What will people make of Asda’s newly launched line of “free range” milk? Some might not be entirely clear why it sells at a premium price of £1.50 for two litres and 90p for one litre. After all, on old MacDonald’s bucolic farm the cows grazed contentedly on verdant fields.
If you’re unfamiliar with the workings of the modern dairy industry and take at face value the nursery rhyme marketing images for standard milk, you can be forgiven for believing that all milk is from free-range cows. It once was; now it isn’t. (Indeed, there are currently no laws in place to define free-range milk production.) These days it is estimated that up to 20% of dairy cows in the UK are zero-grazed, that is, permanently housed indoors for the entirety of their lives.
Traditionally, British dairy cows spent all the clement months outside grazing on the green pasture that is a natural resource in our rainy country, and were only brought inside barns during periods when it was too cold, wet or muddy. The exact number of days spent outdoors reflected local climate conditions. Cows in lusher, milder southern areas would stay outside longer. Nationwide, a typical period for cows to be out in the field was April to October.
By 2010, the animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming felt the need to restate these traditional values when it used the slogan Cows Belong in Fields for the ultimately successful campaign against Nocton Dairies’ plans for a highly intensive, zero-grazed 3,700 cow farm in rural Lincolnshire. But by 2013, following a long-running legal battle that culminated in a judicial review, a mega-dairy in Wales where the animals are kept indoors all year round – though with limited access to grazing for those cows not lactating or “performing” due to illness – was granted approval.
While many farmers would prefer to graze their cows day and night in the spring and summer months, because their “free range” milk is not differentiated at point of sale they would receive no financial reward for it. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 86% of the public surveyed agreed “that UK dairy cows should be able to graze on pasture and should not be permanently housed indoors”; but unless they choose organic, supermarket shoppers have had no guarantee that their milk is from grazing herds.
This fuzziness of information around milk is no coincidence. Supermarkets have made it an anonymous, devalued commodity, where the customer is encouraged to fixate on cost. Supermarkets use “cheap” milk to create a halo of good value around all their lines while paying dairy farmers a price that barely makes production viable. This is why so many dairy farmers increasingly see no alternative but to bring their cows indoors, increase their herd size, and keep their livestock under an exacting regime to squeeze out high milk yields that put an increased strain on the animals’ health and welfare. The commercial message to dairy farmers until recently has been: get big, or get out of farming.
So it’s encouraging to hear that Asda has made the progressive move to sell “free range” milk from cows that have been kept outdoors for at least six months of the year. The chain is simply rolling out a brand, Pasture Promise, that has been developed by the independent sector. Pioneered by Neil Darwent, an enlightened dairy farmer who set up the Free Range Dairy Network in 2014, it offers farmers an alternative vision of the future that is predicated on considerations beyond simply volume. Along with the undertaking that cows have been grazed day and night for at least half the year, it guarantees that the farmers who produce it get a fair price.
Pasture Promise has really taken off in the independent sector, and farms within the scheme are audited. There are now about 30 farmers in the network, some supplying other dairies, others processing their own milk on farms and supplying direct to consumers. Asda’s launch of Pasture Promise will doubtless encourage more dairy farmers to supply their milk as free range.
Pasture Promise is a creative response to the gloom and doom, race-to-the-bottom short-termism that has gripped contemporary dairying, but its ambition is large. The intention of Pasture Promise has never been to establish a niche market for free range milk, but, as Darwent puts it, “to achieve recognition for thousands of dairy farmers who allow their herds the freedom to graze and understand the benefits of simple, pasture-based farming and the important part this plays in protecting the dairy industry we know and love”.
In a world where supermarkets sell us faux brands from nonexistent farms, Pasture Promise is indeed genuine. Its logo is a clenched hand holding a bunch of grass and clover, an encouraging symbol of hope for citizens who share the view that cows belong in fields.