Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

I spent the morning considering dark matter and the afternoon considering the dairy cow. Cows weigh more than half a ton and there is something very pleasing about their extra-largeness. All the equipment that comes with cows is satisfyingly chunky and mechanical, too: tractors and fork-lifts. It makes my sheep and pig paraphernalia look flimsy. There is an extra element of drama in dairy farming, as the cows must be milked twice daily. Sheep just gambol and graze. I feel the pigs would like me to play more football with them, but they're happy rooting, munching and chasing each other all day.

The milking machine was a huffing, puffing, whirring delight; an immense, rotating carousel which the cows queued good-naturedly to board, with a good deal more elegance than passengers at Heathrow. As they reversed out of the machine and pirouetted away, it was almost ballet. The platform holds feeding troughs and udder clamps so cows are simultaneously fed and relieved of their burden. It was an incredibly efficient system, but somehow it also managed to give an impression of great spectacle, a benign and mesmerising magic roundabout.

Farming is driven by cost, so the modern dairy cow has evolved into something unnaturally skinny with huge udders, a bit like Jordan. The public tend to assume farmers are the ones who exploit animals. This dairy farmer, David Christiansen, just loves cows. I think anyone who is involved with cattle for long would have to love cows; it's a vocation. I felt he was acting as a representative of bovines, protecting them from the public's lust for quantity. His cows are mainly Friesian crosses. They don't have the prolific milk yield of the Holstein, which he compares to racehorses.

The Bernard Matthews bird-flu outbreak, "bootiflu", is another blow for public confidence in farming standards, and I wouldn't buy anything except organic fowl.

This dairy outfit wasn't organic, rare-breed or celebrity-endorsed but it was very ethically run. However things are labelled, animal welfare all comes down to the individual farmer's principles. Public attitudes are changing, but the higher mark-ups on "green" crops will probably attract the greediest and most unscrupulous traders of all. We're converting to organic status and the main difference I've noticed is that now we feed the sheep organic pellets. I do think organic farming is the way forward, but it's very pleasing to meet a good, honest farmer with a big smile on his face.

There were about 500 cows yielding about 12,000 litres of milk a day. "Come and look at it!" he said. I peered into a vast vat of wonderful, creamy milk. I felt an overwhelming urge to dive in, headfirst. It's where cheese comes from, eventually.

There's still no sign of dark matter, either. I'm still thinking about that.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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