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My article on why super-dairies are a good idea

Published by Spiked:

In defence of factory farming
The celebs campaigning against a mega-dairy in Lincolnshire don’t know which side their bread is buttered on.

What do conservationist Bill Oddie, comedienne Jo Brand and actor William Roache (who plays Ken Barlow in TV soap Coronation Street) have in common? They’re all supporting the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) campaign against a proposed super dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire, England.

‘Hundreds of local residents objected to the initial mega-dairy plans earlier this year’, CIWF announced. ‘Now, in the face of a PR offensive from the farm’s backers, we need to help local campaigners galvanise even more people into action.’ Posters saying ‘Mega-dairies have no place in the UK’ and ‘Cows belong in fields’ will soon be seen on the side of buses in Lincolnshire.

The Nocton dairy will be the biggest dairy farm in Britain, housing 8,100 cows. Although that’s tiny compared to the largest US dairy farm, which is home to 32,000 cows, the scale of the Nocton development is not something to be sniffed at or, indeed, protested against. Rather, Oddie and Co. ought to recognise that there is much to celebrate about it.

It seems that much of the controversy over the super dairy concerns the amount of time the cows will spend indoors instead of roaming around fields. Campaigners say it is cruel to keep animals locked up. However, cows aren’t necessarily worse off indoors, as Radio 4’s Farming Todayprogramme revealed when visiting the 26,000-acre Fair Oaks dairy farm in Indianapolis. In this farm, which produces 2.8million pounds in weight of milk a day, barns are a quarter of a mile long, giving cows more space to roam than they would have in a normal-sized British field. The cows also get two months of ‘holiday time’ in between cycles of calving and milk production.

Furthermore, the animals at Fair Oaks are served food that has been scientifically developed to be the most nutritionally beneficial for milk cows. The barns have a $1million air conditioning system to keep cows cool in the summer, and they are properly insulated for winter. The cows are under 24-hour surveillance, and the farm employs four full-time vets and 20 cattlehands. Manure from the farm is vacuumed up before being put through anaerobic digesters, which produce 100 per cent of the farm’s electricity. ‘These cows’, said CEO Gary Corbett, ‘have their needs taken care of more than some American citizens’.

The other issue protesters raise is whether the proposed dairy in Lincolnshire, with over 8,000 cattle, should really be defined as a farm or if it is more appropriate to call it a factory. They see a dairy factory as something un-British - which is ironic considering Britain invented the factory system. As far as the campaigners are concerned, factory farms put traditional small farmers out of work because small farmers cannot produce milk as efficiently as larger operators.

There is a lot of talk about the perils of the British ‘farming industry’, but just because there are a lot of farms in Britain, that doesn’t make it particularly industrial. For instance, Rural Payments Agency production data from 2008/09 shows that 3,484 farms (28 per cent of the industry) jointly produced more than one million litres of milk that year, accounting for 59 per cent of the total milk supply in Britain. That was an increase of 48 per cent compared to 2004/05. By contrast, the 5,008 farms (40 per cent of the industry) producing less than 500,000 litres of milk per year contributed just 13 per cent of total British milk supply. That was down 18 per cent compared to 2004/05, when there were 3,433 more farms of that size. So, small farms are far less productive, less profitable and involve a lot more work.

One of the key ways of increasing production rates and profit is to increase the milk yield while raising fewer cows. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of dairy cows in the United States fell by more than 50 per cent, yet during that same period the average annual milk yield more than tripled. Looking purely at the most efficient, profitable and productive way of organising milk production, it would seem that large-scale farming wins hands down. The campaign slogan ‘Cows belong in fields’ is misplaced.

One of the progressive characteristics of capitalism is that it increases the productive capacity of industry while reducing the amount of time and effort needed to create each unit of a product. At a time when much British industry finds it difficult to compete on a world market, farming is one area where leaps forward in efficiency are possible. Romanticising about happy cows chewing the cud in fields, in contrast to unhappy cows in sheds, is not only childishly anthropomorphic - it also implicitly advocates inefficiency.

