By Robert Newton, a Free Range Dairy Farmer.
We were very excited in January 2016 when Cotteswold Dairy, our milk buyer for nearly 20 years, confirmed that they were to start selling Pasture Promise Free Range milk. It was a big commitment to make as the milk has to be totally segregated which involves a dedicated milk tanker collecting from only free range farms and, no doubt, logistical issues with running a new line in the plant.
In the spring, we went to a fellow free range certified farmer’s open day, where we got to meet potential buyers including wholesalers and retailers. Their enthusiasm was very encouraging and gave me a sense of the pioneering attitude customers might feel when buying a product newly released onto the market. But those consumers who choose to buy free range milk need to know what it is they are buying and what the principles of the product are.
At farm level, all milk producers working with the Free Range Dairy Network have made the Pasture Promise which defines the type of farming system we use. This is based on our commitment to giving our cows the freedom to graze for at least 180 days a year. The fact that we are actively involved in the marketing of the milk and meeting everyone in the supply chain, has highlighted the need to show our free range credentials in practice.
During the year, several producers got together with Free Range Dairy Network, where we discussed the standards expected. We felt it important to include aspects both valued by the consumer yet practical for the farmer to implement.
On my own farm we grazed the cows for 242 days and 182 nights. Turnout was mid March, but due to miserable weather at the end of the month they came back in for a few days, to give them temporary shelter. In cases like this a text to Free Range Dairy Network is all that is needed. On our farm, we do house transition cows (those within 3 weeks of calving) to ensure that we can keep a close eye on them. We keep grazing records on a calendar and at the end of the year, submit a review of the season’s grazing. We must also demonstrate that we have enough grassland for the cows to graze for the required 180 days. I verify my cattle numbers from British Cattle Movement Service and field sizes via my annual Basic Payment Scheme application. Whilst Free Range Dairy Network has set strict standards for us to follow, I don’t find them too onerous and much of the information I am required to submit actually helps me in managing my cows and my farm.
During the summer, I hosted a grazing workshop for other free range dairy farmers, where a grazing consultant gave practical tips of utilising grass. There is also a Free Range Dairy Network conference in Stafford, on March 7th, which I hope to attend.
Over the past year, I have been really impressed with the energy and enthusiasm from those that have supported traditional family farms like mine. I don’t think any farmer who has made the Pasture Promise would claim to be running a ‘high tech’ farming system with high yielding cows, and the flashiest tractors! However, we enjoy working with cows which are outside for 6 months of the year and I feel that Pasture Promise logo adds integrity and value to what we do.