Neil Darwent has been a dairy farmer since graduating from Harper Adams Agricultural College in 1986. In 2014, he launched the Free Range Dairy Network Community Interest Company to ‘promote the value of pasture based milk production on British dairy farms for the benefit of farmers, cows and consumers’. Its vision is to offer farmers an alternative to the current ’volume rather than value’ intensive dairy farming by promoting a fair price for farmers, giving cows the freedom to graze for six months (days and nights), and delivering healthy, affordable milk for consumers. He spoke out against the proposed 8,000 cow industrial dairy farm in Lincolnshire at a reception we held in Parliament in 2010. His new venture, the Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise, is the only label that gives a clear assurance that milk comes from cows that enjoy the freedom to graze for at least six months of the year.
Philip: Can you explain what Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise is and why it’s so important?
Neil: The Free Range Dairy Network is a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a social mission to safeguard the future of traditional British dairy farms, where cows are guaranteed the freedom to graze in fields. My own experiences in running dairy farm businesses over the last 30 years led me to seek an alternative to the relentless pursuit of increased milk output on farms, which places increasing pressure on cows and farmers to deliver more for less. During this time, milk has been relegated from super food to commodity ‘white stuff’ and, behind the scenes we are seeing an unprecedented rise in larger farms with cows being confined in sheds for 365 days per year.
If we want to deliver what is right for farmers, cows and consumers, we must give people a chance to make a more informed choice about the milk and dairy products they buy. That is why we need a label that tells people not just where their milk is produced, but how it is produced. The Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise label provides a simple way to ensure that the milk in the bottle has come from cows that have grazed in fields for at least six months. This is about people voting with their purses and so we are asking consumers to pay a fair price to farmers who make this commitment to their cows. As a CIC we want to create a movement for change that brings together organisations and individuals who will work together to keep cows in fields and dairy farmers in business.
Philip: There are some in British dairy farming who call for the industrial way forward with larger herds permanently housed indoors. How big a threat is this? What can be done about it?
Neil: The threat of industrial milk production is very real. The rapid decline in dairy herd numbers over the last 20 years means there are now less than 10,000 farms producing milk in England & Wales today, down from 28,000 in 1995. Consolidation in the retailing and processing of milk and dairy is filtering down to farm level and producers are left little choice other than to get bigger or get out, in a brutally competitive global commodity market. This has led to the evolution of industrial scale operations, attempting to achieve economies of scale and cut costs. Unfortunately, the high capital costs associated with the development of such production sites mean high milk output is required to repay the investment, which demands more of the cows.
Large milk processors prefer to work with larger herds which put smaller, local dairies out of business. They pool milk from farms all over the country and are reluctant to segregate milk from grazing herds, since this complicates logistics and slows the bottling plants. This results in the loss of any local identity and an assumption that all milk is the same and added value is now defined in what is added to or taken away from milk on its journey between farm and fridge.
Traditional, grazing herds are not inefficient – the conversion of green grass (that we can’t digest) into nutritious milk is a very efficient process. These farms are an integral part of our rural communities and are the very fabric of our countryside. There is enormous scope to develop more resilient farming systems founded on robust dairy breeds and grazed grass and improve the economics of milk production on farm. But, if we are to turn the tide of industrialisation in dairy, we must promote the value that is instilled in milk on the farm and bust the myth that all milk is the same.
Philip: To what extent do you think consumers know how their milk is produced? And how do you think they will react when they know it comes from industrial dairy farms and not cows kept on pasture?
Neil: If you ask people to close their eyes and think about a British dairy farm, most conjure up an image of cows in fields. People are so used to seeing pictures of cows grazing on milk bottles and product packaging that it’s natural for them to assume that’s how all milk is produced. Unfortunately, there is a growing disconnect between people and their food and nowhere more so than with milk, which means people are shocked to hear that some cows never go outside. Whilst independent market research conducted on our behalf in 2014, showed that many people had no idea of how much time cows spend in fields, 75% of respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed, with the statement “Keeping cows indoors all year round is acceptable”.
I have been concerned that those trading on a perception of cows in fields are denying farmers who are truly committed to giving their cows the freedom to graze, the real value in their milk.
Freedom is a really simple concept for anyone to understand and most consider it a fundamental right for farmed animals. Free Range Dairy receives enquiries from consumers every week who are concerned that they may unwittingly be buying milk from farms where cows are not grazed. People say they want to support British dairy farmers, but there is a real danger that this support will be lost if those running intensive farms are allowed to trade on a perception of cows free to roam in fields.
Thanks to the support of organisations like Compassion in World Farming, recognition for the Pasture Promise label is growing and more people are asking for an assurance that the milk they buy come from cows in fields.
You can find out more about the people we are working with and outlets for free range milk via the website www.freerangedairy.org
You can also make the Pasture Promise and help us to show milk buyers and retailers that the British public want to make a more informed choice about the milk they buy. We believe change is possible and, with the support of people who care about cows and the countryside, we can make a difference.
Philip: Thank you!