People who argue that super dairies are unnatural should realise that there is nothing natural about farming at all. There is nothing natural about the landscape of the British countryside and there is nothing natural about humans drinking milk. Human beings had been around some 140,000 years before they gradually stopped being hunter-gatherers and took up cultivating crops and animals. The British countryside that we see today was largely created between 1760 and 1820 as part of the agricultural revolution that saw the end of the open-field system and the subsistence farming that accompanied it.

A recent analysis of Neolithic remains by the National Academy of Sciences suggested that no European adults could digest milk in 5000 BC. Without a gene which produces a certain enzyme that can break down lactose – one of the main sugars in milk – adult humans would experience bloating, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. This gene was not found in Europeans until much later in history.

It is fair to say that agriculture, especially milk production, is one of the most unnatural activities in which man engages. In fact, farming has done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than perhaps any other human activity.

Small-scale farming, particularly of the organic variety (because these farms are the smallest and most inefficient), is neither more natural nor particularly productive. It is a lifestyle choice. This is why small-scale farmers often make their money, not from selling their product, but from EU handouts. Handouts, that is, for not producing anything, as with the current ‘set-aside scheme’ for arable farmers.

The ability to produce more milk from less is not a bad thing for cows, and it is a very good thing for humans. For those who want to see better food production, who want to see more food available at cheaper prices, the super dairy in Lincolnshire is just the kind of large-scale farming we should all support.


  1. What you ignore is the huge damage that industrial farming does to the planet in terms of the land needed to grow the feed for all these cows. Where does this come from, do you think?
    The slogan may be that cows belong in fields, but the detail, as ever, is far more complicated, so please see this report on how we can feed the planet without factory farming methods:
    Or here's a summary of the impact of factory farming:
    Factory farming's controlled by big business who have very powerful connections, so obviously they employ some good PR people. The film Food Inc provides a really good expose of what really happens in these mega dairies, though.

  2. It's so easy to talk in vague terms about 'farming subsidies' as most people have no idea about them so it's bound to stir up feelings of righteousness indignation. The fact is that the 'small-scale farmers', the ones in their wellies trudging through slurry or sitting on the tractors, are not big winners from EU subsidies. It's easy enough to find out that there are some very big businesses and wealthy individuals, with little direct link to the actual farms, who benefit from enormous sums of farming subsidy under the current CAP rules. Reform of CAP is urgently needed to get back to its original intentions, which included supporting the smaller producer and keeping food costs low.

    And, by the way, the set aside subsidy was scrapped 2 years ago, which has had a detrimental knock-on effect to wildlife. I'm no tree or squirrel hugger, but I am aware that it is essential that we look after our eco system and removing a mechanism such as set aside, which is an incentive to farmers to be custodians of the countryside as well as food producers, is not a good thing for biodiversity.

  3. The cows also get two months of ‘holiday time’ in between cycles of calving and milk production. i think you will find nearly every single farm does this and it is not something to brag about. JUst because you are not calling it a dry cow period does not make it any more special

  4. After your latest statements about super dairies not being bad I'd say your a sell out , a turn coat , and have you been brought off , few shares

  5. What you also seem to be missing is the damage to the environment, the health of wildlife, to humans and the damage to local areas. Ok in the USA they have the space and can locate themselves miles from anywhere. UK is already exploding with overpopulation and demand for housing is mentioned virtually everyday so even a `mere' 8100 dairy farm will have a huge impact on our small amount of land. This plan is under a mile from three historical villages until now unblemished by major development - this will destroy the whole area, including horrendous amounts of HGV traffic using small country roads along with ruining the quality of lives of the residents. The health implications have been proved in existing setups (yes even in the USA) already and the quality of residents lives have been already been damaged near their other setups. this is already happening just with the mere threat of having it in Nocton - now the question is, will you be happy to have it next to your house live with the smell, the flies, the dirty landscape, the smell of stale pooh lingering through your house every day - its not JUST about animal welfare, its about everything!

  6. yes would agree with 1st and 2nd anonymous, you are a turn coat!

