Alternative visions of “ethical” dairying: changing entanglements with calves, cows and care

Merisa Thompson*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Few sectors are more ethically contentious than dairy, with debates tending to be polarised between “intensification” and “abolitionist” narratives which often drown out alternative voices operating in-between. This paper examines the marginal spaces occupied by a group of farmers in the United Kingdom who are attempting to move towards what they see as “more ethical” dairying. Drawing on findings from ethnographic research on five farms which have adopted “cow-calf contact rearing”—which focuses on keeping calves with their mothers longer, in opposition to conventional practices of removing them shortly after birth—it asks what values underpin this alternative approach, and how and why “ethical” dairies seek to dairy ethically. To do this, it draws on a feminist epistemology and methodology that sees ethics as situated and contextual, and finds an “ethics of care” to be central to changing entanglements between humans and nonhuman animals. Instead of casting dairy as either “good” or “bad”, it explores the activities of farms which are trying to move towards what they perceive to be “better”, and draws three conclusions: (a) “ethical” dairying demonstrates a heterogeneity of dairy practices which are grounded in “care” and are happening between narrative extremes of intensification versus abolition; (b) although this practice may be, and could be, commodified, farmers are primarily guided by strong ideological principles and influenced by affective and empathetic “entanglements” with cows and calves, the agency of bovines themselves, and their social and ecological environment; and (c) “cow-calf contact rearing” represents a significant shift from a focus on the broader welfare environment towards centring the quality of individual cows’ lives. Ultimately, the paper argues that we should pay greater attention to alternative economies built on an “ethics of care” when envisaging new sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalAgriculture and Human Values
Early online date10 Nov 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Nov 2022


  • Food ethics
  • Gender
  • Feminist ethics of care
  • Dairy
  • Cow-calf contact rearing
  • Alternative food systems


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