Donkey Milk – miracle cure or ethical minefield?

Donkey Milk – miracle cure or ethical minefield?

Donkey Milk

Donkey milk is hailed the world over as a cure for everything from bronchitis to eczema. But what is the potential cost to donkeys and are there better alternatives available?

Health benefits

Donkey and foal

The medicinal and cosmetic properties of donkey milk are nothing short of legendary. Hippocrates prescribed it for just about every ailment going and Pope Francis drank it as a baby. The closest to human milk, it is low in fat and rich in lactose, vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, C, D and E, protein, calcium, essential fatty acids, anti-bacterial enzymes and anti-allergens. It has been found to help lower cholesterol and protect against intestinal infections and respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.

It also seems to be an effective treatment for psoriasis, eczema and acne and is known for its skin-smoothing, anti-ageing properties. Alongside chocolate and liqueur, donkey milk farms are now producing soaps, lotions and cosmetics. Be prepared to pay a premium though. Soap costs between €5 and €10 for a 100g bar.

Lactose intolerance, already prevalent in the UK and America, is now on the increase in southern Europe. Donkey milk is often tolerated by those who are allergic to cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and even soya milk. Yes, demand for donkey milk is on the rise.

But do we really need milk?

Milk

Scientific research shows that eating dairy enhances immunity and decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory infections and Alzheimer’s. However, Osteoporosis is less common in countries that consume small amounts of milk and many of those who cut out dairy completely say that problems like acne, bloating and blocked sinuses disappear.

The vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids found in milk are abundant in a wide variety of other foods. If your diet is rich in vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish, you may not need milk at all.

Tofu, almonds and dark, leafy greens are widely thought to be better sources of calcium than milk, as they also contain vitamins C and K, potassium and magnesium, which help the body absorb calcium. We absorb as little as 25% of the calcium in milk.

Milk formulas are widely available for babies who are not being breast fed (an increasingly common phenomenon). For older children who are allergic to the protein in cow’s milk, there are soya and other alternatives on the market. Whilst these are not always cheap, they are easier on the purse than donkey milk, which comes in at around £50 per tin.

Mass production

Dairy Industry

Modern dairy farming practices have changed the composition of cow’s milk as cows have been bred to be larger and produce greater quantities of milk. High levels of growth hormone and Oestrogen in cow’s milk have been linked to increased risk of prostate, colon, breast, uterus and ovarian cancer.

Organic dairy farmers use fewer hormones and comply with higher welfare standards but these vary from farm to farm. Mark Kastel, director of the Organic Integrity Project at the Cornucopia Institute, speaking to Catherine Guthrie, health and fitness writer, describes “industrial size organic dairies where the line between conventional and organic practices gets blurred”. He says, “Simply buying organic is not enough, you want to buy milk from cows with names, not numbers”.

According to vegetarian and vegan campaigners, the use of fertility hormones and artificial insemination is still permitted under organic and other certification schemes. Cows may still be impregnated every year and may still carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation. Most alarmingly, they can still have their calves taken away within 24-72 hours of birth and unwanted male calves can still be killed shortly after birth or endure long journeys to market or the abattoir.

Donkey milk farms in Europe

Donkey Milk Farm
Golden Donkey Farm, Cyprus

There are already hundreds of donkey milk farms in Europe. Many are small, sustainable, family run farms with as few as 2 or 3 donkeys. Italy has the highest number by far, with around 200 farms and 6,000 donkeys. The Asinerie du Pays des Collines, with 150 donkeys, is the largest in France. Golden Donkeys Farm in Skarinou, Cyprus has 200 donkeys.

Montebaducco donkey milk Italy
Montebaducco, Italy

Swiss co-operative Eurolactis runs the biggest. Montebaducco, a certified organic farm in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, is home to 800 donkeys (although only a quarter of that number will be lactating at any one time).

According to the Montebaducco website, “Donkey’s milk is a rare nectar: the mother only gives her milk (1 litre a day for approximately 6 months) if she has her foal in her field of vision. The farm adheres to the highest levels of animal welfare and hygiene. The donkeys are bred in a rural oasis in the Reggiano territory and fed exclusively with certified organic products such as alfalfa, barley and oat flakes”.

