Currently in SA, it is near impossible to know where one’s food comes from and how it is produced. The package labels are ambiguous and misleading, or simply offer no information. Unless consumers ask questions and demand answers, there will be no transparency in our food industry. At the moment, our food is the cause of widespread environmental destruction and cruel animal exploitation. I want that to change.
Free range? Not so much…
If you live in the Western Cape (South Africa), you’ll probably know of a brand of dairy products called Fair Cape Free RangeTM. You may have felt compelled to purchase this dairy in the place of another brand, “because it’s free range”. Well, I did: if you are going to consume dairy, free range dairy is the ethical choice, isn’t it? The bottle even says so:
However, somewhat less conspicuous is the trademark symbol (I’ll give my mom the credit for noticing that – merci Mam!):
“Fair Cape Free Range” is the brand-name of their dairy products: nothing more. It’s not certified free range. Common sense tells me that if it were truly free range, it would be significantly more expensive – not 15% more, but closer to 40% more expensive – right? After all, that’s pretty much why factory farming took off in the first place: to cut costs.
I decided to visit the farm. It happens to be about 10km from my parents’ home – convenient enough. After a couple of emails and phone calls (during which I was informed that the farm was only really open to the public in September), I organised an appointment with Sonja, Fair Cape’s PR. (I must commend Fair Cape for their transparency and the relative ease with which members of the public may visit their farms.) So, on July 22nd 2010, Brendan and I took ourselves on a little drive through the beautiful Durbanville Hills, to Fair Cape dairies.
These are the fields of oats, canola, cottonseed and soy that are pictured on the bottle labels as “lots of juicy pastures”. The four sheds in the distance (pictured on the bottle label below) are where the “mooing mamas” spend their days.
These sheds are specially designed to let hot air escape, so that summer temperatures inside the sheds are up to 10 degrees lower than out in the sun. The cows are Friesland cows originating from Europe, so they are not accustomed to the Western Cape’s high temperatures. Of course, they use them because their milk production is much higher than that of indigenous cows.
These sheds are specially designed to let hot air escape.
The feed, having been harvested from the fields and dried in bales, is fed to the cows as Total Mixed Ration (TMR) just as in any feedlot system – contrary to what the label says, the cows don’t have access to “plenty of natural grazing”. On the positive side, the feed is non-GM, and the cows are not fed antibiotics unless they fall ill – in which case the milk is safely discarded.
The manure that is flushed from the floors of the milking parlour is diluted and aerated in the small dam pictured above. The solids that are extracted from this system (using a “separator”, below) are sprayed onto the fields as fertiliser, and the water is reused to flush the parlour floors.
The feed is poured from a tractor on the floor along the railing:
This is Sandy.
Apparently, keeping the cows in two feet of muck-and-straw is necessary to keep them nice and cosy through the winter months. Every spring, when the weather begins to warm a little, the sheds are cleaned out – after which the school tours start pouring in. [Aha – now I understand why they wanted me to delay my visit till September!] According to experts in the production of free range dairy, the sheds should be cleaned out twice daily.
Cow in muck.
Cows with a view? The irony kills me…
At the time of my visit, the farm had about 2300 cows, and the parlour’s milking capacity was about 1300. At the time, they were milking about 900 cows a day. Each cow was milked three times daily, producing on average 39 litres of milk per day.
This high-tech and “ultra-gentle” milking circle takes 60 cows at a time. It rotates slowly, and by the time a cow is back at the point where she walked on, she has finished being milked and can walk off. Inside each enclosure on the milking circle is a trough containing concentrates (or high quality feed), from which the cow may feed while she is being milked. The concentrate assists with milk production and helps to maintain the cow’s health. It also calms her down and encourages her let-down mechanism (whereby the milk is released).
The blue dip that is painted onto the cows’ teats after milking, prevents infection caused by flies sitting on the teats – which would typically result in mastitis. In a natural environment where the cows are not lying in their own dung, this problem would not be so prevalent.
The female calves remain with their mothers for 2-3 days after birth, after which they are bottle fed for 2-3 weeks. Then they are put onto TMR and water. To put this in perspective; in a natural environment, calves may suckle for several weeks or even a few months.
Normally, the cows are impregnated by artificial insemination – using “the best Holstein-Friesland seed in the world”. However, for their first impregnation, the young cows are too nervous and edgy to withstand this procedure, so they are sent to pasture to spend a few weeks with a bull or two. This is the only time in their lives that they will eat growing grass and range freely in a pasture. Once they fall pregnant, they are milked until about two months before they give birth (gestation period is 9 months, like humans). After their first pregnancy, the cows are re-impregnated continually, with a gap of a few weeks between birth and the next pregnancy. The oldest cows at Fair Cape are about 10-12 years old. Presumably, the cows are sent to the slaughterhouse once their production rates drop low. The natural lifespan of a cow is about 25 years.
The male calves are sold either to beef farms or to veal-production farms – which makes you realise that actually, in buying factory-farmed dairy, you are implicitly supporting the meat industry…
On their way back from the milking parlour to the sheds, they may be able to snatch a treat of fresh grass, if they can crane their necks far enough over the railing.
Some time after this outing, I emailed Joel Serman of Fair Cape, asking him how Fair Cape justifies the use of the terms “free range”, “graze”, and “pasture”. I received a generous reply, where he affirmed that
“there are no regulations for Free Range in South Africa which has resulted in a number of unscrupulous operators slapping the words ‘free range’ onto products with no indication of how and why they justify their decision.”
Essentially, Fair Cape’s defense of the use of the term “free range” is explained by Joel:
“We did not call the milk “Free Range”, we called it “Fair Cape Free Range” i.e. Fair Cape’s take on free range. Whenever we mention the words “Fair Cape Free Range” on any of our products, this is combined with the 6 bullet points which explain exactly what Fair Cape Free Range is.”
The bullet points are listed on the label:
Although the term “free range” seems a bit ambiguous (probably due to its widespread abuse), a quick Google search gave me Wiktionary’s definition:
“Of, pertaining to, or produced by animals that are allowed to roam freely, rather than being confined indoors.”
If you have another look at the label, the part where it describes how wonderful the cows’ living conditions are, you’ll find some phrases that not only are misleading, but downright lies:
The terms “pasture” and “graze” are defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as follows:
pasture n. & v. –n. 1 land covered with grass etc. suitable for grazing animals, esp. cattle or sheep. 2 herbage for animals. –v. 1 tr. put (animals) to graze in a pasture. 2 intr. & tr. (of animals) graze.
graze1 v. 1. intr. (of cattle or sheep, etc.) eat growing grass. 2. tr. a feed (cattle etc.) on growing grass. b feed (on grass). 3 intr. pasture cattle.
Joel’s response was
“You have raised a few very important points, specifically around the wording on the label which I would like to review with my team.”