  7. Thank you all for your comments.
    I am wondering what I am a 'turn coat' from exactly?
    I am arguing for efficiency in an industry. I want food to be produced in the most high-tech way possible because it brings prices down. We could feed the world easily by applying technology to more and more farming practices. I would like to see this technology given to developing countries as well as it being more common here. There is no need to food to be scarce or expensive. We just have to have the will.

    For those worried about the environmental impact to rural communities I suggest listening to Farming Today programme where they went to Fair Oaks Farms in the US. The local community had similar concerns before the farm expanded. They are now quite happy. If you don't like farm smells though I suggest you are living in the wrong place - maybe a loft apartment in central London might be a better place to set up home?

  8. One thing that keeps getting overlooked in all the debate about this particular development, is that it is due to be built right on top of a local aquifer providing valuable drinking water to local villages. Our water is already having to be mixed with other waters to reduce the nitrate levels to make it palatable. Heaven forbid if there were to be an environmental accident with the vast amounts of slurry waste due to be produced here. With a increased concentration of cattle, comes the corresponding increased risk of a catastrophe if anything were to go wrong. One of the applicants (Peter Willes) has already found to his own detriment, that not all accidents can be catered for, when he was prosecuted for an accidental spillage of milk contaminating a water course on his farm in Devon. How can we have a 100% guarantee this facility will be risk-free? For more information on the situation in Nocton, you may like to visit:

  9. jason - you give the impression that we are a load of idiots - of course living in a farming community we are going to get farm smells, tractor movement etc. which we all accept as normal everyday life. What is not acceptable is being surrounded by slurry/flies/smell/pollution/noise pollution from 8100 cows almost constantly - its fact that people in America cannot have their windows open, cannot sit in their gardens and the inside of their homes is putrified with cow dung smell from these larger setups. Even in the recent Countryfile programme the presenter confirmed how bad it smelt up in a helicopter how high was he? You make it sound like residents had a choice - they do not when large businesses decide to come and impose themselves on us mere minions that have very few laws on our side! money always talks and your shares must be big ones to encourage such enthusiasm! You didnt mention if you live near one of these, nor whether you have been to see one,nor whether you have stayed long enough to suffer from them. Perhaps you are the one sitting in your London apartment block - still, i suppose london smog is better than cow s**t. The residents in America are happy now? How many have you actually spoken to? The TV programmes did not give enough air time into those actual matters to qualify you giving your expert opinion on residents views. The Aquifer Geoff refers to comes into the Environmental issues section and is as he quite rightly says a major concern. Lincolnshire is one of the driest counties in the UK in fact an Anglian Water employee told me its often likened to the `sahara desert'. Its a fact that one of the American setups polluted the water so badly that they were found guilty and now have to ship water to the residents concerned because they cannot use water from their taps. These are just a few of the problems. Yes sounds so successful doesnt it.

  10. Encouraging intensive methods and monoculture in my opinion is asking for trouble. An infectious disease could potentially lead to the culling of thousands of cattle in one farm, could the business sustain the loss?

  11. What I'm wondering is...why does milk or any of our food have to be be super cheap and easily available?? Choosing the colour of your babies skin and eyes is possible but that doesn't mean we should do it. Why should we mass produce milk just so the supermarkets can stick a stripey label on it and call it a bargain? These cows will not be free to roam in the barns, they will be stuck in what are effectively cages where they will be constantly fed, and according to the programmes and reports I have seen will only have 2 weeks outside (in a concrete yard not a meadow). Much has been done to tackle the problem of battery hens, which is now widely regarded as wrong and a lot of people will no longer buy cheap chicken and eggs. Why are we then about to allow cows to be kept in this way? All our food should be seasonal and available at it's best - society is too bloody greedy wanting everything whenever they like at a cut price, we've got too used to it. Milk used to be a treat like a lot of other produce, which is a culture we should be trying to reintroduce instead of giving in to the "big 3" pressure.
    And waht about the dairy farmers who, as you pointed out, are already working at a loss? Do we put them out of business altogether? Then what? Our taxes go up to support the hundreds more unemployed? These farmers mostly don't even take a wage, so why aren't we trying to get them a fairer deal (Fairtrade ring any bells?) instead of wiping them out altogether?


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