In light of the fact that we have been targeted by vegan activists recently and some really worrying content and accusations have been thrown our way, I have added this page in order to clarify what it is like to live and die as a milking cow or beef animal on our farm. We are confident that our cows are some of the best cared for in the industry. We are very open and honest about all aspects of our farming practices and happy to discuss them with anyone who is genuinely interested in learning about our herd. Please do get in touch if you would like to know more.
(I'm sad that I need to write this but:)
Politely asked questions will always be answered honestly.
We will not reply to rudeness, threats, harassment or people suggesting that we grow almond milk (or indeed any other crop) on the ancient watermeadows of the Waveney River Valley.
Here are the answers to our most commonly asked questions:
Do you use growth hormones?
No. This practice is illegal in the UK dairy industry.
Do you use antibiotics?
We use antibiotics to treat sick cows when they really need it. Just as we would take antibiotics ourselves if we really needed them. We never use antibiotics as a preventative measure.
Do the antibiotics you use get into the milk and meat?
It is illegal in the UK to sell milk/meat for human consumption if it contains antibiotics. We observe a strict "cooling off" period after an animal has been treated, during which their milk is discarded and they are not sent to slaughter. Our milk is tested daily for antibiotic presence and if even a trace was found, the whole lot would have to be poured down the drain.
How much time do your cows spend grazing during the year?
We aim to graze our herd fully between the months of March-October ever year. Most years this is possible, unless we experience any unusual weather patterns. Our marshes can flood for a few days at a time, so if this happens, we bring the cows in until it is safe for them to return to the grass.
How are your cows housed during the winter?
Between the months of October-February, it is too cold for the grass to grow much and therefore not possible for our cows to graze. During this time, we house the herd in large, light, open-sided barns, with deep straw bedding and space to roam around. You can see the girls at this time, nestled in the straw and looking contented. They enjoy the warmth and closeness of one another's company and the tasty home grown forage treats that we put into their feed troughs. They are secretly massive couch potatoes.
What do your cows eat during the winter?
When the herd are inside, they eat a diet of home-grown hay, haylage, grass and maize silage. We try to feed them as much of a home-grown diet as possible, but our cow's health and well-being is our top priority, so if our own forage is not providing everything they need for optimum health, we will sometimes buy in small amounts of other suitable feeds, vitamins and minerals, to top up their diets and keep them glossy and happy.
i heard that cows are fed beef and/or other meat
Yuck, no that’s cannibalism and also illegal. We promise our girls are strictly vegetarian. (Although we can’t promise they won’t gobble the odd passing small child…only kidding!)
Do you separate calves from their mothers?
In 99% of British dairy herds, the calves are removed from the mothers. The main reason for this is that it is very difficult to keep calves and mothers together safely, without injury to calves, unless you only have a small handful of cows. The force of a herd of eager mother cows, each weighing in at around a tonne, can easily crush a calf.
On our farm, we take care to remove the calves from the mothers as quickly as possible after birth, and before the maternal bond has formed. This is the most humane way, as recommended by the RSPCA. This may sound upsetting to some but the distress to mother and calf using this method is minimal and we see happy content mothers and calves within hours. All our calves receive their own mother’s colostrum milk and live in comfortable sociable groups together.
what happens to the calves?
We do not kill or sell any calves. All of our calves, both male and female, live to adulthood on our own farm.
They begin their early lives in small sociable groups, in deep straw, until their immune systems have sufficiently developed for them to graze. During this time, they dine on milk, hay and calf pellets, to give them the best possible nutritional support. They are a playful bunch and will slobber all over you if you get close enough.
what happens once the calves grow up?
Once they are a few weeks old and have grown a little, they will be turned out to pasture and will enjoy a free range life on our farm.
The males will join our beef herd. Our beef cattle live a fully free-ranging life and are sent to slaughter at adulthood - around two years of age.
The females will join our free-ranging milking herd, when they are mature enough. Our system is low-intensity so they will live longer, healthier lives and they will not be pressured to give too much milk.
what is the life expectancy of a cow on your farm?
A milking cow will live to anywhere between 8-18 years old. We keep our cows as long as we possibly can.
The age that they are sent to slaughter is dependant on a number of factors:
The most important factor is disease. Our first priority as raw milk producers is to eliminate any disease risk to our human customers. For this reason, we monitor our herd health closely alongside our vet. If a cow shows symptoms of a non-treatable disease that could be harmful to humans, she would be sent to slaughter.
Other factors include: genetics (like people, some cows just live longer than others) and infertility.
why can't you keep your retired cows on the farm to live out their natural lives, or send them to a sanctuary?
If we could, we would love to but it is just not possible. A retired cow requires an acre of land all to herself in order to have enough to eat. This can’t be just one acre either. She will need several acres which can be grazed in rotation, as she is a bit of a munching machine and will eat (and trample) her acre in a couple of days, after which the grass will need a rest to regenerate itself. The amount of land required to give sanctuary to all retired dairy cows in the UK would be colossal. To add to this, cows are very expensive to keep. She will need to be well cared for by the vet, which involves a programme of preventative measures to keep her healthy, in addition to any treatments needed. One cow costs around £4 to 5 per day to keep well fed and healthy (as a cow becomes older like a human she will need more medical help to stay healthy and to prevent suffering). Times this by a whole herd and you are suddenly in financial difficulty. Most British dairy farmers are trading on the commodity milk market, so they may earn no more than a few pence profit per litre of milk. On a bad year, they may make a loss. Although we are able to make a better profit on the products we make and sell, we are still reliant on the commodity market for 70% of our milk produced.