Montebaducco aims to defend the biodiversity of the region and the farm breeds 13 different breeds of donkey, including the rarest. However, it may not be a coincidence that larger breeds with higher milk yields, such as the Romagnoli, Ragusano and Martina Franca, are favoured. In any case, there are other ways to protect rare donkey breeds, along with generous subsidies from the government.

Not a bad life

Donkey milk farm

Donkeys on these farms often have a decent life compared to many. They enjoy plenty of wonderful outdoor space and the company of other donkeys. In some ways, they live a more natural and happier life than some companion donkeys. They are less likely to suffer from obesity and laminitis and, in the majority of cases within Europe, jennies are still covered naturally and both jenny and jack exhibit normal breeding behaviour.

Donkey milk Farm France
Eselin Donkey Farm, France

Kristie Jorgensen, Long Ears Mall.com blogger, writes that “The donkeys at these farms are milked every day, and unlike dairy cows, the mothers are still allowed to raise their babies. Moms and babies live together like in any other donkey herd. When the babies are two or three months old, the farms start separating them from the moms for a couple hours each day. They are still within sight of each other, just in a separate pasture. While separated, the jennet’s udder fills with milk, then after a couple hours, she is milked out, then returned to her baby for the rest of the day”.

At Ile de Ré, a small donkey milk farm in South West France, “The foals are separated from their mother for six hours in order to harvest a little over a litre per donkey per day. Milking is done manually and foals are weaned between eight and ten months”. The Donkey Sanctuary recommends weaning between 4 and 6 months so this is more than sufficient.

Elixâne
Elixâne donkey milk soap

Elixâne, in Normandy, say, “We don’t push the donkey to produce the maximum milk – milking only 2 or 3 times a week and the donkeys are fed on rich grass, Normandy hay, oats, alfalfa, corn and barley”.

Hand milking donkey
Hand milking, Elixane farm, France

The threat of big business

Donkey milk farm

Savita Iyer-Ahrestani, writing for Modern Farmer in 2014, spoke to Jean-Francois Wanbeke, a donkey breeder in the French Pyrenees who believes that “the greatest challenge is to make sure that the supply and demand dynamics remain in balance”.

“The whole point is that donkey’s milk shouldn’t become a mass-produced industry like bovine milk” he says. “Fortunately, the donkey’s milk-producing ability may do that naturally, since a female can only give between 1.5 and two litres of milk a day (compared to around 50 or 60 litres for a cow). This automatically rules out the possibility of mass production (also, female donkeys can only be milked by hand, he says), and will limit the use of donkey’s milk to a smaller, more select market.”

“Which means for now, donkey milk will remain a rare and highly specialized commodity — but if the wider world starts to develop a taste for donkey milk, all that could change.”

And it may already be changing. Donkeys are now milked by machine on some farms. Regarding the need for the foal to be present, donkey owners tell me that a foaless jenny may produce milk if there are other foals present. In some cases a jenny who has never given birth will adopt another foal in the herd and provide milk. I’m also told that jennies can continue to lactate for months and even years after weaning.

donkey milk farmer
Alen Jusupovic, Zavidovici

Alen Jusupovic is a young student who started a farm in Zavidovici, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Speaking to US Aid in 2015, Jusupovic expressed his excitement at the future of donkey milk farming, “The market potential is huge. For now, we are selling only pure milk—my consumers are ordinary people who have bronchial problems—and our new product is homemade soap. We have a lot of ideas for new cosmetic products.”

Many farmers are looking to expand to meet the growing interest in donkey milk, which is still predominantly sold for medicinal purposes. The EU is already exporting freeze dried donkey milk to China and there is rising demand in Russia and across Europe. So how can welfare organisations and governing bodies keep up with such a rapidly growing industry?

Welfare concerns

A recent report by World Horse Welfare and Eurogroup for Animals found that “many parts of the EU equine sector, including donkey milk farms, are unknown quantities – and many equines still suffer welfare problems”.

In the last 5 to 6 years, The Donkey Sanctuary has received growing numbers of reports of welfare concerns related to donkey milk farming. The main issues are the removal of foals and health care. In 2015, they carried out a yearlong study with the University of Milan.

Faith Burden, Head of Policy and Development at The Donkey Sanctuary says, “Welfare standards at the 12 farms which participated voluntarily in the investigation were found to be generally good. The hope behind the study is to help the industry towards self-regulation and further improvement to welfare conditions. We look forward to using the outcomes of this report to create guidelines that promote and share best practices across the industry”.

