Market for Mare Milk Gives Rise to Equine Dairy Industry

Nearly a dozen velvety black Ariègeois broodmares and an approved stallion roam and graze freely across a 120-acre pasture in the French Massif Central hills. These horses are the foundation of Nathalie and Xavier Niaux's Domaine de Merens de Bibracte, an equine dairy, where up to 3,000 liters (750 gallons) of mare milk are produced for human consumption every year.

Heralded within organic food and alternative health circles for its nutritive and therapeutic values, mare milk is sold to European customers directly from the farms. Products range from raw, unpasteurized milk for drinking, to cosmetic items such as fragrant soaps and body lotions.

Mares at Domaine de Merens de Bibracte equine dairy
mare milk products

Top: Mares at Domaine de Merens de Bibracte. Bottom: Mare milk products on display.

Selective breeding, positive foal handling, and transparency in their business practices have resulted in foals that are in as high demand as the farm's dairy products, Niaux said. The farm's foals have all been placed in families within months of weaning.

Although animal welfare groups such as the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and Worldwide Protection for Farm Animals are aware of horse dairy farms and the possible negative implications for the mare/foal relationship, none of the organization representatives contacted was willing to make a statement on the welfare risks, citing lack of research and available data in the industry.

As long as certain precautions such as not milking the mare excessively, supplementing the foal's diet, and providing plenty of high-quality pasture are respected, a dairy mare's foal should suffer no ill consequences of sharing its milk, said William Martin-Rosset, PhD, head of equine nutrition research at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

The Niauxes said they and many others make every effort to work harmoniously with nature.

They begin milking the mares when the foals have reached three months of age.

"We start out slowly, on the first day just a few hours and (collect) maybe one or two milkings," said Nathalie Niaux. "Gradually we work our way up to about four milkings a day by the end of the milking period," which ends, along with weaning, when the foal is about seven months old.

No organization oversees horse dairy farms in Europe, and statistics on the number of existing farms are difficult to estimate, according to Chris de Cooman, owner of the mare milk farm Ferme de la Comogne in the Ardennes region of Belgium. However, de Cooman, a former executive in sales management who left Brussels 11 years ago to start her farm, has done some primary research on the industry and guesses that there might be about 10 horse dairies in Belgium, a few in Holland, and perhaps 10 to 30 in France. "The best guess anybody has is just counting the number of online shops," she said.

At any rate, compared to cow milk dairies, the existence of horse dairy farms is "just peanuts," she said. "It isn't at all the same business.... It's mostly city people who love horses who have found a way to live out in the open with the animals they cherish."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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