2 Oct 2010

Super-dairy: cash cow but environmental hazard?

Plans to develop Britain’s first US-style super-dairy have prompted fears over animal welfare and the environmental costs.

Britain’s dairy industry is in crisis as small farmers going out of business every week.

Is this the future? Cows, in their thousands, kept indoors, intensive milk production on an industrial scale.

The average age of a British dairy farmer is nearly 60. Three farms a week are going out of business.

The answer, says Peter Willes, is to build bigger. Much bigger.

Willes is one of three farmers behind controversial plans for Britain’s first American-style super-dairy – near the village of Nocton, in Lincolnshire.

An awful lot of slurry
The plans have not gone down well in rural Lincolnshire.

The developers say the cows will have first-class facilities, in the most environmentally sustainable dairy unit in the country.

But there is no way of getting round it. 8,000 cows produce an awful lot of slurry – slurry that would be stored in huge ponds, then piped as manure onto the fields that surround the local villages.

Not surprisingly, people here fear smell, flies and disease.

Slurry would be stored in huge ponds, then piped as manure onto fields surrounding the villages.

Environment Agency fears of pollution if the slurry ponds and pipes were to leak led to the initial proposal being withdrawn in April.

A modified plan is to be resubmitted to the local council later his month, reigniting the controversy.

Peter Willes insists he can meet everyone’s concerns. The super-dairy will have an anaerobic digester – a conversion plant for slurry into methane gas that will be burned to generate renewable electricity.

Animal welfare
It is s animal welfare is where the controversy is fiercest.

The super-dairy is modelled on huge American mega-dairies’ zero-grazing systems, where cows spend their entire lives in sheds.

While some there are clearly run well, campaigners say there is more than enough evidence like this from the bad ones to mean they should not be built in Britain at all.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Peter Willes agrees. Super-dairies do require the highest management standards.

Campaigners say there is enough evidence to mean super-dairies should not be built in Britain.

Public attitudes will make or break the plans.

Back in Lincolnshire, meanwhile, a former dairy farmer is campaigning against the super-dairy.

The British dairy industry is at a cross-roads as it fights to survive. The planning decision on the Nocton super-dairy will be a strong sign of where it goes.