Four Northern Ireland dairy farms among first to be RSPCA-assured for welfare

Four Northern Ireland dairy farmers are among the first in the UK to be given the RSPCA’s seal of approval for their welfare standards.

The farms were among Marks & Spencer’s 37 suppliers, which were assessed against hundreds of the highest standards by the animal protection charity.

As a result, the supermarket has become the first in the UK to ensure all of its milk comes from RSPCA-approved sources. And it’s also the first time the RSPCA has given its approval to dairy farms in Northern Ireland.

All 37 farms supplying fresh milk to M&S – known as the M&S Milk Pool – were visited by RSPCA assessors during April, May and June. They ran through a rigorous list of 332 standards on each visit.

In Northern Ireland, the standard of compliance was high – three of the four farms assessed in the region were among 14 in the UK to meet all the standards on the first assessment.

Most of the remaining farms only needing to make a small number of changes to achieve full compliance and the fourth Northern Ireland farm missed just one point the first time, achieving 99.5% compliance.

Under the scheme, the farms are given four weeks to correct any non-compliance issues and are assessed routinely once a year, as well as through further unannounced visits.

The standards are based on the “five freedoms” and cover the whole of an animal’s life, from their health and diet to environment and care – including things like space, light, bedding, transport and humane slaughter.

They cover all aspects of cow welfare associated with milk production, including calf rearing, accommodation, health planning feed and grazing.

332 dairy welfare standards

Some of the points include:

  • Farms must have a nutrition plan, which is to be reviewed twice a year – and there must be a written record of this.
  • Feeding and watering equipment must be designed and placed to minimise contamination and cows must not have to compete for food.
  • Total confinement and zero-grazing systems are not allowed under the scheme.
  • Every new calf must receive colostrum either from its dam or from another freshly-calved cow as soon as possible after it is born, and it must also continue to suckle for the first 24 hours of its life. Consideration to take a calf away from the cow sooner will only be given in circumstances where a vet has identified Johne’s Disease.
  • Calves must be put into social groups before they reach eight weeks old.
  • In cases where feed is restricted, extra trough space must be made available – rising from 400mm/head to 750mm/head for most breeds.
RSPCA dairy welfare assessment
An RSPCA staff member carrying out a dairy welfare assessment
  • If a teat system is used to feed calves, they must be positioned so the calf’s neck is either horizontal or slightly tilted upward.
  • When cattle are housed, the water troughs must have space for at least 10% of the herd to drink at any one time.
  • Cattle should not be expected to walk more than 250m to water.
  • Provision must be made for an emergency water supply in case of freezing or drought.
  • Smooth concrete floors must be grooved (9mm deep) or treated with a non-slip coating.
  • Passages must be wide enough to allow two cows to pass freely.
  • There must be at least one cow brush – static or rotary for every 100 cows – or in herds smaller than 100, one for every 50 cows.
  • Dirty bedding must be removed twice a day.
  • A minimum of 0.7m must be available in front of each cubicle for lunging or head bobbing.
  • Unbedded areas must be scraped twice a day.
  • Housed areas must be lit to around 200 lux during the day at cow eye level (50 lux is enough to allow a person with normal eyesight to read a newpaper without difficulty).
  • “Multi-use” udder cloths must not be used.
  • Udders, teats and flanks must be clean, dry and free from sores entering the parlour.
  • Following milking, cows must be encouraged to stay standing for at least half an hour.
  • Sticks must not be used for hitting cattle.

The full list of RSPCA dairy standards can be found here.


Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture and Fisheries at M&S, said: “No other retailer has this level of transparency or standards in its dairy supply chain.

Back in March we faced calls to cut ties with one of our dairy farmers because of a breach of animal welfare regulations. It would have not have been the right thing to do.

“One of our farmers made a mistake, so instead we worked with the farmer to rectify the issue and took the decision to strengthen our standards by asking an independent to assess all of our dairy farms.

“We know how much animal welfare matters to our customers and that they expect the highest standards from us. RSPCA Assured standards are the highest in the dairy industry and we are proud of our farmers who work hard day-in-day-out to enable us to achieve this for our milk pool.

“RSPC Assured standards are the toughest in the business. We’ve supported those farms that had work to do to achieve them, but I’m pleased to say every farmer has stepped up and delivered everything we and RSPCA Assured has asked of them.”

Three farmers have stopped supplying M&S since the plans were announced on March 31. However, a spokeswoman said this was for reasons unrelated to RSPCA assurance and unrelated to animal welfare.