The Ethical Dairy believes people care about ‘how their food is produced, its impact on the environment, and animal welfare.’
Nestled away in a southwest corner of Scotland lies the historic town of Gatehouse of Fleet. It got its name as the “Gait House,” or toll booth, on the late 18th century stagecoach route from Dumfries to Stranraer.
These days, the picturesque location contains a waystation on an altogether different journey—a journey towards a kinder, more ethical way of dairy farming.
Not far from town lies Rainton Farm. Run by couple David and Wilma Finlay, the farm differs from more traditional methods of dairy farming in that it keeps calves with their mothers—or dams as they are known—to suckle for several months.
Under the name The Ethical Dairy, the couple’s venture has gone on to become the first commercial dairy in the UK to follow this “cow with calf” method of farming.
Not only has it been a success—despite early “financially disastrous” setbacks—the Ethical Dairy is fast becoming a blueprint for others to follow. The couple say that not only is it the right thing to do, but with fluctuating commodity prices, it makes sound financial sense too.
So, What’s Not to Love?
For observers, consumers, and those who are not farmers, keeping a cow with its calf sounds like a nice thing to do. Why would anyone want to separate them?
As with most things, it is not quite that simple.
Separating the calf shortly after birth is very much the norm on dairy farms all over the world. Newborn calves are taken away within a few hours, housed separately, and fed artificially. Backers of this method say it stops the cow and calf from forming a strong bond, which reduced the stress of separation when it eventually comes.
But there are arguments for keeping cow and calf together, too. Known as cow-calf contact (CCC), backers say it produces emotional benefits for both animals. Some research has also shown biological benefits for calves, including improved weight gains.
The Ethical Dairy
A firm believer in the latter way of doing things, The Ethical Dairy keeps calves with their dams for between five and six months, milking the cows just once a day. It produces organic milk and cheese.
“Cow-with-calf ecological dairying is a system,” David told The Earth & I. “It requires system change, not least a change in management mindset. The cow and her calf are part of a complex ecological interaction of carbon, nutrients, insects, wild mammals, microbes, and us.
“Once we learn to stop interfering in these natural processes but [learn] to better understand and facilitate them, we can begin to harness the power of nature without all the toxic downsides from the use of fertilizers and pesticides.”
“The cow and her calf are part of a complex ecological interaction of carbon, nutrients, insects, wild mammals, microbes, and us.”
He said their method has seen several benefits, which go beyond what they produce, including:
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than half.
Reducing energy use by more than half.
Cutting antibiotic use by 90%.
Cutting agrochemical use by 90%.
Doubling the productive life of cows.
Increasing farm biodiversity five-fold.
Increasing the net amount of food in its food system by 80%.
Apart from the pros and cons debated by the scientific and farming communities is public perception—and that is increasingly in favor of what consumers perceive to be kinder and gentler methods, eschewing practices such as zero-grazing, tethering, dehorning, and euthanizing male calves.
“There is no doubt that people’s concern of how their food is produced, its impact on the environment, and animal welfare has increased in recent years,” said Wilma. (For a further discussion of animal welfare see the article “A Labor of Love—How an Animal Sanctuary Heals Animals and People” in this issue.)
“Many people will buy ‘less but better’ meat and dairy products; others will move towards more plant-based diets.”
Can the Cow and Calf Method be Financially Viable?
Beyond benefits to the animals and the environment, financial issues are a hot topic of debate.
Proponents of cow and calf separation say it enables farmers to harvest the maximum amount of milk available for sale. In contrast, keeping cows with nursing calves can reduce the amount of milk available for human consumption by up to 20%.
This is a major consideration given the financial pressures on the industry. In the UK where The Ethical Dairy operates, many dairy farmers are quitting due to production costs.
The Finlays understand this dilemma. They first built a dairy designed to house calves with their mothers in 2012, and while it taught them a lot, they admit it was “financially disastrous.”
In 2016, they committed to trying again and gave themselves three years to see if it could succeed. In late 2019, they made it a permanent shift.
But David said there are two big challenges.
“Firstly, it takes time—years—for the [grazing] soil to heal and begin the process of regeneration.
“Secondly, there is an entire industry that makes a lot of money from the mess and misery of industrial agriculture. That feeds right through to our educational and research and development institutions and, ultimately, as all this generates a lot of tax, to government.”
But David said their model makes financial sense in an era of unstable commodity prices. The Ethical Dairy model is organic, so it does not use artificial fertilizer. Instead, it has an anaerobic digester that produces fertilizer from the dung of the cows. The dairy is also registered as 100% pasture-fed, so it does not buy soya or cereals. David said this brings the cost of production much closer to the cost of producing conventional milk.
“From a business perspective, the model is resource-efficient and financially resilient, being relatively unaffected by global commodity price volatility and how that feeds into the cost-of-living crisis,” he said.
“This approach favors the family farm scale dairy and insulates them from competition from large scale dairy—as the management challenges make this way of farming difficult to operate at large scale.”
Spreading the Message
The pair say The Ethical Dairy is a model for others in the industry to follow in their footsteps.
David said: “Cow-with-calf dairying has been our latest and, probably, our final step in a decades-long journey of growing awareness in the challenges facing humanity and how we, within our limited sphere of influence, might help find solutions.”
“Cow-with-calf dairying has been our latest and, probably, our final step in a decades-long journey of growing awareness in the challenges facing humanity and how we, within our limited sphere of influence, might help find solutions.”
The couple have spoken at several events, including several connected with COP26, and were co-recipients of an Outstanding Achievement award at Vibes, Scotland's Environment Business Awards in 2021.
And they are continuing to spread their message. Part of that process is opening their business to the public and other farmers to learn how they do what they do.
Wilma said that in the last twelve months, they have seen a lot more farmers visiting to decide how to convert their farms to a similar model.
“For us,” she said, “it is vital that more farms convert to nature-based, high-welfare systems.”
“Just like organic dairy farming forty years ago, a nucleus of farms operating a cow with calf system is needed, so that it is viable for a dedicated milk tanker to collect all the milk in order for it to be processed in a central factory to benefit from economies of scale and a much wider range of dairy products available,” she said.
Driving a Permanent Shift
Money, ethics, doing the right thing—all those factors play into a more ethical way of farming. But for the team at The Ethical Dairy, there is also the firm belief that a deeper and more fundamental shift must be undertaken to address several crises.
“Tweaking existing systems isn’t going to be enough to tackle the crises of biodiversity loss, climate change, and human health,” said Wilma.
“Our food systems are vital in producing the changes that we need—healthy food, healthy soils, and increasing biodiversity. Natural methods are much more likely to produce these triple benefits than technological solutions with their unintended consequences.”
*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Editor’s Note: David and Wilma Finlay’s book is available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0BTDHN23C