“Cows do not belong in fields,” said Peter Willes. And with those six words the dairy farmer ignited what could become the defining battle between the decades-old push for cheaper food and the campaign against the factory farming which produces it.
Willes is one of two directors of a company about to announce plans for what would be by far the UK’s biggest milk-producing farm: several thousand cows kept, hundreds at a time, inside large barns for the vast majority of the year. Conservative MP and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith has called the proposals “squalid” and warned the project would “take farming to a new low”.
The application, expected as soon as next week, is a second attempt: the first proposal for building a dairy for 8,100 cows in rural Lincolnshire and keeping them indoors around the clock, throughout the year, was withdrawn in April following public outcry when the vast scale of the Nocton dairy made it a national symbol of and rallying point for critics of the sort of intensive farming which has almost totally separated food and nature.
This week Willes told BBC radio’s Farming Today programme the latest plan would be for fewer cows, and they would be allowed outside as a concession to objectors, while other environmental concerns, such as smell from the slurry and traffic through nearby villages, have also been dealt with.
However, documents shown to the Guardian by the developers a week ago still suggest numbers of up to 8,100 cows, which would make it without doubt the biggest dairy farm in the UK – where a typical herd has about 100 – if not in western Europe. The briefing, which could change by the time of the application, also says access to outdoor “loafing areas” will be restricted to 4.5 acres for each “mini herd” of 450 cows, for six to seven hours a day in summer, if the weather is good enough. These areas will not be for grazing and Willes and his co-director David Barnes “don’t think many of the cows will want to go out,” it adds. For the rest of the time, the mini-herds will be kept in large barns with 8.3 sq metres of concrete and sand for each animal – less than five times the space taken up by an average Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, or, relative to their sizes, roughly equivalent to a human in a standard toilet cubicle.
In these conditions the cows will be milked three times a day – about the rhythm cows choose on farms with on-demand feeding – and are expected to each produce 33 litres a day for 10 months a year. The current national average is 28 litres a day, which is itself nearly double what it was 30 years ago.
Despite the improvements, campaigners have warned they are still unhappy. “The issue really for us isn’t so much that big is bad, the issue is the type of cows being used in these very large intensive dairies,” said Pat Thomas, director of Compassion in World Farming’s anti-Nocton campaign, named “Cows Belong in Fields” in honour of Willes’s statement. “When you breed into cows this propensity for high yields you also breed in metabolic problems, and a tendency for mastitis, lameness and infertility, and also early death.
“Nocton is being heralded by its directors as the future of dairy farming. It’s a rallying point for us because we don’t believe this is the future of British dairy farming; we don’t believe it benefits the animals, the land, or the farmers.” CIWF claims 100 small UK dairy farmers will be put out of business by Nocton, something the developers deny because of huge UK milk imports.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council has said Nocton’s plans can provide “satisfactory welfare” (defined by the council as “the legal minimum standard” of welfare) if it is well managed, but there is concern about two previous convictions Willes received at other farms he owns. In 2008 he was fined for polluting a stream in north Devon after a case was brought by the Environment Agency, and in 2005 he had a 12-month conditional discharge after pleading guilty to having four types of antibiotics for cows which are illegal in the UK.
Defending their plans, Nocton’s developers argue the super-dairy is big enough to allow them to invest in modern buildings and round-the-clock veterinary care, and by keeping cows indoors they can give them a better diet than they would get from grazing. They also point out no soy protein (associated with cutting down rainforests) will be fed to the cows, while surrounding arable land can be used to grow food for the cows, and benefit from the fertiliser they produce. The digester, used to transform cow slurry into fertiliser, will be different to US designs, so no pollution can escape. Willes said of his previous convictions that the spill was accidental and procedures were changed immediately; the drugs, he said, were prescribed by a vet and imported from Ireland to save money.
Explaining his statement to BBC Radio Humberside that “cows do not belong in fields”, Willes compared intensive farming to the progress of humans from caves to cities. “Dairy cows throughout the UK spend at least five to six months of the year in buildings because during the winter months it’s too wet to go out into the fields and there’s no crops growing for them,” continued Willes. “By bringing our cows in for longer, more of the year, we can invest in a system that’s far better for the cows.”
Standing in the centre ground of this debate are people such as Jon Huxley, associate professor of farm animal medicine at the University of Nottingham. Writing in the October Veterinary Record journal, Huxley and his colleague Martin Green said it is “simplistic and naive to blame the industry” or supermarkets for responding to the huge consumer pressure for cheaper milk. “If … future developments such as higher individual yield, total confinement and the super-dairy are not what we as a society want, we have to vote with our wallet and our feet.”
Thomas responds: “If people saw the conditions the cows are in, how unnatural the intensive environment is, they’d know it wasn’t right. A five-year-old knows cows belong in fields.”
It is an picture of unmitigated bliss. Tulsi and Radika, a pair of beautiful dairy shorthorns, shuffle quietly in knee-deep straw; Gopi chomps a carrot offered by a visitor and Sarasavati and Padmavato murmur beside two calves born a few weeks ago. The Hare Krishna herd of 44 cows and oxen at George Harrison’s old mansion in Hertfordshire is as calm as a temple.
