The Milk of Human Kindness

When the anthropopper was a boy growing up in north London, milk was delivered in pint bottles to our doorstep by the milkman from either the London Co-operative Society or the rival United Dairies. You had a choice of Gold Top, ie milk from Jersey cows with an inch or two of cream at the top of the bottle, ideal for pouring out onto desserts or fruit salads; Silver Top, which was whole milk with less cream than Jersey milk; Red Top, which was homogenised milk. By special request, you could occasionally get Green Top, which was raw (unpasteurised) milk. There was also sterilised milk, a kind of precursor of UHT milk, which came in a different pint bottle with a metal crown cap instead of a foil top and you needed a beer bottle opener to get at it.

UD milkman

A United Dairies milkman in the 1950s. (photo via 1900s.org.uk)

It was considered anti-social not to wash out the bottles before returning them. I can remember being outraged by the snobbishness of a comment, from the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, that when she was out canvassing for the Conservatives, she could always tell if a household voted Labour because those were the houses where the people didn’t wash their milk bottles before putting them out on the step.

Following legislation from the Attlee–led Labour government after the Second World War, each child at school was entitled to one-third of a pint of milk (one bottle per pupil), which you either drank with a straw from a big box of Sweetheart brand straws, or if you were a boy and wanted to show off, you drank straight from the bottle. School milk was stopped by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, and she was promptly dubbed “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for this mean-spirited edict.

Autre temps, autre moeurs. Decades later there are few, if any daily doorstep deliveries and instead people get their milk once or twice a week in cartons or plastic bottles from the supermarkets. All milk is pasteurised and most of it is heavily processed, homogenised and either semi-skimmed or skimmed. Raw milk is unavailable in shops. As milk has become more and more processed to ensure longer shelf life, milk allergies are becoming more frequent and many doctors are having to advise their patients to avoid milk products altogether. What is more, supermarkets which use milk as a ‘loss leader’ are said to be placing intolerable pricing pressures on dairy farmers to provide cheaper and cheaper milk. These farmers are warning that the price of milk, which has fallen to just 22p a pint in the likes of Asda, Aldi and Iceland, and is now cheaper than some bottled water, could force many of them out of business unless drastic action is taken. The number of dairy farms in Britain has halved since 2002, to fewer than 10,000, and a further reduction is expected, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

The results of all this on animal welfare can be imagined. When more and more cattle are penned together, they are likely to become stressed and consequently to do one another and the cowman harm. In such a situation, horns are seen as an impediment to easy management and even as a danger, so the cows are routinely de-horned. Horns, however, are far more than just two things that sit on top of the cow’s head. To quote from a leaflet issued by my local biodynamic farm:

Horns are sense organs and have a very real function within the whole metabolism of the organism. This function is often difficult to describe because it concerns organic processes which go beyond what is immediately sense-perceptible. Cattle with horns are more awake and discerning of their fodder. Horns are made of hard siliceous substances and through their unique form have the capacity to prevent the dissipation of vital forces released through the animal’s metabolism. They are instead reflected back, ‘digested’ once again and incorporated within the animal’s excretion products. It is this function of the horn within the organism of the cow which is later made use of in the preparation of biodynamic horn manure. It is, however, not only the quality of manure which is affected, but also that of …the milk.

I don’t understand why it is that animal welfare groups, who campaign for humane conditions for farm animals and the right of these animals to express their true nature, have not taken up the issue of de-horning cattle. De-horned cattle are animals which have been deprived of a vital part of their anatomy mainly for economic reasons.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The herd of beautiful MRI cows, all with their horns, at Old Plaw Hatch Farm.

The anthropopper is fortunate enough to live near a biodynamic farm, where he can buy raw milk in glass bottles, at a cost of 90p per pint plus 50p returnable deposit on the bottle. The milk comes from the farm’s own herd of beautiful Meuse Rhine Issel (MRI) cattle, each of which has its horns. You can read more about them here.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

Bottles of raw milk and other dairy products at the Old Plaw Hatch Farm Shop in Sussex.

The farm also has its own dairy, which produces cream, yoghurt, kefir and wonderful cheeses, all made from raw milk. Raw milk has more nutrients than its pasteurised equivalent, tastes better and it’s said that many people with milk allergies can drink it without ill effects. All I know is that the dairy products are excellent, the cows are happy and so are the customers.

Is raw milk safe? Pasteurisation, after all, was introduced to protect people from the danger of catching tuberculosis, listeria and brucellosis via milk – and milk is an excellent medium for microbial growth. There is a useful discussion of the issues here:

At my local biodynamic farm, the milk is tested routinely by the Food Standards Agency (as is standard procedure for all dairy farms) for different bacterial types, TB and brucellosis and other harmful organisms. The farm also undergoes a programme of voluntary testing for all dairy produce. The dairy is an ‘assured premises’ which means that it has been passed by the Environmental Health Office and to show this carries the health mark We005UK. I’m convinced that not only is the milk safe to drink, it’s actually an outstanding source of nutrients including beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus, vitamins, enzymes and calcium.

I realise that most people are not able to buy raw milk because they are nowhere near an outlet. But here’s a very useful map of all those farms in the UK that provide raw milk.

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Please support these farms, because they are making a stand against the bullying of producers by supermarkets. They are also farms where you will find higher animal welfare standards and more sustainable agricultural methods. Bear in mind, though, that in most cases it’s only the biodynamic farms that will produce their raw milk from cattle with horns – and it’s these biodynamic practices that lead to the highest animal welfare and the very best raw milk and dairy products available anywhere.

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Filed under Biodynamic farming, De-horning cattle, Raw Milk

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