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Is Zero Grazing worse for cows than the miserable winter conditions on some farms?

Email received March 17th 2010

Hello Mary,

I went to USA three years ago and visited two of these huge dairy farms in the company of other farmers. There were 3000 cows in the first unit and 5ooo in the second. All were zero grazed with food brought to them. They were milked 5 times a day by Mexican workers.

My first observations were how incredibly clean it was. The cows were in spacious, scrupulously clean surroundings and appeared very content, with comfy beds of river sand to lie on which were renewed twice a day while they were out being milked.

It was however totally quiet. 30 of us walked into the huge barn and between the long rows of cows and NOT ONE lifted her head to see who we were and what we were doing. When I did look into the eyes of one there was not a glimmer of interest there. She would not even sniff a hand.

The calves were housed in huge rows of calf hutches where they could not even see their neighbouring calf let alone touch it. High board walls ensured total isolation to avoid infection.

However, I wonder which is best? This system or a farm * whose cattle paddle around knee high in their own muck all winter, and where the calves are regular victims of pneumonia because of overcrowding in less than ideal conditions. Yes of course they graze grass and feel the sun on their backs in summer but I wonder, when I see the winter conditions they must endure, which system is really better? I'm not sure from an animal welfare point of view that these issues are as clear cut as they might at first sight appear.


PS * "The sad thing is that they think they are good farmers! They are not untypical and, because Joe Public never gets to wander round their barns in the winter they don't realise what life is like for many dairy cows in winter on small family farms. They are, would you believe, Farm Assured!
Much of the problem with them is sheer ignorance. I hope once this generation dies out things may be better but that's my hope - not my expectation! I think the answer is that we all should drink less milk but pay more for it but that is never going to happen. Either that or drink home grown only.