Last week the 200 people who live and work in what is now called Bhaktivedanta Manor opened their £2.5m “protected cow” complex. It’s been called a “Hilton for cows” and a blueprint for sustainable dairy farming, but the 3,000 sq metre building which is the herd’s winter home, is a cross between a nursery, a workhouse and an old cows’ home. The cradle-to-grave philosophy of the Hindu group known for its bells and chants ensures that any bovine on the 100-acre farm will not just be treated with respect while it lives, but will not be slaughtered if it is born male, if it falls ill or when it dries up – as happens in most commercial dairy farming.
Tulsi, Radika and co may be the most loved cows in Britain, says farm manager Shyamasundara – birth name Stuart Coyle. There are only four farms he knows that have similar no-kill policies. All the animals have names, they have all the space they want and they live on grass most of the year. The 11 that are lactating are hand-milked while listening to traditional Sanskrit music, the calves get their mothers’ milk for their first five months and only then are separated. Only four of the 11 are made pregnant each year; the others are expected to pull ploughs and turn a wheel.
But if any society can be judged by how it treats its old, then the Hare Krishna cows appear to live in the ultimate nanny state. The animals all retire at around 15 – about 60 in human years – after which they are only expected to leave urine and dung on the fields to enrich the soil. And when one dies it can expect flowers and a farewell ceremony.
“It’s the best a cow can get,” says Shyamasundara. “They are part of our community. They give us their lifeblood in the form of milk and we care for them all their life. Of all the animals in the world the cow is the most important to humans. The cow replaces the role of the mother. You wouldn’t bump your mum off if she stopped giving milk.”
The 11 cows provide about 1,000 litres of “ahimsa milk” (milk produced without harm to any living being) a week, much of which is used by the group, but the plan is to sell it to the general public next year at £3 a litre. It will be the most expensive cows’ milk in Britain but so many people have asked for it, they may increase the size of the herd. “Once the new dairy is working we may build it up. We can see ourselves growing it to 200 cows,” he says.
According to Hindu philosophy, man and cow were created side by side; the animals are sentient beings and the relationship between them and people is spiritual not economic. Shyamasundara is not too bothered if the cows are a trifle overweight or don’t have a “scientifically balanced” diet because they are being fed “for happiness not profit”, he says. For him, the very idea of turning them into milk machines, as proposed by the Nocton dairies for Lincolnshire, is abhorrent.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with 8,000 cows. It’s how they live and are cared for that is important. But what is proposed [for Lincolnshire] is the most remote system conceivable, the furthest away from nature that you can go. It’s factory farming at its most efficient, where a cow is just a number, a chemical-based machine; not loved, but milked robotically and overseen by computers. It’s not how life is meant to be. Life should be happy. The nature of cows is peaceful and living near them is relaxing. The automated callousness of that kind of environment must go into the milk,” says Shyamasundara.
It is not at all naive or simplistic to farm the Hare Krishna way, he says, because intensive dairy farming has many hidden costs that are not reflected in the price of milk and is heavily subsidised.
“The £3-a-litre cost is the real price of producing the best milk and caring for animals.
This kind of farming is highly efficient in that it employs people and animals, cares for the land and does not pollute. It can provide food for the masses.”
The milk taste test: Can our experts tell the difference?
We asked our panel of experts to compare the Hare Krishna milk with the supermarket version.
Sam Clark (chef, Moro restaurant, north London):
Looking at both of these, the colour is hugely different, and tells a big story without even tasting them. You can also see that one of the milks has a much better viscosity. One tastes like a very ordinary low-grade milk; you can feel that the cow didn’t go to a lot of effort for that, it’s probably over-milked.
The other one tastes like a meal in itself. You really feel it’s got a lot of goodness, it tastes three times more concentrated, there’s not just a marginal difference here. The flavour lasts for a long time, it doesn’t just disappear. People are so used to drinking thin, high-volume milk that they might find it difficult to drink this, they might find it too strong. It’s sad that we’re so used to a watered-down version.
We make all our own cheese and yoghurt here at Moro, and of course I’d love to use milk like this to produce it. You can tell it’d make a great cheese or yoghurt. I wish my kids could drink this. It tastes like you’re on a farm. The flavour is very complex and really stays with you. There’s no comparison. This is the real thing.
Rosie Sykes (chef and author):
Number two [the Hare Krishna milk] was much richer and more delicious and generally lovelier. It had an amazing silky texture. I’ve never drunk milk like that before. It even moved in a different way; it seemed very rich. I could imagine that making anything with it would improve it so much. If you made a white sauce or a custard with that it would be incredible. It was almost like cream, it was so rich. When I first opened it I actually wondered if it was all right, because it almost smelt like it was raw; not cheesy but more smelly than ordinary milk. You can’t really smell shop-bought milk unless it’s gone bad, but this had a definite smell. Once I tried it I realised it was fine, and instantly thought, my god, it’s incredible.
I knew the other milk was normal milk as it seemed thin and lighter and bubbly.
John Vidal (Guardian environment editor):
Oooh it’s creamy! It’s rich! Mmmmmm! It’s delicious! The other one is beige and bland. It’s like a Stilton compared with Dairylea.
Interviews by Kate Abbott
Jan 23, 2022
Anandini Tikunov (8th-grade student)
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org