Dairy farmers are turning to TikTok to dispel myths about animal cruelty for young vegans.
Recent environmental protests have seen activists throw milk on supermarket floors to persuade farmers they should transition to a plant-based food system.
Younger consumers are increasingly turning to plant-based milks over concerns about the welfare of cattle and their calves, with sales of dairy milk falling by half since 1974.
But now, a competition to find farming’s top young ‘vlogger’ is inviting social media stars to educate primary school children about where their milk comes from.
The contest, held by farmstock business Harrison & Hetherington, is taking advantage of a new wave of dairy farmers who have taken to TikTok to break common stereotypes about the industry.
In the 1950s the UK had nearly 200,000 dairy farmers compared to just 7,850 now, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
One is Tom Pemberton, who has 54,900 followers on TikTok and posts humorous videos of his daily work over tracks by singer Jason Derulo, while Farmer Will, who appeared on the Love Island reality programme, has 1.5 million followers.
Zoe Colville’s account The Chief Shepherdess has 41,200 followers on Instagram, and the former hairdresser posts selfies and videos of her work as a sheep farmer.
A video of a “Christmas miracle” showing the birth of two lambs has amassed over 2,700 likes. Her new book, The Chief Shepherdess: Lessons in Life, Love and Farming details how she abandoned a fast-paced life in London to become a farmer in Kent.
Laura McLaughlin will judge the contest alongside Rebecca Wilson, with whom she hosts farming podcast Boots and Heels.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there about farming and sometimes it’s not as accessible for people to understand where their food comes from, especially from urban areas,” she said.
“Social media is becoming more popular among young farmers because it’s accessible – also it gives that one to one interaction where you can really get up close with the farming community, where you can see the good and the bad – it’s authentic.”
Last year, the UK’s biggest dairy producer, Arla Foods, said that declining sales stemmed from people feeling “ashamed towards dairy in public”, claiming cows had been cancelled as swathes of younger consumers turned to veganism.
Vegan videos are extremely popular on TikTok, with the hashtag amassing over 30 billion views.
“Dairy in particular gets a huge bad press,” she said. “It’s just really important we have people showing the reality of it.
“Interest in veganism is everywhere you look, about raping cows and taking their babies away, ‘not your mother, not your milk’, all those headlines or slogans that we see all the time through Veganuary.
“There needs to be someone saying ‘fine, that’s what you think, this is what happens, this is the reality’.”
Caitlin Riddle, the organiser of the competition, told The Telegraph that online videos could tackle misconceptions about dairy consumption relating to animal welfare and sustainability.
“There’s this belief that dairy cows are just abused and that their calves are removed from them, it’s portrayed in a really negative way,” the 32-year-old, who has worked on farms around the country and now lives on one near the Scottish borders, told The Telegraph.
“When I used to rear calves, and those guys were my babies, I would know them all, I would know if any of them were slightly off colour or not drinking, any quirks, you know and pick up on.”
She said that misconceptions about welfare would be challenged by seeing the “love and dedication that goes into rearing calves” on social media.
The Vegan Society has described how when calves are removed from their mothers this causes “immense distress for both mother and calf”.
But Ms Riddle said that she had seen cows forget their calves quickly, and that cows that produced a dead calf, for instance, would leave it.
She pointed to the UK’s high standards for how both cows and their calves are treated. While around 60,000 male calves are killed at birth every year, according to the Humane League, legislation requires that they are spared avoidable pain and suffering.
Practices such as sexing bull semen is enabling the industry to phase this practice out.
Introducing new standards
At the beginning of last year, the UK’s Red Tractor scheme introduced standards to prohibit the “routine euthanasia” of calves, although this is not law.
Concerns have also been raised over chemicals being passed on through cow’s milk containing chemicals, though Ms Riddle insisted that milk from cows with mastitis or on antibiotics would never be used for humans.
“Then there’s the age-old thing that cow farts are killing the planet [through methane production],” she added. “For many years now farmers have been practising regenerative farming, particularly in the UK.”
The competition is also hoping to take advantage of a growing number of farmers turning to social media to showcase their working lives.