Vegan

What It’s Like to Run a Dairy Farm When No One Drinks Milk Anymore

As milk sales decline and dairy-free diets become more popular, what does the future look like for Britain’s dairies?

by Ruby Lott-Lavigna
19 October 2018, 9:00am

Photos by author. 

Milk has a PR problem. Once a staple of the British household, milk consumption in the UK has fallen steadily over the last 70 years. In 2016, fresh milk sales were down by £54 million, according to research from The Grocer. In January of that year, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) announced that one in ten British dairy farms had closed since 2013. Despite the UK being the third largest producer of milk in the EU, the AHDB published a report this July stating that, “the free-from dairy market has been developing rapidly and has been consistently in double digit growth for the past few years.” The British public has spoken. Cow’s milk isn’t the essential it once was.

There are various theories for the waning popularity of Britain’s milk. Volatile milk prices and unpredictable weather, resulting in transportation delays and spoiled milk, haven’t helped, but the industry faces other issues too. Perhaps the problem with dairy isn’t financial, but cultural.

Consumers now question the environmental impact of the things they eat—from methane-producing cattle to the “food miles” of certain vegetables. Global warming has become a major concern for many, especially following reports like last week's that estimate we have 12 years before we’re totally fucked by climate change. Plus, with wellness bloggers like Deliciously Ella and Natasha Corrett declaring milk the spawn of the devil, sales of dairy alternatives have soared—even causing a nationwide shortage of Oatly oat milk in the US earlier this year. Finally, there’s the vegans—all 3.5 million of them in the UK—eschewing milk and more aware than ever of the upsetting conditions cattle can be farmed under.

Honestly, it’s not looking good for cow’s milk. Should the dairy industry—and in particular, farmers on the front line of these cultural shifts—be worried?

I’ve come to Stroud Microdairy, a small, ethically focused farm in the south west of England to find out what the future looks like for dairy farmers.

When I arrive, owners Alice Planel and her partner Kees Frederik inform me that a calf is missing. Missing isn’t quite accurate—the cows hide their new calves in the surrounding brambles, and that’s where we find the six-day-old Autumn having a nap. After spotting us, she scampers gleefully back to her mum to feed: it’s like a bloody episode of Little House on the Prairie.

It’s also an unusual sight for a dairy farm. Most industrial farms remove the calf soon after birth to be kept as young stock until they themselves produce milk. Male calves are sold to beef farms and in some cases, killed soon after birth.

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Dairy cows at Stroud Microdairy in the south west of England. All photos by author.
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Lil baby Autumn.

“We practice something that is called ‘calf at foot dairy,’ also sometimes called ‘cow-calf dairy,’ which is that we keep the boys and the girls on their mums,” explains Planel as we walk across the farm’s fields. “So you can see they stay with their mums, and they follow their mums to the parlour, as we milk outside. There are difficulties because they run all over the place and have no respect for boundaries, but it's lovely.”

With a herd of only 23 cows, Stroud Microdairy differs from mainstream dairies in other ways too. It sells unpasteurised—raw—milk: milk that is chilled immediately after collection from the cow, rather than being heat-treated to kill bacteria. The dairy is community-supported, and works on a membership system that sees people pledge to pay for a certain amount of milk. Members—of which there are now more than 200—collect their milk, yoghurt, and kefir every week, directly from the farm.

The microdairy produces around 150 litres a month. However, this creamy (and, I can confirm, delicious) commodity isn’t the only thing that drives Planel and Frederik.

“We believe that there is a way that carefully managed, dairy farming, or farming with cattle, can regenerate the soils,” Planel tells me. “There is a process of desertification in the UK, and we are losing our soils. There are so many labels for it, and one of those is regenerative agriculture, but that's essentially what we're doing.”

“Our milk is a means to ends,” she concludes, “but the main force that keeps doing this is that we believe we can have a positive impact on the environment.”

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Kefir and yoghurt.
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Kees Frederik and Alice Planel, the founders of Stroud Microdairy.

Planel was vegan for a number of years, but after learning more about regenerative agriculture, she decided to incorporate ethically produced milk into her diet. Now, she says she sees the arguments for and against dairy farming in a more nuanced light.