The results of the study will be made public later this month.

The future of donkey milk farming

Foal drinking milk

Donkey milk farming, whether small scale or large, seems set to continue. While many donkeys on milk farms are being well looked after, this is clearly not the case everywhere. There are concerns over what happens to unwanted foals and history shows that, as the market grows, welfare issues inevitably follow. And if it can be managed in a way that has no negative impact on the wellbeing of donkeys, does that mean we are free to enjoy the nutritional and health benefits it offers?

What are your thoughts on donkey milk farming? Please share your views. To comment, click on the heart symbol at the top of the page.

References:

Donkey Milk Farming Research is Now Underway The Donkey Sanctuary

Donkey Milk Industry Welfare Standards Under Examination The Donkey Sanctuary

Could Donkey Milk be the Elixir of Life? The Daily Mail

Donkey Milk Wikipedia

Donkey’s Milk Has Numerous Health Benefits Huffington Post

Donkey milk can help children with milk allergies BBC News

Is donkey milk the next big thing? The Daily Telegraph

Focus on donkey milk industry welfare Horse and Hound

Should we be drinking milk? Arguments for and against dairy The Independent

Animals Raised to Produce Milk Peta UK

Serb farm makes ‘world’s most expensive’ donkey cheese BBC News

Donkeys Milk Longears Mall.com

Student Turns Donkey Milk Into Profits In Bosnia and Herzegovina USAid

Care for a Glass of Donkey Milk? Modern Farmer.com

Animal Welfare… Ethical Consumer.org

Do You Need Milk? Experience of Life.com

Thanks to Faith Burden, Head of Policy and Development at the Donkey Sanctuary.

Copyright 2016 Amy Swift

8 thoughts on “Donkey Milk – miracle cure or ethical minefield?

  1. I didn’t seem able to find a way to comment on Amy Swift’s article, which is very timely.

    I’ve noticed that people in favour of donkey dairies seem to consider that it is one way of ‘saving donkeys’, and I suppose that using milk is certainly better than using skins. If, however, it becomes profitable to make asses’ milk cheaper and more available, we could be looking at the same kind of suffering that is inflicted on dairy cows, not to mention the development of specific breeds of donkey just for milk.

    But we must not forget that, in most of the world at the moment and also for the foreseeable future, donkeys are WORKING animals with a vital role in transport, for which there is no particular breed and the most desirable trait is adaptability.

    Peta Jones

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this article very interesting having never heard of Donkey Milk being available much less commercially farmed on a global scale. I am glad to see that the welfare of the Donkey within the industry is being checked and safeguards set up before big business swoop in and manage gloss over animal welfare in the interests of profit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This really on another topic, although still germane where the VALUE of donkeys is concerned.
    Abdul Raziq (I address him as Raziq, difficult decision among cultures that use strings of names), although a camel man, has also a large soft spot for donkeys, and is also much more capable than I am of handling the internet. In all my correspondence with him, I have come to admire him very much.

    From: Donkey Research List [mailto:DONKEY-RESEARCH-L@LISTSERV.SOAS.AC.UK] On Behalf Of Raziq Kakar
    Sent: Wednesday, 07 September 2016 8:45 AM
    To: DONKEY-RESEARCH-L@LISTSERV.SOAS.AC.UK
    Subject: Niger bans the export of donkeys after Asian demand

    Dear All,
    The donkeys are exported or slaughtered locally for their skin export. Niger has banned such export. See the detailed report.
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37286811
    Best regards

    Abdul Raziq

    Technical Manager
    Al Ain Dairy Camel Farms
    Unite Arab Emirates

    President of the SAVES
    http://www.saves.org.pk/

    Founder of the
    Camel Association of Pakistan

    Member of the Steering Committee DesertNet International
    http://www.desertnet-international.org/index.php

    Skype: raziq.kakar
    Cell # +971522181731 (UAE)
    Follow me on Twitter @ DrRaziqKakar

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your question. That is indeed the main worry about milking. On small, family run farms I think they are often kept on the farm. With bigger set-ups they are bound to go for slaughter and are more likely to be taken early from their mothers. This is really the main concern about milking in general and the reason why vegans believe humans should not consume any animal milk at all. The concern I have tried to address in this article is that, if donkey milk becomes big business, the welfare of mothers and foals will be severely compromised, as it has come to be in cows.

      Like

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