Why do you AI (artificially inseminate) your cows? I have heard some vegan activist groups likening this practice to rape?
Sadly, there has been a lot of inflammatory (and inaccurate) language used by activist groups in recent years. We make a point of speaking with our accusers in person where possible. So far, all of the activists whom we have spoken with, have never visited a dairy farm and have “educated” themselves via some dubious online articles.
I would like to take this opportunity to explain the methods and reasons for AI on our farm. Please forgive me if it gets a little graphic, I am about to start talking about the back end of a cow:
What is AI?
AI stands for artificial insemination. It is a process whereby a thin tube containing bull semen is inserted into the vulva of the cow, in order for her to become pregnant. This method is used on many farms and has been for well over half a century, in place of having a real bull on the farm.
Why do you use AI?
Throughout dairy farming history, a cow would become pregnant exactly as you would expect - following a meeting with a handsome bull, as nature intended. The problem with the natural way in modern dairying however, is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong, for cows and for people. Here are the main reasons why we use AI on our farm:
- For cow safety: Just like people, all bulls have different genetics. Some leave massive calves, which can badly damage a cow during birth and can lead to death for both cow and calf. AI allows us to select semen from bulls who leave small calves.
- To keep the gene pool wide: If we used the same two or three bulls on our farm all the time, we would have a rather inbred herd, very quickly. AI allows us to select from a wider gene pool and keep the herd strong and healthy, without transporting too many live bulls around the countryside, an activity that we try to minimise.
- For human safety: Bulls can be dangerous creatures to keep about the farm. Using AI reduces the risk to employees.
- To keep the cows comfortable: It is important to us that our cows don’t give too much milk, in order for them to live comfortable and unpressured lives. This is mostly determined by genetics. AI allows us to select from bulls who have “lower yield” genetics, so our cows bodies won’t try to give more milk than they can support.
Why do activists refer to AI as rape?
The main reason that activists use this word is because it gets them plenty of attention. The process of AI is a clinical farming procedure and is very far removed from rape, (which would be a sexual act). As with everything we do on our farm, every care is taken to make sure that the cow is not in distress or discomfort during the process.
I have heard activists say that AI is wrong because the cow is made pregnant every year “against her will”?
Just like a human, a cow cannot become pregnant unless her body is ready. She must be in season (i.e. the correct time of the month) to become pregnant. Farmers only AI their cows when the cows are ready.
A note on the cow’s “choice” in the matter of pregnancy:
In nature, whenever a cow is “in season” and ready to be pregnant, she will actively seek out a bull to mate with. Once she has had a calf, she will come into season again whenever her body is ready. Like humans, this varies from cow to cow and depends on her age, genetics, health and body condition. We do not attempt to AI cows unless they are healthy and ready to become pregnant again. The rate of pregnancy for a milking cow is roughly once a year.
One thing is absolutely certain: In nature, just like (for example) an un-neutered pet cat, if left to their own devices a cow will seek out a bull and become pregnant as often as her body is ready. This would be about once a year, the same as on a dairy farm. In matters of procreation, cows (like most other animals) act on instinct and do not have the mental capacity to “choose” when to become pregnant. Us human women may visit the family planning clinic and tell the nurse “I have three children, I’m happy at that. I would like to concentrate on my career now.” A cow however, would just keep procreating repeatedly on instinct, for as long as her body tells her to.
On our farm, we use technology in the form of soft collars around the cows necks (similar fabric to a soft dog collar) which monitor the cows body temperature and movements to determine when each cow is on heat. Using this method, we can be absolutely certain that we only attempt to AI cows who are ready to be pregnant.
We do actually keep a couple of friendly bulls about the farm. Their names are Stannis Bullratheon and Bullbo Baggins.
Where are your cows and beef animals slaughtered?
All our animals are slaughtered in the UK and we try to use our closest slaughter house, where possible. Due to red tape, many small local slaughter houses are now closed, so the options for us are limited in the local area. We try to avoid undue travelling time for our animals, where we can.
Our ideal for the future would be to have our own small abattoir on-farm. This would eliminate the need for our animals to travel to be slaughtered, reducing stress levels considerably.
how are your animals slaughtered in the abattoir?
(warning: i am about to decribe precise slaughter methods.some may find this upsetting but it is something we are often asked, so i wanted to cover it openly here. We believe at Fen Farm that we have a responsibility to know how our meat arrived on our plates.)
We send our animals to accredited and strictly audited abattoirs. All of these abattoirs are continuously monitored by 3rd party inspectors.
All our beef and retired cows are killed by the fastest and most humane method. A bolt gun is applied to the head of the animal, which causes instant death. Bolt guns in abattoirs are only operated by fully trained personnel.
We do not produce halal meat.