By Helen Browning
Of all the benefits I love about organic farming – the wildlife, the landscape, the delicious food- what motivates me more than anything is allowing our animals to have as good a life as possible. I sit on committees which spend endless amounts of time discussing what constitutes better welfare for farm animals, often frustrated because, as a farmer, the answer seems obvious. At Eastbrook, we aim to put the animal centre stage, to understand what she or he wants and needs to be able to fulfil her potential as a pig, or a cow, or a sheep, or a chicken.
What does this mean in practice? Well, for our native breed pigs it means living in family groups, late weaning of piglets so that they are robust and independent by the time they leave mum; it means living outdoors with loads of space and fresh ground to rootle in on a regular basis. We have never needed to cut our piglets teeth or dock their tails as when they have this much to do, and little stress, they don’t bully each other as often happens in intensive indoor units. Even in the coldest, wettest weather, the pigs seem happiest outside. As long as they have a dry, warm ‘arc’ ( their house) with plenty of straw, they still enjoy foraging in the grass and mud with their oh-so-sensitive noses….we don’t put rings in them either!....looking for roots and bugs and other buried treasure.
It’s not a life without risk and danger. Sometimes a rogue fox will try to steal very young piglets. And it’s certainly much harder work for Chris and Tony, our fantastic stockmen who look after the pigs, than it would be if all the animals were in a concrete box and could be fed with the push of a button.
But I liken it to the way we choose to live our own lives; would we prefer a life of safe, mind-numbing boredom, wrapped in cotton wool (or in the case of pigs, in steel bars and concrete slats) or a life with some adventure, some highs and lows, some opportunity to experience, to battle, to play?
‘But why does this all matter, we are going to kill and eat them anyway?’ is a comment I often encounter. For me, that’s why it matters. We have lived alongside animals for centuries, and it seems to me that there is an ancient contract between us; ‘ We humans will provide as good a life or better than you would have experienced in the wild, and you will allow us the benefit of your milk, and eggs and meat’. Not ‘We will abuse you with a life of misery, so that your final trip to the abattoir will be a merciful release.’
More pragmatically, our abuse of farm animals may come back to bite us in other ways. Pigs and chickens cannot be kept intensively without regular drug inputs, mostly antibiotics, and we now understand more about the dangers of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. Diseases which may transmit from animals to humans also seem more likely to arise from large intensive units.
It’s not just pigs at Eastbrook. We have pioneered a system for rearing the calves born to our dairy cows, using the older cows which have ‘retired’ from the milking herd. This gives our calves the benefit of the TLC of a real mother, and an easier last few years on the farm for the older cows. Most controversially to some people, we rear our pure bred dairy bull calves, which are too often shot on dairy farms, as organic rose/pink veal.
These calves have a great life, enjoying the same lifestyle as all our other calves; a varied diet, outside on clover pastures in the summer, plenty of space and bedding and light.
The downside of all of this is of course that it costs more, mostly in peoples’ time. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.