Fonterra’s been happily ‘feedlot farming’ indoors in China for nearly three years, and raising their calves in cages. Um, so remind me again … what was it they said, last December, about the ‘cubicle’ farms?
In December 2009, when the ‘cubicle cow’ story broke, Fonterra kept its distance. They said they had real concerns about the effect ‘stall’ (aka ‘cubicle’ and ‘covered’) farming could have on their pasture-fed free-range brand.
They’ve been farming a similar way in China, since 2008.
Fonterra milk supply manager Tim Deane said the company had “real concerns” about the environmental sustainability of stall-based farming.
New Zealand had been showcased as an example of a country using free-range systems by the World SPCA, he said.
“We will be watching carefully to see if the farms are able to comply with the regulations governing animal welfare and sustainable land use.”
Deane said Fonterra was comfortable with dairy-farming techniques that supported pasture-based farming, such as feed pads and supplementary feeding.
“We don’t believe stall-based farming of this type is consistent with New Zealand’s reputation as a source of dairy products from substantially grass-fed cows.”
Here is a feature piece about Fonterra's first dairy farm in China — the ‘Tangshan Fonterra farm’.
It describes an operation of around 3,000 cows. The farm is a “feedlot system”. The animals are housed in “a series of long blue barns”, atop dry compost bedding. Feed is bought in, from local farmers. “Unlike some feedlot designs that have outdoor pens, the animals are housed in the barns all the time.” And, “Calves are initially reared in individual cages before being moved into larger pens.”
The farms in China make milk for China, not the global market. The Chinese are, presumably, happy: the Fonterra partnership promises a better-quality milk deal than might otherwise be the case for them.
There’s some talk of the Chinese climate: “Temperatures can go well below freezing in the winter and climb into the mid 30s in the summer. Heat stress can be highly detrimental to milk production so good ventilation and a system of fans and sprinklers are used in the barns.”
The New Zealand proposals are, likewise, a response to weather conditions in parts of New Zealand: the extreme Mackenzie country climate, and high rainfall in Southland. (Southland proposals, as far as I know to date, are for short-term winter housing.)
Let’s try to unpack Mr Deane’s comments, a little bit.
Might the concern have been stalls or “stall-based farming”, specifically, as opposed to the Chinese “feedlot” barns? The New Zealand applicants have said that, while individual stalls would available to the cows, it is still a form of loose housing. The animals would be free to move around, within the confines of the barn. Unlike the Chinese calves, who start life in cages. (The cages are said to “give greater flexibility” — for example because they could be moved to a different location, if there was an outbreak of disease. Passive voice.)
Mr Deane’s quite right. There are concerns about the “environmental sustainability of stall-based farming”, and NZ Dairy’s stealthy creep towards more industrialised systems, that ‘externalise’ their footprint. It really is a most excellent point. It’s just, um … not quite clear, shall we say, whether and how Fonterra’s Chinese system is any more environmentally sustainable than what had been proposed in New Zealand.
“New Zealand had been showcased as an example of a country using free-range systems by the World SPCA,” said Deane. Meanwhile, out back of the shop, Fonterra was busy washing its hands.
And so, to the all-important brand. Deane was worried about our pasture-fed free-range milk, and its image, being tainted by association. They’d be unable to refuse or separate the milk. Poor perceptions of it might taint the rest.
That's milk ex-New Zealand. But when the word leaks out, to those 'enlightened' non-Chinese markets, in Europe or the States let's say, that Fonterra, too — global face of NZ Dairy — farms in barns (or stalls, or cubicles, or whatever), albeit in China for China, what then? Same risk? When they hear about the calves — and there’s growing consciousness and concern about veal calves, raised in cages — what should a middle-class conscience think?
And what are we to think? What does Fonterra actually think, when it’s not quite so busy, pandering to domestic prejudices? Anything wrong with a little bit of moral relativism, and expedience?