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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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, 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”.
The threat of big business
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.
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?
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
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?
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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
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
Donkeys Milk Longears Mall.com
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