that can be used for good or ill, but people want to feel good about the choices they can make in their society, generally speaking, and there is a growing movement towards this that I would like to see taking the dairy industry to its next level.

        The bottom line is that there is no morality in using baby animals and cows as symbols of bucolic harmony when we are torturing and abusing them at levels and numbers never seen before and likely to increase if the situation isn’t turned around quickly.

        I welcome thoughts and comments.


        • Hi Melisse,

          I am with you all the way to the point where you talk about levels of abuse, which is very much at odds with what I see around me and what DA survey reports suggest.

          I would love to hear your thoughts on the best pathway for getting everyone “on board”.


          • I am very heartened to hear your saying these are at odds with your experience. I guess it is up to each business/farm to be transparent on a range of issues.

            I am not overly familiar with the industry but do appreciate that you are continually under pressure to sustain viability with prices being ridiculously low from what I can gather.

            I live near some dairies and sometimes see new calves facing harsh elements such as heavy rain or intense heat with shelter etc. I am not sure how these issues are considered in the industry?

            I also think the public need to know about the levels of care and support you provide on your website and current example of efforts that have been required by the dairy.

            I was also wondering if the dairy workers are educated as to what is reasonable behaviour and what is not with the animals?

            With these sorts of processes you can differentiate yourself in the market and build brand loyalty and enable people to connect with specific food suppliers and have appropriate pricing levels instead of the race to the cheapest.

            We know that there are serious issues of violence in our communities and farm animals can be easy targets for these types so we do need to have confidence around these issues.

            Let me know your thoughts.


          • Thanks for the thought-provoking questions, Melisse.

            First, let me say that I do not speak for the whole dairy community – I am not elected by my peers nor am I paid to speak on their behalf – so I can really only tell you about my very average farm and personal viewpoint.

            Calves should always have shelter available. Dairy Australia has a great guide regarding calf housing at and there are regular training days about calf care.

            You can read about how we raise our calves here:

            Milkers also get a lot of instruction on how to look after the cows in the dairy during “Cups On Cups Off” courses.

            You point out quite rightly that it’s hard to make a profit at times but it doesn’t cost any more to be kind. In fact, there’s plenty of research out there that shows the gentle approach is rewarded with greater productivity (see this example:

            Ultimately, though, it’s up to every farmer to make sure everyone who comes on farm does the right thing.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Always an interesting and provocative post on this site! As you know, presenting a “good” thing so it sounds bad, or a “bad” thing so it sounds good depends heavily on what data is presented and the accompanying verbiage to sell it one way or the other. Money spent on campaigning figures in heavily, especialy when one is talking about corporate dollars spent. You may or may not be aware of Measure 92 here in Oregon. Good luck there in Australia!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In the UK, like most countries around the world, a preoccupation with growing the output of food is in danger of compromising other things that are of importance to us – the nutritional value of that food, the impact on the environment and the life we afford farm animals.
    Consumers have become so distant from the origins of their food and it is very easy for those marketing milk and meat to create a perception about the way it is produced, which is far removed from the truth.
    Milk producers here are being dragged into a global commodity market, with little opportunity to instil real value in the way they farm and care for their cows. This is resulting in exposure to stinging milk price volatility, with most having seen a 20% reduction in the price they receive over the last six months and warnings of worse to come in 2015. So, a single minded focus on growing output not only threatens to compromise the lives of our cows and calves but, also the livelihood of farmers too.
    Shifting the focus away from volume and towards value (in terms of nutritional composition, environmental impact and animal welfare) is all about responsibility. We need consumers to make responsible food choices and, right now, the problem is that they are often unable to make an informed choice in the supermarket. We are witnessing the growth of discount retailers here, in a vicious supermarket price war that is all about piling it high and selling it cheap.
    I am working with fellow dairy farmers to win recognition for free range milk production on our farms, which is founded upon the traditional system of seasonally grazing our dairy herds. Free Range Dairy aims to build a better understanding of the way we farm and the value in our system, to enable shoppers to make that informed choice.
    We can have it all – healthy milk for consumers, a good life for cows and a fair reward for farmers. But, it has to begin with helping consumers understand that not all milk is the same and how the food choices they make will impact upon the way cows and calves are managed on farms.


  4. I guess the frustration here in Australia, Neil, is that 99% of dairy farms are already free range. There is no point of differentiation on that basis and it’s really not fair to manufacture one (running our peers down) just to feather our own nests.


      • One thing (among many) I do really love about this blog site is that it is informational about what goes on in the dairy industry. I’m not a dairy or meat producer, and live in the U.S., but I do buy milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, etc.. Whenever possible, I tend to buy organic, free range food, so I have an interest in what is available to me. I also try, when possible, to buy directly from our local meat, milk and egg produers here in my area, as I prefer to put my money directly into their pockets. Eggs are delivered to my door by “The Egg Fairy”, who rides in on his BMW 1150 motorcycle and leaves eggs off in a pre-arranged for location where the money is left for him. Affordabilty is a real issue on all sides. The farmers have real production costs to consider, and my wallet keeps shrinking. I have no answers. I know what I would like to see. I remember fondly the days growing up when the dairy farmer up the street delivered milk in bottles, and supplied the school system in my town. We all knew how the milk was produced, we knew the farmer himself. He considered himself well-off, and was living quite comfortably. It all worked well back in those days before globalization. Now what?


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