Britain’s biggest milk retailer, Sainsbury’s, recently made a major investment into the United Kingdom’s dairy industry. The supermarket accounts for 18 percent of all milk sales

According to a company announcement earlier this summer, Sainsbury’s is the first major retailer to launch an industry leading animal welfare standard for dairy farmers which, according to the release will improve the lives of 55,000 cows.

The retailer spent three years developing the animal welfare standard with its 334 dairy farmers, who form the Sainsbury's Dairy Development Group (SDDG). The standard is industry leading and unique because it measures the overall health and welfare of each dairy cow, which is called an ‘outcome approach'.

SDDG farmers currently receive 2.1 pence per litre premium for their milk above the market price, which equates to an average of roughly $40,482 (£26,000) per farmer, per year. The premium rewards farmers for good agricultural practice and enables them to reinvest in their businesses.

Since 2006, Sainsbury's has invested more than $23 million (£15 million) in the SDDG and will invest a further $62 million (£40 million) over the next 3 years. Sainsbury's has facilitated more than $2.5 million (£1.66 million) improvement in animal health profitability across the SDDG, which equates to over $7,785 (£5,000) per farmer in the last year alone.

Animal welfare standards in the dairy industry have previously focused on the farm environment  - however the new ‘outcome approach' SDDG animal welfare standard looks at the individual health and welfare of each cow, highlighting nine key welfare areas: lameness; mastitis; infectious disease; nutrition; housing; calves and young stock; transport and movement; breeding and genetics; training.

Improving lameness is a key objective, the industry average is in excess of 40 percent, and the retailer aims to achieve 5 percent by 2012. Sainsbury's is the only retailer to have a unique animal welfare database containing details of every cow in its group; this forms the basis for measuring marked animal welfare improvements.

Fully funded by Sainsbury's, SDDG farmers are currently attending workshops in lameness, fertility, mastitis and foot trimming. Run by the University Nottingham and the University of Bristol in and endorsed by the RSPCA, the courses have been running since summer 2009.

A similar animal-welfare program is underway here in the United States, the National Dairy FARM program. But it is an interesting approach that Sainsbury’s has taken in the United Kingdom, where the grocery store is investing money into the dairy industry to help farmers improve their operations.