With Pasture Promise milk now selling in 109 Asda stores and Waitrose milk being promoted heavily in their weekly newspaper – it looks like consumers are starting to care how cows spend their days.

With Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty shouting their cause, it is no wonder that things are starting to move for the Free Range Dairy Network.

Earlier this year, the TV food campaigners encouraged consumers to ask supermarkets to sell milk from cows given the freedom to graze, rather than being kept inside all year, in their Channel 4 programme Friday Night Feast.

The response caused the Free Range Dairy Network website to crash and their twitter account went ballistic. More importantly, as a result, Asda is now stocking Free Range Dairy Farmers milk in stores across the country. These have been picked because there is a sufficient level of interest in premium priced products and include shops in Cambridge, Cheltenham and York. In the first instance they aim to sell 70,000 litres a week.

There is a choice of semi-skimmed and whole free range milk – priced at £1.50 for two litres and 90p for one litre, compared to 99p and 75p for Asda’s regular milk. All the milk is pasteurised.

“We are trying to add value back into the milk and want farmers to be rewarded for that,” says Free Range Dairy Network founder Neil Darwent.

“Our aim is to help people understand that small, traditional farmers, that produce milk from a simple pasture-based system, are efficient and play a vital role in sustaining rural communities.

“Continuing consolidation within the milk supply chain threatens to squeeze out these farms – 4,000 have stopped milking in the past decade, as the market focuses on delivering large volumes of cheap milk.

“We are not seeking to establish a niche market, but to achieve recognition for hundreds of dairy farms who allow their cows to go out into the fields day and night, for more than six months.”

Network of farms
The Free Range Dairy Network has 48 members so far and is working with milk buyers to open up market opportunities for these farmers.

Cotteswold Dairy based in Tewkesbury is one such business. An independent, third generation family-owned dairy, it is currently taking Pasture Promise milk from four free range dairy farms – selling it under their own brand as well as supplying Asda. They will soon be taking milk from a further six free range producers.

At a more local level they are also selling free range milk into ten shops belonging to the Mid-Counties Co-op, which has made large commitments to extending its local ranges.

“We negotiate a farm gate premium with the dairy for the free range milk sold, as part of the terms for licensing the use of the logo,” explains Free Range Dairy Network director Carol Lever.
“We would like this to be as much as 5p/litre – but at the moment it is likely to be less than this, as there are costs for collecting and keeping the free range milk separate from conventional milk. But once the free-range milk pool is big enough, we hope the premiums will rise. Half a penny/litre also comes back to us at the community interest company – which is reinvested in promotional work.”

180 days and nights
To qualify to be a Pasture Promise milk producer, cows must be out grazing day and night for a minimum of 180 days.

Cow should be back at grass as soon after milking as possible, but can be buffer fed. They must never be more than 400 metres from water. No male calves are to be euthanized.

Records, maps and plans are required to show the daily grazing regime and livestock numbers, to ensure there is enough grassland to graze the herd.

As Neil said to Jimmy on the Friday Food Feast programme, adding one penny/litre to what a farmer is paid can add £10,000 to the income of a small, traditional family farm producing one million litres a year.

“This is small beer to somebody buying the milk, but it makes a huge difference to the farmer,” added Neil.

Waitrose dairy farmersCows producing milk and cream for Waitrose spent an average of 167 days grazing in fields last year, beating significantly the target of 100 days. As a result the target for this year has been raised to 120 days.

Waitrose sources from a group of 60 UK dairy farmers who work with the retailer as part of the Waitrose Dairy Farmers Group. All these farmers negotiate their prices directly with the supermarket, which protects them from the volatility of the open market. Last year, Waitrose was the first supermarket to guarantee that their cows do spend at least 100 days outside.

Hear Nuffield scholar David Homer talk about his relationship with Waitrose. And look out for the new advert from his farm on TV this spring.

What do I think?
So what do I feel about this promotion of grazing cows? Well knowing my background and love for all things grass- it is not hard for me to get behind farmers who want to produce more milk from grass.

But Neil Darwent is often criticised for splitting the industry into sectors, saying milk from grass-fed cows is better than from indoor fed.

Well nutritionally, there is no doubt that 100% grass-fed milk is higher quality and better for you, with more good fatty acids and vitamins and minerals.

But there is a broad spectrum of dairy farms and farmers – I do not think all systems can be treated the same. There are very well run, all year round indoor systems, here and across Europe. With the right cows, looked after well and producing high yields of milk – they deliver the bulk of dairy products required, but the nutrient content will be very different.

But I believe it is all about – to coin a marketing phrase – differentiation. Making a similar product ‘different’ in some way and selling to for a greater price to those consumers who care just a little bit more. Adding value.

Smaller family-run dairy farms are going out of business at an alarming rate. Initiatives like Free-Range dairy are helping these farmers stay the course – for this generation and perhaps the next, if their children wish to succeed them.

And perhaps it is time to alert the public to how milk is produced. As Jenni Hobbs – one of the farmers now supplying Asda says:“Consumers are sceptical and unsure about their food – we need to reconnect them to what is happening on farms.

“Milk is so precious and is desperately undervalued. We need to educate people and then they can make an informed choice when they buy.”

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