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Milk prices and welfare

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IT'S a coincidence, though not necessarily a happy one, that the Cattle Health and Welfare Group (CHAWG) should have published a revised Dairy Cow Welfare Strategy in the same month that concern about falling milk prices in the UK finally came to the fore: the CHAWG published an updated strategy outlining aspirations for improving the welfare of dairy cows in Great Britain on August 5 (VR, August 15, 2015, vol 177, p 162), just as the row about the fall in milk prices to their lowest level in five years, as highlighted by media coverage of farmer protests, was coming to the boil. Experience has shown that animal welfare can lose out when times are tough economically, and the hardship dairy farmers face as a result of the fall in prices will not make the job of improving dairy cow welfare any easier. On the other hand, it can be argued that it is at times like the present that this kind of strategy is most relevant. So far, the animal welfare consequences of the drop in milk prices, and of seemingly constant market demands for more for less, don't seem to have featured much in the media coverage of this issue, which has focused mainly on the impact on farmers, but they do need to be considered.

The relationship between economics and farm animal welfare is complex and varies according to sector but there is no doubt that the two are linked and that low profitability can have a negative impact on welfare. At a basic level, a lack of funds might, for example, deter farmers from seeking veterinary advice when it is necessary (which, as well as having animal welfare consequences, could be counterproductive in terms of profitability), or it might prevent investment in the buildings, equipment and skills that might be needed to improve welfare and productivity in the longer term. In a report on economics and animal welfare in 2011, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), which advises the Government, noted that pressures to cut unit costs had driven many farmers to adopt production processes that were detrimental to welfare: the committee said it ‘deplored’ the low profitability of livestock farming since it forced farmers to base many of their decisions on profit grounds. Drawing attention to the ‘public good’ element of animal welfare, it argued that the quality of life of farm animals could not be left to market forces alone and that this was an area where government intervention would always be necessary (VR, December 17, 2011, vol 169, pp 644, 645). Such arguments were not particularly fashionable politically in 2011, and are probably even less fashionable now, but they are no less applicable today.

The FAWC's report in 2011 was concerned with livestock production in general but, in 2009, it published a report dealing specifically with the welfare of dairy cows. This highlighted a number of concerns, not the least of which was that, while there had been many improvements and initiatives in the dairy industry to address key welfare issues over the previous decade, there was no evidence that the welfare of dairy cows had improved significantly. The committee identified a number of critical issues that needed to be addressed and called for better surveillance so that progress could be monitored (VR, October 31, 2009, vol 165, pp 513, 514). Since then there have been numerous initiatives, of which the CHAWG's Dairy Cow Welfare Strategy, first published in 2010, with annual progress reporting subsequently, is one. However, better collection and coordination of data remains an important goal, and could be important not just in terms of monitoring progress, but also in assessing the extent to which progress is being hindered by the financial pressures on the industry.

Some of the pressures on dairy farmers and their animals were eloquently summarised by Jon Huxley and Martin Green in a Viewpoint article in Veterinary Record in 2010 (‘More for less: dairy production in the 21st century’, VR, October 30, 2010, vol 167, pp 712-713). Among other things, their article highlighted the extreme metabolic demands made of the modern dairy cow and the animal welfare consequences of breeding and managing animals for higher yield. It also drew attention to the role of consumers in helping to influence the price of milk, highlighting the perversity of a situation where ‘we live in a society that will pay more for a litre of bottled water than it does for milk, the product from a sentient farmed animal’ and suggesting that dairy cows were paying a high price as a result of society's desire for cheap food.

The demand for cheaper food, including milk, shows little sign of abating and it is an unfortunate consequence of the recent recession that the welfare provenance of foods derived from animals currently seems to be receiving less emphasis than appeared to be the case a few years ago. Products produced to higher standards generally cost more, and consumers need more information about the animal welfare consequences of cheaper food production. Much is often made of the role of market forces in keeping prices down and increasing consumer choice. In some cases, price is not the only consideration and other factors need to be taken into account.

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