Cows and sheep


Modern dairy cows have been selectively bred over many generations to produce as much milk as possible. Over 90% of dairy cows are black-and-white Holstein type. These cows can produce approximately ten times as much milk as a calf would naturally suckle, but there can be a price to pay in terms of the cow's welfare.

Mastitis (a painful inflammation of the udder), lameness and a number of other diseases means that many of the highest yielding cows suffer from pain and discomfort through their productive life. The majority of cows in intensive high-yielding herds will often be culled after producing less than four calves due to infertility and disease resulting from stress. Wild cattle would average 10 calves and many organic dairy farmers will have cows still producing milk after giving birth to 10 calves.

Organic farmers believe that stress is one of the primary causes of disease and welfare problems in intensive livestock farming. The Soil Association standards for organic farming are designed to reduce stress to farmed livestock through a variety of management techniques.

Organic farmers are encouraged to use native breeds of cow (like Dairy Shorthorn). These are rarely capable of yielding as much milk as modern dairy breeds (like Holstein), but they are very well adapted to making good use of home grown forage (grass, hay or silage - fermented grass) to produce milk, and are hardier and less susceptible to disease.

High-yielding dairy cows require a lot of concentrated (high energy, cereal-based) feed in order to provide them with the right amount of energy to maintain their own metabolism and to produce the desired amount of milk. The high incidence of lameness in dairy herds is often associated with large rations of concentrated feeds which affect the horn quality of the hoof. Feed for organic dairy cows have to consist mainly (a minimum of 60%) of home-grown or locally produced grass, roughage or forage. This is because organic farming is a holistic, non-input based agricultural production system and so farmers try to grow what they need. The restriction on the amount of cereal organic cows can eat usually results in them producing less milk and as a consequence, experiencing less stress. 

There can be vast differences in the amount of time that non-organic beef cattle spend grazing. The most intensive systems involve keeping bull calves indoors or in yards. Bull calves are used as they grow quickly. They are fed on high levels of concentrated feeds and silage and finished (fattened up) as quickly as possible. The animals are confined in high numbers, which can increase the risk of infectious diseases such as pneumonia. Less intensive systems allow the calves - castrated bulls and heifers (female cows) - to remain with their mothers. The whole herd is allowed to graze for one or two summers and may be brought indoors during the winter.

An organic beef system allows cows and their calves to graze pasture for most of their lives. They can be finished in well-bedded spacious yards, providing this period does not exceed a fifth of their lifetime. Organic cattle do not have to be housed during the winter, but if they are kept outside, there must be shelter, food and water. As with organic dairy cows at least 60 per cent of the cow’s diet must consist of grass, hay or silage. Intestinal worms are a common problem in all cattle and can be avoided on organic farms by rotating the pastures and also allowing the calves to develop a natural immunity from their mothers. Rotating pastures means moving animals to different fields on the farm. Organic producers are encouraged to choose breeds that suit the conditions on their farm

The beef labelling scheme ensures the verification of any information put onto packs of beef. Beef that is labelled free range, grass fed or of course organic will come from welfare friendly systems. If nothing is specified about the system of production there is no way of knowing that the beef that you buy has not come from an intensive bull-beef system.


Approximately half of the nation's sheep (organic and non-organic) are found on hilly upland areas. Most sheep are able to freely range for most of their lives, although some may be brought inside to give birth. Stocking rates will generally be lower on organic farms that other farms.

The big difference between organic and non-organic sheep systems are the methods used to control and prevent diseases. Non-organic sheep are likely to receive many more veterinary treatments than organic sheep. For example many non-organic lambs will be wormed every four to six weeks, regardless of need and newborn lambs may be given antibiotics as a prophylactic (preventative) treatment.

Organic farmers manage their flocks carefully to reduce the disease risk to new born lambs and use clean grazing systems to minimise the need for worming. Clean grazing involves managing pastures so that sheep, and particularly lambs, are only put into fields that have very low or no worm infestation. A piece of land that has not had sheep on it for twelve months or more would be classed as being clean, this could be land that had crops grown on it the previous year or had cattle kept on it. When worming is necessary, only certain treatments that do not leave residues are permitted. Some wormers can leave a residue in the animal's dung which can then affect soil micro organisms. Many non-organic farmers use organo-phosphorus dips to control sheep scab. Organo-phosphorus dips are prohibited in organic systems as they have serious health implications for animal and humans. Double fencing can help to prevent sheep scab, which can spread when infected sheep rub on fences dividing them from healthy ones. However, this method is impractical on upland areas. Maintaining a closed flock (no bought-in stock) can also prevent disease.

Organic farmers who buy in breeding stock are advised to check their health status and quarantine them before they run with the main flock. It is well known that stress renders animals more vulnerable to disease and some organic farmers think that measures designed to protect the health of non organic sheep - dipping, drenching, vaccinating - are often unnecessarily stressful.

image "I decided that organic farming was the only way I wanted to farm because it is sustainable and gives due consideration to animal welfare and the environment."