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The Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, have announced the introduction of a new ‘Grass-Fed’ Standard for Irish milk, which requires cows to be fed a minimum of 90% grass. It sounds like there is little room for anything else in the diet of these cows, but just how much grass does 90% grass-fed really mean?

In the UK, Pasture For Life have developed standards and a label for 100% grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy products. Their message is clear: animals must only eat grass and forage throughout their lifetime, with the exception of milk consumed by youngstock prior to weaning. However, reading behind this, there is some allowance for the inclusion of brassicas, such as kale and turnips to complement grazing and limited feeding of cereals conserved in their vegetative state as wholecrop silage may also be permitted.

Free range cows

Many Free Range Dairy farmers on our Pasture Promise scheme, will have their cows on a diet that comprises 90% grass on a fresh weight basis at this time of the year. We encourage our members to make as much use of this wonderful source of nutritious cheap food for their cows as possible and the cows certainly hoover it up. Such is the appetite of a dairy cow weighing around 650kg that she may consume between 70 and 100kg of fresh grass a day, when grazing conditions are right. But then it’s important to note that grazed grass is typically 80 to 85% water, or only 15 to 20% dry matter.

We have a recommendation in our Pasture Promise standards that cows should be fed a minimum of 50% grass. That doesn’t sound like a lot of grass; a lot less than the Bord Bia 90% figure. But we have set this grass requirement on a ‘Dry Matter’ basis, which accounts for all that water in the grass. In practice, a recommendation of 50% grass on a dry matter basis, means cows will typically consume over 80% of their daily diet as grass, on a fresh weight basis and many will be at the 90% level quoted by Bord Bia.

Surprisingly, due to all that water in fresh grass, there is still scope to include significant quantities of dry feeds, such as cereals and other supplementary feeds, even if cows are said to be 90% grass-fed. The table below gives an idea of just how much.

Table to show the amount of grass consumed by a cow said to be eating a diet comprised of 90% grass on a fresh weight basis.

The most important thing to understand here is that of the 70kg of fresh grass the cow in the table is eating, only 14kg is green plant material and the other 56kg is water. Given that the cow has appetite to eat more than this each day, the diet is usually supplemented with other feeds to balance nutrient requirements and support milk yields. When assessing what a cow eats on a dry matter basis, it is revealed that supplementary feeds actually can make up to a third of the daily diet (33%): a very different picture to the 90% grass-fed headline on a label.

The challenges for grass-fed milk and meat

In the UK, a lot of milk is used to feed our large domestic population all year round. But, in Ireland, only a small portion of the milk produced on farms goes into liquid milk for the domestic market, with the bulk used in the manufacturing of cheese and other products for export. This means milk production on farms can be much more seasonal, to take advantage of cheap grazed grass in the spring and summer months, leaving a much lower requirement for winter milk production than in the UK.

It is more challenging for farmers to produce good yields of milk from grass in the winter months. Although spring grass is conserved as silage or hay, to feed cows in winter, it is impossible to retain all of the energy and protein in the grass during conservation and storage. So, given our need for liquid milk all year round, it is unlikely we will ever see a nationwide standard of 90% grass-fed in the UK. I would suggest that very few people in Ireland will be enjoying 90% grass-fed milk in their tea, or on their cereals: instead this milk will be consumed by customers overseas, in the form of Irish dairy products.

There are challenges for grass-fed meat and milk in the marketplace. Whilst many consumers may express a desire for meat and milk produced from animals fed nothing but grass, there are potential barriers to widespread uptake. In the case of meat (beef and lamb) the barrier is largely the higher price on the shelf: the price we pay for animals to be raised under a less intensive regime. In the case of liquid milk, as I indicated above, year round supply will be difficult and this may also make the price prohibitively high for most consumers.

Whilst we encourage our Free Range Dairy farmers to produce as much milk as possible from grass, pursuit of 100% grass-fed milk may create other issues around animal nutrition and welfare. It’s great to think of dairy cows out in pasture for much of their life and, of course, the freedom to graze is at the very heart of our mission. But there are times when the health and well-being of cows can benefit from some form of nutritional supplements in the diet, to provide energy and protein. This need not constrain the amount of time cows spend at grass.

Clear labelling

This is why I always make a distinction between free range rather than grass-fed: whilst grass is key to milk production on Free Range Dairy farms, the Pasture Promise logo does not represent grass-fed milk. The Free Range Dairy Network was established to win recognition and value for traditional family farms committed to giving their cows the freedom to graze, at a time when more and more cows were being confined indoors all year round. We want to bust the myth that all cows live in fields and empower conscientious consumers to vote for freedom and fairness when they buy milk. For me, it’s all about offering a more informed choice.

Now you may want to debate what free range really means, or should mean, for cows. But, whether or not you think the standards behind the Pasture Promise logo truly define free range milk production, we have set standards for producers to make it clear what we mean by those words: cows are grazed for 18 hours a day, for a minimum of 180 days a year.

We need clear and honest labelling, to enable consumers to make an informed choice and to enable farmers to reap the rewards that are rightfully theirs. Please look carefully at the standards behind any label, or at least check whether there are any at all to support claims like free range or grass-fed.

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