The clocks went back last weekend and British summertime has officially come to an end. The arrival of autumn in all of its resplendent colours marks another change in the seasons and nowhere is this more evident than on our farms and in our countryside. Yet industrial food and farming increasingly finds new ways to tear up Mother Nature’s calendar and deliver almost anything at anytime.
Many applaud the food technology that delivers us consistency in size, shape and quality all year round. But the creeping standardisation of our food will ultimately leave us with a lifeless, bland diet devoid of any flavour, which is then revived by aggressive processing and heavy doses of artificial additives. Writing for the Independent in January 2014, Jane Merrick described how lights are used to trick strawberry plants into thinking it’s spring at Christmas. I share the concerns she voiced when writing ‘Strawberries in Winter? Welcome to franken-season’ highlighting how “producers and supermarkets are furthering our disassociation from the seasons and eroding our ability to enjoy food that grows naturally in different months of the year”.
We don’t think of milk as a seasonal product in the same way as strawberries, since cows are not seasonal breeding animals and they are capable of producing milk for a full year after giving birth to a calf. However, the flavour and quality of milk is very much influenced by what our cows eat and many British dairy herds do enjoy seasonal variation in their diet. When cows are fed on lush spring grass, the level of butterfat in the milk often drops, because the grass is lacking in fibre which is a precursor for milk fat. In the winter months, when cows are housed, feeding is usually based on forages conserved at a stage of later maturity, which means the diet is more fibrous and this produces higher butterfat levels in the milk. I can’t help thinking that this is all part of nature’s plan to nourish us through the seasons – providing lower fat milk in the spring in summer when we have less need for it.
When cows are housed all year round the changes in milk described above are not so apparent, since the prescriptive dietary management regime of these herds eliminates the impact of the seasons. Many people who get the chance to sample raw milk from traditional, seasonally grazed herds often say “So that’s what real milk tastes like”. Unfortunately, we are served by a supply chain that is preoccupied with logistics and margins rather than taste and value. As a result, milk from seasonally grazed, free range herds is pooled with that from intensive farms by milk processors and it’s no wonder many find milk bland and unappealing other than in coffee or on cereals.
Those fortunate enough to be able to source milk direct from a free range herd often ask what has changed in the milk at around this time. Baristas, in particular, may note a temporary change in the frothing qualities of the milk when cows are housed. This is because the bugs (bacteria, protozoa and fungi) that are busy digesting food in the cow’s rumen are sensitive to their host’s change in diet and fluctuations in the gut environment. So, they need some time to adjust to new ingredients that they are presented with. However, things usually return to normal within a few days.
The truth is milk can be far from bland if we allow nature to influence its production and, instead of the ‘white stuff’, we can enjoy great tastes like Autumn Gold and Summer Silk. Furthermore, unlike the strawberry, we recognise that dairy cows are sentient creatures, worthy of more than a bland existence in our service. That’s why Free Range Dairy wants to ensure cows have the freedom to graze in fields and enjoy some seasonal variety in their lives. Right now many grazing herds are being brought inside for the winter. Not only do the fields get increasingly wet and muddy but grass growth significantly slows as the weather gets colder, which means there is little for cows to eat outside. Bringing them into barns and yards for the cold and wet months ahead means we can give them shelter and ensure they have adequate food. But, come next spring, Free Range Dairy producers will keep the Pasture Promise and open the gates once again, to allow their cows to celebrate the arrival of a new season and do what nature intended – get their heads down and graze.