Becoming Free Range
Thanks to all those who came along to the recent farmer meetings and others who have emailed me with suggestions on how we take Free Range Dairy forward. It is evident that there is considerable interest in milk and dairy products from pasture-based herds, both from consumers and farmers. So, now it’s time to let people know who we are and what we do.
Survey returns from 600 UK milk producers showed that the vast majority felt that cows should be grazed for at least part of the year – 95% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Cows should have seasonal access to grass”.
From the outset, it is important to remember that Free Range Dairy is founded on one simple principle:
Giving dairy cows the freedom to graze grass
Free Range Dairy is focussed on gaining recognition for the value in pasture-based milk production that the majority of UK farmers operate today and ensuring that this value is returned to producers in the form of higher milk prices.
The first step towards achieving this goal is about clear definition of what free range milk production means. Having considered opinion from the farmer meetings I propose that Free Range Dairy producers will adhere to the following outline standards:
- All cows shall have access to grazing for a minimum of 180 days a year.
- Male calves will be raised on farm for veal / beef or sold for veal / beef production on other farms.
- Breeding policy will demonstrate a commitment to breeding robust dairy cows, with a clear focus on health, longevity and fertility.
I am keen to avoid any kind of duplication with current farm assurance requirements on farms and, initially, membership will be built on trust. However, it is inevitable that some form of auditing of farms will need to be implemented further down the line.
I am now seeking wider consultation with those interested in establishing a Free Range brand for milk, to ensure that the standards we set are clear, workable and have sufficient integrity to instil confidence in consumers. Next week I will send an email round to over 300 farmers, who provided addresses when they completed our survey at the beginning of the year, with some questions about Free Range Dairy production standards. However, I would like to canvas opinion from as many people as possible so the questions will be posted on the Free Range Dairy website and, if you are reading this please draw it to the attention of others who may not have access to the internet – they can call or text me on 07801 507101.
Key points for consideration:
- From our survey the average number of days that cows are grazed on UK farms varied by as much as 50 days a year, depending upon location, with farms in the south west having the highest average of 232 days. But who is to say that a farmer in Scotland who runs his herd on pasture for 160 days is any less committed to grazing his cows? It may be that the minimum number of days at grass is set on a regional basis.
- Farmers may have to house cows for a period during the grazing season due to adverse weather conditions, as has been seen this year. In the future it might be that producers need to apply for a derogation, if this means they will fail to provide cows with less than 180 days at grass.
- How many hours a day should cows be at grass? I would suggest this figure should be 12 hours a day (6 hours daytime and 6 hours night time). At each end of the grazing season there may be a transition either to or from winter feeding, during which time cows may be housed at night. However, it is unlikely that farmers who consider that cows need to be housed at night during the grazing season will be true Free Range Dairy proponents.
- It will be necessary to ensure that whilst out at pasture grazing provides a significant portion of the cows’ diet. So, Free Range Dairy producers will need to complete a simple pasture budget to illustrate that they have sufficient grazing to achieve this. Loafing cows on a limited area of land and feeding them on conserved forages and purchased feeds will not be accepted.
- Although some producers do keep their cows outside all year round, this will not be set as a requirement for Free Range Dairy producers. Whilst some farmers have successfully developed practices that enable them to out-winter their herds, on many farms cows will be better off indoors during the winter.
- No matter how many days cows spend at grass, the shooting of male dairy calves cannot be accepted in Free Range Dairy and we must avoid male calves being labelled as a waste product from our herds, if we are to instil real value in our farms and our milk. Initiatives such a veal production, in an attempt to find a market for male calves will be supported.
- The pursuit of high milk yields cannot be accepted as a reason for not grazing cows for the required number of days. For this reason Free Range Dairy requires that producers strive to breed robust cows that are able to make good use of grazed grass, whilst exhibiting good health, longevity and fertility.
- Farmers may also be required to adapt their breeding policy to deliver male calves with beef value.
The above points are not a detailed set of standards for free range milk production but, an outline of the principles for Free Range Dairy that I have put together for further discussion. In addition, there are other areas that need to be covered such as winter feeding and the contribution of conserved forages. Please take time to consider these and provide me with as much feedback as possible.
Following this period of consultation a Free Range Dairy manifesto will be produced which sets out the agreed standards for producers and this will be circulated to milk producers in October. At this time farmers will be asked to make the Pasture Promise and sign up to Free Range Dairy. There will be no initial charge for membership. A database of members will be built to create a network of producers and establish potential pools of milk around the UK.
As always, please keep an eye on the website for more details.
I look forward to hearing from you.
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