Dairy farming today

Milk production today is big business. The total value of the production of milk in the UK is estimated to be £3.8 billion (Defra, 2012). This is more than the value of production of beef, lamb, pig, poultry meat, eggs and around three times the value of the production of fresh vegetables (Defra, 2012).

There are now 1.81 million dairy cows in the UK dairy herd (Dairy Co, 2013). Although the numbers of dairy cows are falling year by year (down 7.3 per cent or 142,000 dairy cows in the last five years), the milk yield has increased. Defra states that the increase in milk yield far offsets the fall in the number of dairy cattle (Dairy Co, 2013a). The latest figures from Defra show that the total level of milk produced in the UK from 2011 to 2012 increased by 163 million litres to 13.8 billion litres (Dairy Co, 2013a). There is a clear trend; fewer cows are being forced to produce more milk.

Excluding suckled milk, each cow now produces over 20 litres of milk per day, which equates to 7,617 litres of milk yearly (Dairy Co, 2013a). Over the last 10 years, selective breeding and high protein feed has increased the average yield per cow from 17.7 litres per day to 20.9 litres per day. That is 3.2 litres additional milk being produced by dairy cows, every day!

A common misconception is that it is natural for cows to produce milk constantly. This is not the case; just like us, cows only produce milk after a nine-month pregnancy and giving birth. Today’s large scale intensive dairy farming employs a highly regulated regime of cycling pregnancy and lactation concurrently, meaning that cows are both pregnant and being milked at the same time for most of each year. This intensive physical demand puts a tremendous strain on the dairy cow and, as she gets older, infertility and severe infections causing mastitis and lameness cuts short her economic and productive life. The average lifespan of a modern dairy cow is only about five years – that is after three or four lactations, when naturally she may live for 20 to 30 years.