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Animal Welfare, Farming Practices

‘Cubicle’ Dairy Farming: Factory farming by another name

Farmed Cows

'Cubicle' cows in the United States

Intensive indoor farming of dairy cows – which would be a first in New Zealand – is being proposed in South Canterbury’s Mackenzie region.

In this radical departure from current dairying practice in this country – grass-fed Friesians wandering outdoors – three companies: Williamson Holdings LtdSouthdown Holdings, and Five Rivers Ltd (the director of which has an appalling record for pollution of waterways with dairying waste) are each applying for land use consents and effluent discharge consents to establish a total of 16 new farms.

These will house nearly 18,000 cows in so-called ‘cubicle’ shelters for 24 hours a day, eight months of the year. For the remaining four months, the cows will be kept inside for 12 hours a day.

This will produce a quantity of effluent equivalent to that of a city of 270 000 people. This vast quantity of waste will require 414 million litres of effluent storage capacity in ponds. 1.7 million litres of diluted effluent will be deposited on the land on a daily basis in an attempt to make the land fertile enough to grow feed in situ. This is a tall order; the Mackenzie Basin is one of the driest parts of the country and is covered in tussock grass. Until then, feed will be trucked in.

 As with any form of intensive, indoor farming, there are significant welfare issues in housing animals in crowded sheds. Rates of infection are far higher and so greater amounts of antibiotics are generally required to keep the animals healthy. Taking cows, which are at least as intelligent as dogs, and confining them to small spaces is bound to be a traumatic experience. Nevertheless, in a radio interview earlier this week, the President of Federated Farmers, Don Nicholson, when pressed about the total confinement of the cows for eight months of the year made the frankly astonishing argument that:

We live in houses ourselves, we’ve adapted to intensification and I’m sure that farmers of New Zealand want to do their very best for the animals

It’s pretty obvious, but the house analogy is insultingly bad. A closer equivalent would be confinement to a prison cell for 24 hours a day. He went on to say that: ‘The issue is that farmers have been pushed into intensification because of profitability issues over the last twenty years and you can’t blame farmers for being investigative to look for new opportunities.’ This is disingenuous to say the least when prices for milk are again reaching record highs.

And yet, it is economics rather than a concern for the cows that will probably scotch this proposal. Don Nicholson again:

The reason New Zealand Farmers are being tested is because of the very pressure that we’re having put on us by Environmentalism telling us to take animals off the paddocks and basically manage them differently.

Tested? Given that Fonterra (New Zealand’s monopoly dairy marketer) and the Prime Minister himself have very publicly opposed these applications we have to wonder exactly who it is that is ‘testing’ New Zealand farmers.

This is a classic example of the perverse outcomes of a reductionist approach which focuses on only one factor.

Southdown Holdings’ director, Richard Peacocke has said thatcontaining the cows in barns for much of the year would enable methane to be collected from effluent and utilised on-farm to drive all farming requirements and provide surplus power into the grid. The problem with this is that the majority of the methane that comes from the cows’ digestive process is emitted from the other end of the animal, in its exhalation. Of the minimal amount that is remaining in urea, it is unclear how methane will be collected from large open-air holding ponds.

Nonetheless, the more important point to be taken is that the interests of non-human animals rank so low on the hierarchy of interests that inert gases warrant greater consideration. It is an unfortunate fact that in the current political discourse, the interests of animals and environmental considerations are treated as two entirely separate areas. In much of New Zealand law, animals are managed as part of larger ecosystems rather than being recognised as having interests of their own.

Even in purely economic terms, this plan makes little sense.

New Zealand dairy is sought-after around the world for its quality, which is predicated on the cows that produce this ‘white gold’ being pasture fed and able to wander freely outdoors. Of course, this freedom to wander has created its own problems, but it is certainly a significant point of difference in competition with the highly energy-intensive indoor dairy farming that takes place in the less hospitable climes of northern Europe. The overwhelming concern in the public debate, then, has been the erosion of New Zealand dairy’s environmentally-friendly, lower energy inputs, lower carbon ‘brand’. Indeed, it is this ‘brand’ that allowed New Zealand dairy producers to counter the ‘food miles’ arguments made in Europe, and particularly England, by demonstrating that even though our dairy is shipped literally halfway around the world, it still consumes less energy and emits less carbon than the same amount produced in the importing countries. It seems rather incredible then, that New Zealand producers would try to replicate those same inefficient measures here.


Confined Animal Feeding Operation
A United States ‘CAFO’ or ‘confined animal feeding operation’

The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) are releasing their welfare code for dairy cows shortly. As to that, Prime Minister John Key has said that: ‘The Minister of Agriculture advised me he has asked for urgent advice on the specific issue in relation to that code.’ We await a response.

The applications are currently before Environment Canterbury (ECan), submissions close on the 18th of December. As of Friday the 11th of this month, over 1500 submissions have been received – many from overseas – which are negative towards the proposal.

We’ll be keeping you posted.

UPDATE: We’ve written more on the Ministerial Call-in Process here

Image credits:
1) Farm Sanctuary: http://farmsanctuary.org/
2) United States Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/region7/water/cafo/

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


3 thoughts on “‘Cubicle’ Dairy Farming: Factory farming by another name

  1. When I first heard about this cubicle farming deal, I thought it was some kind of response to climate change. I was somehow under the mistaken impression that given that these cows were having their quality of life substantially reduced, there had to be some compelling interest, and my first thought was carbon sequestration. As we know, enteric fermentation from our bovine brothers is one of the lead causes of methane emissions, both in this country and around the world, a greenhouse gas that is about 25 times as harmful to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

    While I have a pretty hackneyed understanding of scientific issues at the best of times, I understand that methane has some pretty good industrial benefits if captured. On the one hand, it can be converted into biogas, the byproducts of which are water and carbon dioxide – this process reduces net GHG impact and provides a source of energy. On the other hand, it can be sequestered (captured) and prevented from escaping.

    Maybe its my legal training that allowed me to accept the mental trade-off of a loss of freedom for a population of cows in exchange for national reductions in greenhouse gases, from one of the most environmentally damaging sectors of the global economy. Now that I’ve realised carbon sequestration is not even on the table, the abhorrence of this whole plan is snow-balling. The global price of milk and milk powder is currently on the rise due to tight supply conditions, and this appears to be an attempt to capitalise on a strong market position for local producers.

    It all sounds very rational; only their purpose is mad…

    Posted by Edward Miller | 14 December 2009, 8:00 am


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