Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dairy Factory Farms

I should be blogging about Copenhagen. It’s important, indeed, vital. But international conferences of this scale rarely pollinate ideas, rather participants grope towards words that represent a compromise. So I write about another topical issue of interest and concern.

The Mackenzie Basin is a vast expanse of Canterbury high country between the Southern Alps and the foothills, beautiful and unique. It’s been sheep country ever since its discovery by a sheep thief but is renowned for its hydro-electricity generation, tourism attractions – Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo in particular - trout fishing, and gliding. Now there are plans to build sixteen factory style dairy farms there, three companies are involved. Consent applications reveal that its is planned to house 18,000 cows in cubicle stables, 24 hours a day for eight months of the year and twelve hours a day for the remaining four months.

I have strong reservations about the proposal. There are questions of animal welfare. My farm upbringing and twelve years living in the dairy heartland of the Waikato with its ever-present milk tankers leaves me with the feeling that it’s not natural to keep cows in interior pens. Bluntly, the Mackenzie is not dairy country. It’s mighty cold there in winter. Apparently the plan is that these are not enclosed sheds but will be open-air. The cows of my boyhood years grazed grass paddocks, chewed their contended cuds, interacted with one another and lined up for milking. I’m not being nostalgic. I was brought up to treat animals with respect even if you planned to kill them. In the pursuit of profit we do not have the right to mistreat other creatures.

I know it’s how dairy cows are now farmed in Europe and North America. But that doesn’t make it humane. I also know that for centuries in Europe cows have been kept in barns or in the floor story of the farmhouse. That was not only on a different scale; it was a question of survival during long cold winters. There was a seasonal rhythm to the process worked out over the ages. Switzerland is illustrative. In winter, indoors, in summer, up in the mountain pastures while hay was made to tide through the winter. There was a harmonious bond between humanity and nature. The stink of the animal’s manure was countered by their milk – for cheese as well as a beverage – and the veal.

There is the question of the New Zealand image. Federated Farmers claim that this method of farming is merely catching up with the rest of the world. I claim it is giving up a leadership over the rest of the world. Our marketing has stressed our pastoral strength. To destroy this free-range, grass-feeding image would be folly. Overseas experience is that indoor stock require more drugs – again this has marketing implications.

Then there is the environmental factor. Dairy farming requires considerable amounts of water. This means it must be supplied. By what means and what are the implications for a fragile environment? I note the planners aim to collect the effluent and spread it ‘thinly’ on nearby pasture. How will that affect the Waitaki River flow? What are the downstream implications? For hydro production. For boaties? For trout fishermen? What will these housed cows eat? Palm kernels? Corn like in America? Hay? How much can the Canterbury Plains grow? They are already under pressure from the extensive dairying that has developed there in the last several years.

In advancing another criticism of the actual plan I’m not retracting my opposition to the whole concept. Industrial production has transport costs. So it seems illogical to contemplate locating factory farms in remote sites. Maybe the decision reflects a mind-set. This is business. It’s exploitation, not farming.

During Parliament’s question time yesterday it was heartening to see John Key not keen on the idea. Maybe that’s what the polls are telling him. Maybe it’s his own conviction. Whether he can stop the proposals is another matter. I understand that a factory farm with 500 cows already exists in Southland so already this particular cow is bailed up for milking.

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