Philip Lymbery, Compassion CEO

Philip Lymbery

Don't all cows eat grass? Part 2: A better way RSS Feed

In part two of his guest blog series, Dr John Meadley, Chairman of the Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA), explains that there is “a better way” when it comes to intensive farming.

Do all cows eat grass? 

Most cows in the UK eat grass at some point in their lives, but the economic pressures have encouraged farmers to increasingly feed their animals on high-energy commodities such as cereals and soybean (much of it imported) to grow faster.  Increasingly, cows are kept indoors to avoid “wasting energy” walking around fields to graze.  Around a third of dairy cows are housed inside all year round.  There are many good reasons for encouraging farmers to raise their cows and sheep only on pasture.

What do we mean by pasture? The natural diet of ruminants is a mixture of grasses and herbs. Many of the herbs have medicinal properties and their roots go deep into the soil to extract a range of nutrients.  This is what we call pasture - clearly distinguishable from the widespread monoculture of ryegrass, whose nitrogen-drugged roots stay lazily close to the soil surface.

Countless benefits

In brief, species-rich pastures grazed by ruminants: 

  • Add organic matter to the soil and take carbon out of the atmosphere
  • Encourage biodiversity and wildlife
  • Retain moisture, reducing the likelihood of flooding
  • Retain nutrients, reducing the likelihood of polluting waterways
  • Put soil-building animal manures directly back onto the land
  • Provide animals with their natural diet so that they can grow at their natural pace and are less likely to get sick
  • Allow animals to express themselves naturally

This natural cycle is neatly reflected in Diana Rodger’s cartoon here: 

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Pasture-fed meat and milk is good for you.  It is widely recognised that wholly pasture-fed meat and milk tends to be lower in total fat, has a more balanced (and healthier) ratio of omega-6: omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of vitamins than that from grain fed animals.  Many of the health benefits associated with pasture-fed meat and milk decline after only a brief period of grain feeding.

The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association

The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) is a non-profit-making community interest company that encourages the raising of ruminant animals wholly on fresh or conserved pasture and forage. It seeks to bring together all the positives noted above in a way that is attractive to both farmers and consumers. 

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We have developed a set of Production Standards that define the term “Pasture-fed”. There is a strong focus on animal welfare, providing the freedom for animals to express their natural behaviours and diet that reflects their natural growth. Extensive, pasture-based production also reduces the incidence of metabolic and respiratory diseases and so lessens the extent and prevalence of antibiotic use.

In 2015, we launched the Pasture for Life certification mark to capture the many benefits of wholly pasture-based ruminant production; for human health, for the environment and for animal health and welfare. This is underwritten by farm audits and a system known as TRACKS, which results in a QR code on each pack of meat that takes the purchaser to the website of the farm from which it came as well as providing information about the individual animal. 

Now with 325 members, mostly farmers – of which 72 are formally certified to Pasture for Life standards – our membership continues to grow.

Bucking a trend

Bucking a trend is not easy, particularly when many businesses benefit from selling feed, fertilisers and other chemicals to farmers and who feel threatened by a wholly pasture-fed approach to farming that now does not need them. We realised early on that we had to address the concerns of the cynics and provide the evidence that the system works – both agriculturally and financially. To do this we are working with the government’s own agricultural economists, who collect financial data from some of our farms and benchmark them against more conventional farms that feed grain. 

We are now working with several soil scientists to build the evidence that pasture contributes significantly to soil health through building organic matter and to develop ways through which farmers can routinely monitor the pulse of their soils under pasture. You can read more about that here

It really does work

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©Stephen Garnett @hilltopfarm

Neil Heseltine and his partner Leigh raise cattle and sheep at Hill Top Farm at Malham in the North Yorkshire dales. The 1,100-acre family farm is entirely pasture overlying limestone and lies at between 800-1,800 feet – a tough place to farm, officially designated as being a “less favoured area”. In 2012, the farm supported 120 Belted Galloway cattle, raised entirely on pasture, and 400 ewes. Aiming to increase output from this bleak landscape, the sheep were fed significant quantities of grain.

During that year, Neil and Leigh joined the PFLA and decided to try doing without grain entirely. This meant halving the sheep numbers from 400 to 200 – not an easy decision when this is your livelihood. The results were dramatic. In 2012, the 400 sheep contributed £478 to the family’s income. In 2016, half the number of sheep (200) contributed £17,779 – an increase of £17,301! How was this possible? Because the cost of feed, labour and veterinary costs were largely removed and the animals could grow more naturally – whilst the pastures benefitted by being under less pressure.

As Neil noted: “Reducing sheep numbers has resulted in a lower impact on the environment, improved sheep health and better quality of family life”.

Cattle, sheep and pasture working naturally in harmony. Stories like this can be repeated on many of our members’ farms – lower costs, more natural animal behaviour, more biodiversity, more carbon sequestered and more income for the families involved.

What can YOU do?

Consumers can be confused by the many companies selling produce described as “grass-fed”. This term has little meaning, indicating only that at least half of the animal’s diet was grass (the rest could be grain).  In contrast, the diet underlying “Pasture for Life” certified produce is wholly pasture.

What can YOU do? If your diet includes meat and/or milk then you can help us by purchasing certified Pasture for Life produce from outlets and by asking for it whenever you shop. By increasing demand, you will encourage farmers to switch from feeding grain, to a wholly pasture-fed approach. You could also consider becoming a member.

We continue to move to a point where, when our children ask us: “Do all cows eat grass?”, the answer should and will be an unequivocal “Yes”.

We are grateful for the support from Compassion in World Farming – which has played a vital role in our development.

You can read more about the PFLA here.


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