Neil Darwent

Neil has been milking dairy cows and managing farm businesses since graduating from Harper Adams Agricultural College in 1986. During this time, his broad experience with dairy farming operations has led him to question the trend towards large scale, intensive herds. He has witnessed firsthand the pressure on farmers and their cows to deliver more for less and growing disconnect between farmers and consumers and is passionate about reinstating value in milk from traditional, seasonally grazed dairy herds.

As long ago as 1998, Neil visited Australia and the USA as part of a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, wanting to better understand how milk producers could exploit economies of scale and examine the challenges for managing large herds. But, despite the perceived efficiencies of the US ‘mega dairy’ model and their capacity to deliver high volumes of milk from Holstein cows housed all year round, he was concerned that the cows held within these operations led a life far from that which nature intended.

When Neil took over the running of a farm business in Somerset with three herds of ‘dual purpose’ Montbeliarde cows, in January 2000, he redefined his own understanding of dairy cow efficiency. He could see that these more robust cows, with the capacity to deliver high quality milk and beef, provided an opportunity to harness the natural attributes of cows and realise their true potential, rather than conscript them to an industrial regime of commodity milk production and began to encourage farmers to think about the value of what they produced rather than simply the volume of output.

On the back of concerns about the shooting of male dairy calves, Neil later became involved with the Beyond Calf Exports Forum, set up by the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, to look at alternatives to the export of male dairy calves to be reared in veal crates. Then, in 2010, when plans were announced to build an 8,000 cow mega dairy in Lincolnshire, he was one of very few farmers who spoke out against the proposed development. Concerned about this potentially significant step towards industrial milk production in the UK, he began to look for a way to distinguish traditional, seasonally grazed herds from intensive ‘factory farms’. This led him to establish a movement called Free Range Dairy, through which he invited dairy farmers to join him and build recognition and value for giving their cows the freedom to graze in fields.

In May 2014 Neil was awarded BBC Outstanding Farmer of the Year, in recognition for his efforts to build a brighter future for British dairy farmers and, in July 2014, his Free Range Dairy initiative was formally registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC), under the name of the Free Range Dairy Network. Neil is now a Director of the CIC and the Pasture Promise TM label, which he designed, is used by members to demonstrate their commitment to keeping cows in fields.

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