I was recently asked on Instagram what is free range milk? There’s no recognised standards, so how can you call it free range? In lots of ways that’s true. Free Range Dairy Network is trailblazing in that we are working in collaboration with others from farmers to food agencies to bring what is an innovative concept of milk to the market. But I want to reassure people that we are not just doing this for commercial gains. Like the fight for free range meat and eggs our objectives are founded in freedom for cows to graze and the best animal welfare, help preserve a traditional way of dairy farming that works with the environment and biodiversity as well as giving people the opportunity to choose for themselves the food and farming production systems they want to support.
We’ve worked with NSF, the food standards agency on a set of standards to measure free range milk and dairy. Our first farmers have just passed their independent assessment by NSF and our other farmers in Gloucestershire are being assessed soon as well.
Just like free range chickens spend their days outdoors and nights in the sheds, Free Range Cows spend their days and nights outdoors grazing in the spring and summer months but the winter months indoors. It means that to be free range they both get to spend the majority of their lives outdoors exhibiting their natural behaviour.
At this time of year, the grass growth slows down so there isn’t the possibility for cows to get all the nutrients they need from grass, neither does it taste as sweet to the cows as it does warmed by spring and summer sunshine. However, the cows still enjoy being outdoors and you will still see them out in the fields but they will start to be housed at night soon and continue to graze by day as they adjust to their winter diet.
They enjoy the freedom to wander the fields, hanging out with their friends and stretching out. Cows are prey animals which is why they have great panoramic vision and sense of smell; I love seeing them laid out sleeping soundly in the fields. It shows they feel safe and content and as long as the ground is dry and it’s not too cold we believe the cows should be outside even as we go into autumn and winter.
If it’s very wet the cows will come in for the winter as you can get something called poaching, which means the hooves cause destruction of the grass and can impact on its growth the following year. In fact, when the very cold or wet seasonal weather sets in that means it’s time to bring the cows in and house them in the barn. People will also notice a change in the taste of the milk as instead of fresh grass, the diet will consist of silage (dry grass) and other feeds to give the cows the nutrients they need. It’s all part of the seasonality of milk from cows that graze.
Cows supposedly have good memories, so the great news is that the cows know they’re only going in for the worst of the weather and when spring comes around next year, the grass is smelling sweet and the days turn warmer then it’s time for turnout day once again.
See our film from this springs turn out day here