Over the past 10 years we’ve been dismayed by the disconnect between what is happening on the ground with our ‘food industry’ and the growing issues of environmental degradation, resource depletion, agri-chemical misuse, animal welfare, food affordability and food security.
So we’ve begun to put together a radical new farming model, based around grazing animals on marginal land unfit for food crops. Our model is based on the concept of Lean Production, which at its essence is about simplification, waste reduction and cost internalisation.
We have quietly begun speaking about our farming revolution and we’ve presented our ideas to farmers, scientists, politicians and members of the public. The response has been interesting. While most of the public think it’s a great idea, few in the industry believe (or want to believe?) we can pull this off, in fact many of them think we’re crazy to even try!
Our big idea? Leaving the cows and calves together until natural weaning, while still milking the cows.
We trialled the full system for the first time in 2012/2013. It taught us a lot, and it cost us an awful lot.
But the impact it made on cow contentment was staggering. All the animals were less aggressive and more confident with each other and with us, compared to normal dairy farming, where calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth.
That experience has increased our determination to make this system work. We believe that the model will work because we produce most of our feed, fuel and fertilizer needs from the farm, turning waste into valuable inputs which makes us more resource efficient.
This winter (2016/2017) we are putting the final piece of our revolutionary new way of dairy farming into place.
Most folks don’t know, but it’s a fact, that to produce milk a cow has to have a calf every year. That calf is taken from her at birth (up to now, we have done this after one day) so that the farm has all the milk – though, as organic farmers, we give a little (5 litres a day out of about 30) back to the calf.
The calf’s instinct tells it something isn’t right, but generally they quickly adapt to this un-natural arrangement (though, clearly, something pretty fundamental is missing from its life). Some cows, on the other hand, take this really hard and can bawl for days. Though some, it has to be said, barely seem to notice. This can be somewhat distressing even for a hardened farmer like myself and certainly for onlookers.
In order to put this nagging question to bed, once and for all, we trialled a way of allowing the calf to stay with its mother while also milking the cows, just to see what happened. That was 4 years ago and the scars (psychological and financial) have pretty well healed over. We’ve looked at how well the cows and calves did (and the calves did very well!!) and discovered that, with some important changes to how we do things, it could actually work.
There will have to be some compromises from both sides but, by and large, the calf will get to stay with its mum (for up to 6 months) and, if the trial showed anything, both mum and calf will thrive.
Over the past few weeks we’ve been making changes to the layout of the cow barn so that we can better manage the arrangement. Last time we were on a steep learning curve, as were the calves who learned a lot faster than us and tended to run circles around us. This time we’ll be better prepared.
The first of the cows are now calving into the new system and, over this winter of 2016/17, we will convert the whole herd of 100 cows to this new way. We’ve given ourselves 3 years to get things to the point where another farmer could visit us and say ‘I could do that’. We also need to get independent professional organisations to study the model and give it their ‘seal of approval’. Finally we need to finance the project. You see the calf will be drinking about half the milk for the first 6 months after calving. Our costs will remain about the same, so we will be making a big loss until the benefits of the new system start to feed through (hopefully by year 3). We are tenant farmers and banks get very nervous about risky experiments. However we have secured a commercial loan from a welfare charity to see us through, but they do want their money back.
If all goes to plan we hope to be able to demonstrate that food from our dairy industry can be produced with compassion for our animals, for our people and for our environment. We also hope to show that far from being expensive, food produced this way can actually cost less – certainly in the long term but possibly even in the short term.
So no pressure then!
Do you want to be part of our farming revolution? Register for details of our new dairy project to find out more.