Topic: The ethics of grazing: An analysis of empirical and philosophical arguments around dairy cow welfare within fully housed and grazing systems in the UK and Ireland
Keywords: animal welfare, dairy, indoor farming, grazing, pasture
Grazing of dairy cows has becoming increasingly politicised in recent years. Many farms across Europe have moved from a system of grazing and housing cows alternately for parts of the year to housing cows all year round. Research shows consumers associate year round housing of cows with negative animal welfare and are not in favour of it.
Interviews with key stakeholders in the UK and Ireland and document analysis reveals very different constructions of dairy cow welfare in grazed and year round housed systems between and within both countries. Analysis of the types of arguments made shows empirical arguments based on scientific research and personal experience about the welfare of cows in different systems – with welfare defined in different ways. There are also philosophical arguments about the naturalness of dairy cows in different systems, their rights to integrity and autonomy, as well as human connection with the landscape and agricultural heritage.
The change in dairy systems in the UK and Ireland is being governed primarily through market mechanisms. There is a burgeoning market for ‘free range’ and other pasture based labels in the UK. The empirical and philosophical arguments for higher cow welfare in grazed systems are hotly contested in the UK, and most key stakeholders are opposed to differentiation in terms of access to grazing. In Ireland where the vast majority of dairy cows graze and supply chains are much more consolidated, industry bodies are looking to brand all Irish dairy products as pasture based. In contrast to the UK, key stakeholders in Ireland whole heartedly embrace the empirical and philosophical arguments for grazing and the main challenge is seen as how to capitalise on their market advantage. Empirical arguments based on experience and scientific evidence will be difficult to resolve because of the many competing scientific definitions of ‘animal welfare’ and the challenges in measuring and demonstrating the concept. Philosophical arguments are at times framed as ‘anti-science’, or a-scientific but should be subordinate to scientific arguments. Market mechanisms appear to open up a space for discussion of philosophical aspects of the grazing through consumers’ ‘right to choose’.