Farming in the UK – where do we go from here?

Cows would be kept inside for most of the year under the proposals.

The new “super-dairy” proposed for the Lincolnshire countryside has been under scrutiny as it raises several age-old issues about the direction of modern farming in the UK. Both environmentalists and traditionalists were out in force to oppose this project while the directors of the company staunchly defended their move to a more economic mode of farming.

The plans for this dairy were based around an 8,100 strong herd of dairy cows to be housed inside 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost the entire year. The basis for this is that under optimal conditions of temperature and food availability the cows’ productivity could increase by up to 40%. The “super-barns” would accommodate the animals all year round with a minimum living-space-to-cow ratio that equates to about the same as that of an average man in a port-a-loo. Clearly, the issue this raises is first and foremost the welfare of the animals; arguments abound suggesting decreasing life expectancy and increased risk of common diseases such as mastitis. However, under the animal welfare council a statement declaring the projected welfare standards as “satisfactory” agrees for the farm to go ahead.

This style of huge-scale indoor farming is not as outlandish as it may first appear, and hails from America where it has been practised for several years. As with GM crops, the UK has been reluctant to follow suit despite the best efforts of ever-growing agribusinesses. The role that these highly industrialised farms will play in modern society is without doubt the future of farming. With an ever-increasing world population only the most efficient mechanisms of farming can be adopted in order to feed the world. The future for UK farming is therefore a question of when rather than why.

Closer to home, the issue comes down to cost. The farming industry in the UK has been in decline despite advances in mechanisation and huge leaps in productivity. The prices the public are willing to pay do not correspond to the cost of production, and therefore these are the solutions that will allow us to continue to buy cheap milk in the supermarkets. The price to be paid will, however, fall to the farming community.

This particular farm may provide around 80 jobs – but these will certainly not cover the number of small scale milk producers that could be put out of business as a consequence. The English countryside, symbolic of our free and pleasant land, is entirely man made: it is built from a patchwork of fields cultivated and tilled for thousands of years. The disappearance of traditional farms that utilise pasture for the cows will lead to much of this land being redundant and turned to other purposes. This could be seen as rather fatalistic, but in view of trends in mechanisation and the changes that have occurred throughout the countryside in just the last 50 years it seems fairly realistic.

The arguments for and against this intensive farming method revolve around the sentimental and practical. Many of the people who would in principle disagree would not go as far as paying more for their milk. This means that despite the council having the final vote, it’s really us who decided the fate of British farming when we opted for cheaper goods. The balance is crucial. I believe that the building of this farm would in fact be detrimental to the UK countryside as a whole, paving the way for many more industrial factory based farms that bypass the very nature of farming.

Since the initial plans for this farm were proposed the public backlash and subsequent ruling has caused a review of the scale of the “super-farm” plans. The latest farm will be downscaled to be made up of just 3,700 cows (less than half the original). Equally, through public pressure the cows will also have to have access to pasture at certain points during the year. The practical side of me does however realise that if a limit is placed then sensible measures can allow for intensive economical farming that does not become brutal, as the decision to downscale this original plan demonstrates. The fact that this debate has been raised is a sign that the lowering of these animals’ welfare standards will not be tolerated and through careful consideration a sensible solution can be found while still maintaining the public’s and the animals’ best interests.

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