An argument with a neuro-marketing consultant in a cafe about food production, Jonathan Swift's thoughts on the need to produce more food and the future of the Irish dairy sector.
The ‘Cows eat grass, don’t they?’ project took to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe for a second year as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, a public engagement initiative to connect academic research with the public. This provides an excellent opportunity to engage with people who wouldn’t normally be involved in research about the dairy industry.
This week I learned that spraying cold water into a new born calf’s ear will shock it into life if it’s not breathing but has a heartbeat. Apparently inside of the ear is quite close to the brain, so this jolts the calf alive when other techniques won’t work. It must be a huge relief for the farm worker, to prevent a calf with a heartbeat fading away.
Farming is both an art and a science. Dairy farming in the UK is poised between being a traditional backbone of the rural economy and a high-tech industry. We need to understand what farmers and other stakeholders value within this sector in order to understand how they make decisions. The idea of the ‘good farmer’ is a useful concept within rural sociology for understanding farmer decision making (1,2). Farmers make decisions that are in line with the ideal of being a good farmer, in their own eyes and that of their peers.
I’ve often been caught out by language and terminology during interviews with farmers; not least in the North East of Scotland (e.g. not realising ‘backend’ means autumn and farmers were saying they vaccinated their cattle in the autumn. I was thinking "I'm pretty sure you're supposed to vaccinate them in the neck..."). I say cow for all cattle when a farmer might use it to mean a female bovine animal that has given birth at least once.
Indoor dairy farming is about more than just the housing of the cows. It's about the farming system, the ethos and the history that underpins this modern farming practice. Indoor dairy farming is increasingly common in the UK, but to my knowledge rare in the Republic of Ireland. The UK and Ireland, despite having similar climates, landscapes and similar-ish culture and history (in some respects), have very different dairy systems and visions for the future. This raises the questions of why this is, and how the dairy sectors in both countries will develop.
As a society we may be losing touch with how our food is produced, but one thing we all know is that milk comes from cows and cows eat grass. But is this the case anymore? And does it matter if this is changing? These are questions I wanted to explore in an event with the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Edinburgh Fringe, organised by the Beltane Public Engagement Network on the 24th August 2017. The idea behind the event is to bring academic research into the public domain and facilitate discussion.