“It's quite important for the two camps of vegan and dairy to not be opposed, because everything is very complex,” she explains. “It's something that you have to take into account that when you chose to eat a dairy substitute, you have to be really careful about where it comes from, because often to make it work on an industrial scale. Where is the biodiversity?”

“I'm not really fussed whether people are vegetarian, vegan, or meat eaters,” adds Frederik, “I just find it a bit a shame that the whole ecological side of things—that are designed to co-evolve together—is being lost.”

“[The dairy industry] could very well change,” says Planel. “It has to change.”

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Stroud Microdairy is an idyllic vision of dairy farming: small-scale, ethical, cute calves running around, spacious, and forward-thinking. Of course, the reality is that most milk-drinkers don’t have access to this kind of morally conscious milk.

Paul Tompkins is a dairy farmer of 15 years, and dairy board vice chairman of the National Farmers Union. His farm, South Acre Farm in Yorkshire, produces milk for drinking, but also as an ingredient in everything from custard to the glazing on pork pies. His cows are housed indoors and milked twice a day to produce around 250 million litres of milk a year.

“We're a family run dairy farm in the vale of York and we milk 250 cows—the traditional black and white ones we see dotted around the countryside,” Tomkins tells me over the phone. “We also have 250 young stock—heifers—that are under two years old, that will when they're older will join the milking crowd.”

Tompkins can name many things that threaten the dairy industry. Brexit, of course, is a concern, and the fact that dairy farmers are more exposed to worldwide commodity prices than ever before, after EU milk quotas were scrapped in 2015. However, when I bring up veganism, it doesn’t appear to bother him.

“Changing consumer habits is not a challenge I see on my farm every day,” he tells me. “There are a lot bigger problems for me to deal with.”

“If you take rice out of the equation, milk is the most traded food product in the world,” continues Tompkins. “It's a massive industry. When you compare a small percentage of dairy alternatives coming onto the market in the UK, with conversely such a massive food source worldwide, we're just not seeing any impact on the farm.”

He does concede, however, that dairy alternatives have done well to establish themselves in the market, going from something only your weird hippy aunt who thinks underwired bras give you cancer would buy, to a drink figures like Ariana Grande, Beyonce, and Miley Cyrus now openly endorse.

“[Alternative milk companies] have done really well at marketing themselves: there's new flavours, there's new packaging, there's innovation, and there's innovation around lifestyle as well,” he tells me. “You can pick up a bottle of an alternative and it's a nice looking bottle, but a pint of milk comes in those old containers, [and] people aren't going to walk around with that.”

According to Tompkins, it's good branding, rather than changing tastes, that has helped alternative milk sales grow. If milk could just be a bit cooler; sell a better lifestyle, then perhaps it could hold its own against all the trendy new hazelnut milks.

“I think dairy can innovate too,” says Tompkins. “I think the current generation are questioning food, they're not rejecting. I think young people build an identity around the food that they eat. I think food is very much on trend and I think veganism is part of that. And I think knowing where your food comes from has become the rock and roll of this generation.”

Milk is such a staple of British diets that to see a future without it—similar to one envisioned in Simon Amstell's 2016 vegan horror film Carnageseems unlikely. Supermarkets, however, are adapting quickly to the anti-milk trend, with shops like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and even Iceland massively increasing their range of dairy alternatives.

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Cows at Stroud Microdairy.

When MUNCHIES reached out to Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Arla (the international dairy cooperative that supplies many large British supermarkets) on how they see the future of dairy, they all declined to comment. When I ask Tompkins about milk’s fate, he says: “I think the decline that we see—albeit small—is unconscious, [and] it's not necessarily [because of] consuming a vegan lifestyle, but that people are looking for new tastes. I think it's got a bright future.”

Who knows whether the popularity of veganism will prove transient, as Tompkins predicts, or whether later generations will look back on our mass milk consumption with disgust. Perhaps we’ll have ravaged the land from too much oat milk farming. Or maybe we’ll have homogenised the genetics of cows through too much mass farming.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the future of milk—of any kind—it’s nut so simple.