1. Aren’t all cows free range?
It is now estimated that 15 to 20 percent of dairy cows in the UK are confined indoors all year round. Many farmers still graze their cows day and night, in the spring and summer months, but they are not getting any reward for it and consumers can’t choose milk from grazing herds. Due to crippling milk prices many farmers see no alternative but to milk more cows and push for higher milk yields as a way to try and stay in business. We believe in another way which is why we set up Free Range Dairy Network and the Pasture Promise label. A new way to give people a clear choice on the type of dairy system they want to support. We ask farmers to make a clear commitment to grazing their cows for 180 days and nights a year and Free Range Dairy Network works with farmers to promote the true value of cows in fields.
2. Why 180 days?
We feel that if milk is to be labelled as ‘Free Range’, the cows really need to be out in fields for no less than half the year. The weather varies from year to year, sometimes making grazing difficult and, in certain parts of country, the grass is slower to grow in spring. A number of our farmers are able to graze for considerably longer than 180 days, but we want to set the bar at a point where they have to demonstrate a clear commitment to grazing cows in spring and summer, whilst consistently being able meet our standards. Note, our standards require farmers to graze their cows at night time as well and cows cannot be kept indoors for more than one hour after milking.
3. Aren’t free range cows the same as everyone else’s for half of the year (in winter)?
Free Range Dairy farmers do house their cows in the winter months, because they are often better off indoors at this time, when the fields are wet and muddy and the grass stops growing. But farmers are still required to maintain a high level of grass in the diet, in the form of silage or hay. Free Range Dairy is about a clearly defined farming system founded on seasonal grazing.
4. Is there a legal definition of free range milk production in the UK?
Unlike free range eggs, there are currently no laws in place to define free range milk production. Some processors and retails give the impression that their cows graze for long times on grass but we have devised a set of standards that clearly defines what Free Range Dairy means. Milk and dairy sold under the Pasture Promise label is backed by a set of standards that require farmers to graze their cows for a minimum of six months a year. Retailers often say their farmers are required to graze their cows, but in reality this is often means only a portion of the herd are grazed and for a limited time. Farmers producing milk under the Pasture Promise label must make a much clearer commitment to keeping cows in fields. There is no middle ground, our farmers and the milk carrying the Pasture Promise label is the only label to guarantee it is Free Range milk.
5. Is free range milk pasteurised and homogenised?
We work with a number of dairy companies to offer consumers a better understanding of the way in which milk is produced on farms. We do not buy or sell milk ourselves and it is up to the individual dairies to decide what product lines they offer to consumers. In most instances this will be milk that is pasteurised and homogenised, offered as whole milk or semi-skimmed. However, we are working with one or two farms processing their own milk, who may offer something different. We are also beginning to work with cheese makers and others producing products from free range milk under the Pasture Promise label.
6. The milk I buy has images of cows in fields – doesn’t that mean it’s free range?
Images of cows in fields are widely used in supermarkets and on packaging for milk and dairy products. However, this does not provide any guarantee that the cows producing your milk are grazed. Big dairy companies and supermarkets mix milk from all kinds of farms and so milk from grazing herds is not segregated. Free Range Dairy has a dedicated pick up and segregation of milk. Milk carrying the Pasture Promise logo is not mixed with milk from intensive dairy herds.
7. Will free range milk cost me more?
You will be asked to pay a bit more for free range milk bearing the Pasture Promise label. This is because we want to return a fair reward to farmer and, also, there are some additional costs associated with the segregation of milk from free range herds, when it is collected from farms and processed. We want free range milk under the Pasture Promise label to be an affordable, ethical milk choice for consumers everywhere. But, we hope you will think about the real value the Pasture Promise label delivers, not just the price.
