Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

The dairy keeping cows together

By Wilma and David Finlay

The Ethical Dairy

Wilma and David wanted to change the way they farmed to benefit their livestock, and the environment, wildlife and people that depended on them.

In 2016 they launched a three-year trial to assess whether cow with calf dairy farming was viable at scale. Read more about their journey to this point below, and watch the story of their farming system through the experience of one of their cows.

Wilma and David's story

We started the conversion of the farm to organic in 1999. Within about 10 years we started to question much of what we were doing. Organic farming was working for us and the land, but could we do better?

We produce ice cream and run a visitor centre at the farm. Our ice cream is delicious and popular, but it’s an energy hungry product – is it ethical to be using fossil fuel energy for a luxury product?

The visitors to our farm also questioned some of our farming practices, especially the separation of dairy calves from their mothers.

Initially, our main decision was whether we were going to stay in dairy farming or not. If we were, we would have to make a major investment in infrastructure as our buildings were no longer fit for purpose. If we were to make such a big investment, it should be a system that would give us a future in a volatile world, which meant developing a micro food system that took us out of the control of the corporates. We wanted to have a positive impact on biodiversity, climate change and animal and human welfare.

If we were to be successful in breaking away from the corporates, we had to introduce a product that allowed us to bypass conventional routes to market and maximise on-farm value, using all of the farm’s primary products. The solution was cheese.

We introduced a simple model that didn’t rely on external inputs and didn’t rely on products that included ingredients bought in from around the world. We set ourselves targets to reduce antibiotic and pesticide usage; reduce mastitis and lameness; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; increase biodiversity; increase the longevity of our herd; and at the same time increase the net food available to humans.

Many parts of the system produced exactly the benefits that we had set out to achieve, but the biggest issue by far was the challenge of leaving the dairy cows and calves together. We first tried it in 2012 and it almost bankrupted us – the calves drank virtually all the milk! We then tried separating them overnight (they could still see each other and even rub noses, they just couldn’t drink) and then in the morning we milked the cows and re-united them with their calves. This worked – finally a reasonable quantity of milk! But we were still broke. It was a massive learning exercise, but also financially, physically and emotionally exhausting. We stopped this aspect of the system and re-assessed what we really wanted to achieve.

We licked our wounds, but then began to talk about what was feasible and what needed to change to give us everything we had initially set out to do. Fortunately, we had some profitable years to help us recoup some of the losses. So why change a system that is working? Well, we are stubborn and still wanted to try to achieve something transformational, so we re-introduced it.

We learned a lot during our 2012 trial, and so changed the layout in the farm shed to make overnight separation easier and started again in 2016. We’ve continued to make tweaks to the system and are now confident that we have a system that is better for animal welfare, better for the people working here and better for the environment.