Farming and freedom: a hugely complex area - Veterinary Practice
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Farming and freedom: a hugely complex area

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

I WAS ALWAYS TOLD THAT, IN POLITE COMPANY, IT’S IMPOLITE TO TALK ABOUT TELEVISION programmes that one has seen but then, as a boy, I was brought up by my grandmother who earnestly believed that commercial television was, if not the spawn of the devil, socially second rate.

You may be beginning to get some inkling of the complexities incurred by mixing my early home life with the big wide world! Anyway, socially inept or not, I feel drawn to share my reaction to last weekend’s edition of the sterling Country File which exclusively featured cattle and our interaction with them.

During the programme, the producers looked at the selling price for British milk and contrasted the two extremes of “free range” milk from the excellent and, for me, local Cotteswold Dairy and a massive enterprise that keeps more than 1,200 milking cattle permanently housed indoors.

Production priorities

The producers raised the thorny topic of priorities, possibly an easier televisual concept than ethics, and sought solace in the ability of the indoor production facility to produce enough milk to supply more than 200,000 people every day.

Before I sat down to write this, I gave myself a good talking to and resolved to keep my own views hidden from view – partly because every reader of this column is as capable as I may be of forming their own opinion and partly because I really don’t have enough first-hand information to form a balanced and reasoned argument in either direction.

However, having talked to a number of colleagues about this, I realise that this is a hugely complex area with no clear-cut conclusion. Most big decisions wrestle with the tidal pull of head versus heart and here too, there are important issues to be balanced. No doubt, indoor rearing if done properly is far preferable to poor housing, inadequate healthcare or any other element of neglect in more traditional farming methods.

Most of us know that lameness and mastitis are the two most common welfare problems and these were, it seems, better controlled in the large indoor facility shown in the programme. In addition, we have to recognise that dairy farming is in a parlous state and the commercial realities of supply and demand are intensified by the stranglehold of the retail channel where the issue of price is sometimes more important than those of welfare and the sustainability of the countryside.

I asked an experienced large animal colleague for his take on this and he felt that, in the future, we are going to see niche producers earning more, some family farms that will survive by having low labour bills and many large farms migrating to mainly indoor rearing.

This last group carries most financial risk when investment is high, costs are rising but milk prices do not and this may be happening already. Of course, the majority of farmers still use grass systems but feed concentrates in the winter and, while this can be cheaper it is not always the case. As my friend says, we could discuss this issue for days.

The tiniest whiff of fluffiness can send a scientific audience into paroxysms of derision but I wonder if I was alone in joining the dots when, later in the programme, another farmer was seen turning out his first herd of home-reared bullocks onto pasture for the very first time.

Delighted demonstration

Watching these young animals enjoying the natural rewards of several acres of fresh grass, I couldn’t help but conclude that however high the standards of husbandry demonstrated in the large-scale indoor unit, these animals are sentient and were able to demonstrate something which we might call delight in their new-found freedom.

I recognise that the world is changing so rapidly that traditional farming may become a curiosity of the past if we are to feed the countless billions that will inhabit this planet tomorrow and sadly, if we cannot find agreement to demonstrate compassion for humans which transcends political borders, we will struggle to elevate compassion in farming to a higher level.

In the last issue of Veterinary Practice, David Williams cited Ludwig Wittgenstein who exclaimed that if a lion were to speak, we wouldn’t understand him and, while I may never become a logical philosopher of renown, I side with Dr Williams and his curiosity to better understand the animals with whom we share the planet rather than revelling in the tortology that masks intellect in some of the truly talented.

Faced with the inescapable reality of modern life, the real conundrum is that we have a duty of care to those creatures which we have displaced or disadvantaged by the spread of our civilisation and to those whose existence we have engineered for our own benefit.

David Williams reminds us of the five freedoms and, in the case of 24/7 indoor rearing, I can see that food and drink can be properly supplied alongside some freedom of movement together with considerable care being devoted to maintaining a disease free environment.

However, the juxtaposition of the footage of bullocks running around a field, where they were free to act as they wish and to graze naturally, contrasted uncomfortably with the sedentary nature of the indoor herd. Isn’t one of the five freedoms the ability to behave in a manner which is normal for that species?

I would need far more education in the communicative ability of various species to know whether the behavioural expressions of a ruminant are indicative of happiness or stress, but it isn’t that long ago that we were feeding animal protein to cows or telling pet owners that their animal needed little or no post-operative pain relief. Just because there’s money in large sheds doesn’t make it right or necessarily wrong. However, if this profession doesn’t steer the debate, other vested interests will inevitably colour the outcome. For me, compassion in farming isn’t fluffy, it’s our responsibility and I believe the public should be able to expect us to lead that debate.

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