Where have all the cows gone? The consequences of industrialization on animal welfare and farmers

Across Europe, the continued growth of non-grazing farming methods is causing cows to disappear from the landscape. However, new research is showing grazing dairy cows to be a more viable way forward.

Moving cows to ‘indoor’ farming systems is a growing trend. Economic modelling predicts that without actions, based on historic trends, only one-third of milking cows in the Netherlands will have access to grazing in 2025, compared with two-thirds currently. This is partly due to beliefs that higher yields will be achieved, and that greater control around diet makes animal management easier.

However, working with the LEI Research Institute of Wageningen University, WSPA's report, Grazing in North West Europe - Economic Performance and Future Developments with Emphasis on the Dutch Situation, shows how grazing can remain an attractive option, especially when promoted by public and private policy interventions. Lower costs associated with feed and housing on grazing farms, for example, continue to create profit while non-grazing animal feed and energy costs are likely to rise and remain volatile.

Animal health and welfare are also identified as benefits. In grazing-based farms, cows have more opportunity to exhibit natural behaviour and the production demands on animals tend to be lower, which improves health and longevity.  

WSPA's CEO, Mike Baker, believes that "this report shows there are choices for farmers. The assumption by many in the industry is that dairy factory farms are the economic way forward, this evidence raises questions for both the government and the dairy industry to adapt to the new reality: that retaining or increasing grazing is a real, profitable option.”
WSPA is confident that the trend towards ‘zero-grazing’ farming is not inevitable and that it can be counteracted by private and public policies. This is supported through the practice of alternative options, such as in the Netherlands, where ‘industry premiums’ on milk (where grazing has been at a level of six or more hours a day) is successfully stimulating the industry.
In the absence of intervention, grazing is projected to continue to decline rapidly in northwest Europe. In order to stop this trend, the dairy industry, governments and other stakeholders must now invest in knowledge development, skills training and technological innovation.

You can read the executive summary or download the full report here.

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