In the last 50 years agriculture has undergone a process of intensification in order to obtain higher yields, which has also affected the dairy sector and the production of milk. Over the years, a changing diet and genetic selection aimed at increasing milk output has come at a high cost for the welfare of dairy cows and, ultimately, for the health of the consumers.
According to Compassion in World Farming milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past 40 years. The typical output in an intensively bred cow reaches 30 litres (and up to 60 litres), while in nature a cow produces around 5 litres. An industrial dairy cow will live only for a quarter of its natural lifespan and will suffer from painful illnesses, such as lameness and mastitis, an inflammation of the teats due to excessive milking. Cows are ruminants and as such require a diet high in fibrous content, but intensively reared dairy cows are being fed more and more on starchy grain diets which has negative consequences on their health and on the nutrients present in their milk.
The high quality and safety standards that small-scale production of raw-milk imposes are directly linked to the health and welfare of the cow, leading to high animal welfare standards.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council in its Five Freedoms suggests a framework for good animal welfare practices. This means that animal should be free:
1. from hunger and thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
2. from discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. from pain, injury or disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. to express normal behaviour - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
5. from fear and distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
The production of raw milk typically occurs in small-scale contexts by farmers and cheese makers with great skill who produce raw milk cheeses according to tradition. Cows are kept in small herds and are not confined to small spaces, as they are in large intensive operations. For raw milk to be of the highest quality and to be completely safe, the cows must be allowed to graze in the pastures and feed on grass, respecting their natural living conditions. Farmers must take great care of the animals throughout all the processes of raw milk production in order to prevent the insurgence of illnesses that ultimately taint the milk and put the cow in conditions of pain. In fact, most shepards know their animals by name and can recognise when they are in pain.
Ensuring high welfare standards means reducing the risk of illnesses for both the animals and consumers and ensuring a better quality of life for the cows.