Greener pastures? A look into ‘free range’ British milk

Asda, the UK’s second largest supermarket, has recently introduced the Pasture Promise brand, which has been developed to identify milk that is ‘free range’. This, according to their definition, means it comes from cows that have “grazed outside for at least 180 days a year”. Compared to ‘normal’ milk which may come from cows that never go outside, this is a massive improvement. It’s also an improvement on the initiative pushed by another British supermarket Waitrose, which last year reported its milk comes from dairy cows that spend 100 days a year grazing outdoors, and this year have expanded their commitment to 120 days. But can more be done?

At Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2016 in Turin, small-scale farmers from several different countries including the UK, the USA and South Africa came together to sow the seeds of a new ‘Grass Fed Alliance’, represented in the UK by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. The association manages a different scheme, called ‘Pasture for Life’, which guarantees a 100% pasture diet for its cows (and other grazing animals) through certification and farm audit.

Photo credit: Pasture for Life

We caught up with Russ Carrington, the Development Manager of Pasture for Life, to find out what it means, and how it differs from the Pasture Promise brand.

“Pasture for Life meat products can only be found in a limited number of places at the moment,” Russ told us. “It’s available in small butchers, farm shops and via some online retailers. An exciting next stage is that certified products will soon include milk as well as meat. We started a pilot project just over a year ago to see if the Pasture for Life principles could be extended to dairy production to produce milk from cows fed on a 100% grass-fed diet, with no grain or soya, and it has proved to be very possible.

“Our certification standards work on the basis that if the animals can be grazing they should be grazing. And that could be the majority of the year for Pasture for Life cows, who are only brought indoors if truly necessary, i.e. when weather conditions are unfavourable and animal welfare could be compromised. If they are indoors they only eat conserved pasture such as hay,” Russ continues.

Photo credit: Pasture for Life

“The milk is of special interest to cheesemakers because fed only on natural pasture diets the milk tends to be high in butter fat, making it ideal for cheese. Its flavour can also be seasonal, as the grazing pastures change throughout the year.

“The farmers in our pilot dairy group are a range of sizes from small scale micro-dairies with two or three cows to larger family farms with a herd of up to 350.

“It is early days and we’re not yet at the point where supermarkets are being supplied,” Russ says. “At the moment however, there is a thriving artisan network of producers selling direct and through small shops. People in the know about the associated health benefits of 100% grass-fed produce are willing to seek out meat and milk that has been independently certified as such, and even pay more for it.”

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