8. Why is free range good for cows?
Cows were born to live outdoors and we believe that grazing is a fundamental expression of natural behaviour for them. When cows are turned out to grass in spring the joy is there for all to see. They run and kick their heels, rub their faces in the grass and stretch out in the sunshine. It is sad to think that cows kept indoors on intensive systems will never feel that joy and happiness. They work hard for us and we think they deserve a change of scene and a chance to enjoy the big outdoors like us. Because we are working to develop a simple, low cost system of milk production, cows are not pushed for high milk yields. That takes the pressure off them and the farmers.
We were at a spring turnout recently and the look of joy on the cows faces was unmistakable. They ran and kicked their heels, rubbed their faces in the grass and then lay around stretched out in the sunshine. It is sad to think that cows kept indoors on intensive systems will never feel that joy and happiness.
9. If I want milk from cows in fields surely I just buy organic milk?
It is likely that organic cows are grazed but difficult to ascertain for how long. Whilst organic standards do stipulate that cows should be grazed for most of the year, there is currently no stated minimum number of days and nights at grass. We want to offer a more affordable, ethical milk choice to conscientious consumers that guarantees that cows have grazed for at least six months.
10. How can I be sure free range cows are actually grazed for six months a year?
We ask Free Range Dairy farmers to keep a number of records that provide evidence their cows are grazed for 180 days and nights a year. Before allowing farmers to supply milk under the Pasture Promise label we visit the farms to establish their capacity and commitment to graze cows. The farms are then independently audited by a professional body; to ensure they comply with our standards. We also reserve the right to carry out spot checks on any farms that found to be non-compliant.
11. Are free range cows fed a 100% grass diet?
Free range dairy cows are not fed 100% grass diets. Although grass is the key component of the diet all year round. They enjoy fresh grazed grass in spring and summer and grass conserved as silage or hay in winter. However, we do allow producers to feed limited amounts of other feeds such as cereals, arable silage crops and bought in proteins. This is particularly important in the winter months, as hay and silage often contain insufficient nutrients to sustain milk production. Free Range Dairy farmers must provide the cows with a diet comprised of no less than 60% forage (calculated on a dry matter basis).
12. Do free range cows produce healthier milk?
There is growing evidence that milk from grass contains higher levels of healthy fats like Omega-3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) and it’s great to be able to turn this abundant green grass that humans can’t digest into a healthy, nutritious milk that we can. Even if milk was double the price it would still be an incredibly cost effective nutritious food source.
13. What happens to the cows at times of flooding or extreme heat in the grazing season?
If extreme weather conditions threaten the health and welfare of the cows during the grazing season, farmers are permitted to temporarily house their cows. The farmer must notify us of his intention to house the cows and let us know when they return to the fields.
14. Won’t an initiative like this divide farmers?
Unfortunately, farmers are already divided and are forced to compete with one another to see who can produce milk at the lowest price. Hence the ongoing crisis and exodus of farmers from the industry. We want to add value to the milk market and that means defining value at the farm gate and allowing consumers to make a more informed choice. Free Range Dairy is about promoting the value in traditional British dairy farms and keeping cows in fields. If we want milk to be seen as something more than a cheap commodity, we need people to understand that not all milk is the same.
15. What is the Free Range Dairy Network?
Free Range Network is a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a social mission to promote the value in milk and dairy products from traditional, pasture-based farms. We have farmer members who want to be recognised as free range milk producers, committed to keeping cows in fields. As a CIC we are required to invest any profits we make back into achieving and promoting our social mission. We do not buy or sell milk. We charge dairy companies a small levy for licensing the Pasture Promise label and we require them to return a milk price premium to farmers producing free range milk.
16. What can I do to support Free Range Dairy?
Our work is all about raising awareness of the way milk is produced on farms and the value that grazing herds deliver for farmers, cows and consumers. You can help us by asking for milk with the Pasture Promise logo when you buy milk, even in your cup of coffee. You can also help us by telling others about us via social media and asking people to take a look at our website. We now have a letter on the website which you can download and print, to ask your local retailer to stock milk carrying the Pasture Promise logo. You can also join us as a supporter and help us build a movement for change. We really need your help to keep cows in fields and to offer you a more informed choice when buying your milk.