You know you’re doing something innovative when it’s drawing envious chatter from people on all sides. This has been the case for U.K. dairy farmer Fiona Provan, whose ethical approach to raising and milking cows has put her on the leading edge of the “cruelty-free dairy” revolution. “I’ve fallen out with the conventional [dairy farmers], I’ve fallen out with the vegans,” she told iNews. “I’m in the middle. So I get attacked.”
What has made Provan’s approach to producing what still remains one of the world’s most popular beverages so radical starts at birth. “Commercial milk is a result of taking calves away from their mothers,” Provan explained to Ham & High.
Waiting until the natural weaning age to begin milking the mothers, this dairy farmer explains on her dairy’s website, “When you drink milk from our cows at our dairy, you are not drinking milk from a depressed grieving animal who has had her baby taken away!”
For Provan, the journey to becoming a dairy farmer who is deeply concerned with the well-being of her herd started with her father’s passion for his job as a large animal veterinary surgeon. “I just loved being around those cows,” she told iNews. “There’s something about them, their breathing. Their heart rate is slower and they’re warmer.”
“It was a family business, we all had to help out, so I had an in built love for nature from an early age,” she said in a profile for Miles Willis Photography. Provan’s father, however, did not believe that there was enough economic opportunity in farming and tried to steer his daughter into other careers. “I wasn’t allowed to go into farming, I was sent to catering college where became a chef, which I hated.”
Despite her father’s prediction that there was no money to be found in farming, she persisted. “At 22 I got married and was given a house cow by my father, a Jersey,” she told Ham & High. “I was campaigning for animal rights but when I became a mother, I decided I must start an ethical dairy. I couldn’t drink milk until I did.”
As Provan was tracing her own career, she knew that she wanted it to involve cows. Her innovative operation Calf at Foot Dairy started in 2012 and now operates on a farm near the village of Somerleyton in Suffolk, England. It’s a totally female-run farm, quite a rarity in the dairy industry, and goes further than many others to put the welfare of its cows above everything else.
This involves many different practices, including feeding the cows an exclusively grass-based diet. Whereas conventional commercial dairies will supplement their food with grains and vitamins to try to increase production, Calf at Foot Dairy cows “are fed a natural diet and that means: no grain, no cereal, no soya, no GMOs—just purely pasture fed meaning 100% grass,” according to their website.
The biggest difference and the real inspiration for the operation is the way that mothers and calves are allowed to bond. In conventional dairies, calves are almost immediately separated from mothers after being born and might never see them again. They are fed synthetic milk substitutes and artificially inseminated at 18 months of age, well before the 24 months when most cows get pregnant. Their life expectancy is only five years, compared to the 12 years that Provan’s cows will live to.
She waits until nine months, when the calves are starting to eat grass, to begin milking their mothers. Provan’s hope is for consumers to understand that farming better does come at a cost. “We have to pay what it’s worth, we have to give the farmers what it costs to produce that milk. We sell ours at 3 pounds a litre and that barely covers it.”
While the milk made from Provan’s cows may be more expensive, there is good reason to believe that it’s not only superior ethically but also nutritionally to what is produced at many “mega” dairies. Advocates claim that the unpasteurized and unhomogenized milk Provan sells has higher nutrient levels and antimicrobials, helping protect against asthma and allergies.
She also thinks that her unusual micro-dairy and others that sprang up all over the country will make a difference in the treatment of animals. “I just hope factory farming is stopped for good and people realize there is another way to farm,” said Provan.
Though she struggles to be profitable, and given her excellent treatment of her animals, she has no regrets about doing it the hard way. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I had children but this keeps me alive,” she told iNews. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this.”