Dairy farming in the UK

Not all dairy cows in the UK are treated the same and consumers are rarely able to tell if their milk has come from cows who are free to graze outdoors for the majority of the year.

Seeing cows grazing in fields is one of the treasured sights of the UK’s countryside. However, this sight could disappear altogether as struggling dairy farmers come under pressure to change to more intensive farming methods, housing their cows in sheds for the majority, if not all of their lives, putting cow welfare at risk. Grazing on pasture also means cows can express their natural behaviour more easily, enabling them to move around freely, interacting with each other in small groups, suiting their sociable nature and the way that herd hierarchies are structured.

The threat of intensive dairy farming

  • Cows that are kept indoors all year round face an increased risk of lameness and painful udder infections like mastitis.
  • Overcrowding and constant regrouping in intensive systems can cause anxiety and aggression in cows.
  • Cows that are kept indoors all year round cannot express many natural behaviours.
  • Cows in intensive systems are pushed to their physical limits to produce such high quantities of milk.

There may be more intensive milk being produced in the UK than many people realise, but getting exact figures is difficult.

In some countries factory dairy farming has grown rapidly. In Denmark 85% of farms were grazing cows on grass in 2001, but by 2010 this had reduced to just 35%.

In the US the majority of dairy farms are industrial-scale indoor systems which can house tens of thousands of cows. The vast numbers of cows crammed inside these US-style factory dairies, are at greater risk of health problems including mastitis, lameness and infertility. They can also become physically exhausted because intensive systems means they can be milked more frequently.  Unable to move around freely, their natural behaviour is restricted, so some cows can become stressed and aggressive. Milked around the clock with little or no access to the outdoors, the lives of these ‘battery cows’ is a far cry from those in the UK that are able to graze in fields.

Our 2015 YouGov polling found that:

72% were concerned about welfare of cows permanently housed indoors. 87% wanted to buy free range milk and for farmers to receive a good price. 86% agreed UK dairy cows should be able to graze on pasture. 56% said they would buy free range milk even if it cost more.


Our campaigns to halt the spread of factory dairy farms

Not in My Cuppa

In 2010 we began the Not in My Cuppa campaign to fight against proposals to build an intensive indoor dairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire that planned to house over 8,000 cows in sheds. The plans were refused permission.

Keeping cows on grass in Europe

In 2012, following the success of our UK campaign against factory dairy farming, we decided to take our campaign on cow welfare Europe wide. Almost 300,000 European citizens signed a petition to say that they wanted to keep cows on grass and that cow welfare standards needed to be better addressed by the European Union.

Helping communities affected by factory dairy farms

In 2012 members of the community of Lower Leighton, a small village in Wales, approached us for help after proposals were put forward to build a 1000-cow factory dairy farm next to the village school. The Welsh Assembly planning minister approved the plans, against the advice of the planning inspector and the local authority. We filed a challenge in the High Court seeking clarity about the how the minister made the decision – but in June 2014 this went against us.

Full Fact Milk

We launched our new campaign over 18 months ago to call on farmers, supermarkets and the UK Government to give consumers the facts about where their milk comes from. It is difficult for shoppers to ensure that the milk they buy comes from cows that have had access to pasture for the majority of the year. We want to champion farmers that graze their cows on grass, providing milk in a way the majority of consumers support. Find out more about what certain milk labels mean.

Cows should be free to graze on grass, not confined indoors all year round.

Find out more about our dairy cow research

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