Black and white issue

Farmers have launched a new brand of free-range milk with a distinctive black top. Is it really the next green thing?

Free-range milk? All milk is free range, isn’t it?

No. More and more cows are being kept inside for a lot of the year, but
what isn’t clear is how many. The most recent estimate, is that 36% of the milk on sale in supermarkets is from cows that are indoors for at least 82% of the year. In 2011, the figure was reportedly 5%.

What’s the point in keeping them indoors?

Intensification. The 36% figure is “slightly fuzzy”, admits Nick Hiscox, the director of the Free Range Milk Marketing Board, but housed units allow the retailers more control and to turn milk “on and off like a tap”. Housed cows tend to produce about 20% more milk than those put out to pasture, too. With pressure on price, farmers are either being squeezed out or scaling up.

Does indoor rearing affect the cows or the milk?

Definitely, according to animal welfare campaigners. Environmentalists have also raised concerns. Farmers appear divided on the subject of intensification, though. And as for the milk, “cow nutrition has a significant effect on milk composition”, says Neil Darwent from the Free Range Dairy Network.

How big are the farms?

In 2006, the average dairy herd had 99 cows in it. By 2013 it was 123. By the end of the decade it could be as high as 191. The trend is very much towards fewer farms with bigger herds of high-yielding cows kept indoors for large parts of the year. Some have ballooned into US-style units with 1,000 cows or more (there was also the well-reported, but failed, project in Somerset for a farm with 8,100 animals).

Does free-range milk cost more?

Naturally. Enjoy Milk will be more expensive than standard milk but far less than organic – it’s being marketed as a halfway house for the ethically minded but price-conscious. The fact that farmers will be treated fairly (decent price, transparent and simple contracts) could help tip the balance. Morrisons’ Milk for Farmers is performing well and research by Mintel shows that 61% of consumers would be willing to pay more for milk if they knew the extra money went to the farmers.

Seems like a great idea, then.

On the face of it, yes: it ticks the ethical box for fair pay, as well as the provenance one (it’s all British). The founders of Enjoy Milk, and the 700 farmers who are willing to back the scheme, believe that free-range milk can be the next big thing in ethical produce. There’s also a feeling that the wind is in their sales given the heightened interest in farm animal welfare: 86% of UK consumers felt dairy cows should not be permanently housed, according to research by YouGov in 2015. They also point to the success of free-range eggs, sales of which have boomed without cannibalising the cheap, caged end of the market completely.

There must be a catch.

Not really. But there are two concerns. The first is logistical: getting milk
to market from about 700 farmers when they are spread far and wide and have existing contracts with milk buyers could be challenging. Enjoy Milk is also setting out to highlight the “innuendo” – milk being almost ubiquitously marketed with cows happily grazing outside even though an increasing share is from housed animals. However, the scheme’s definition of free-range is vague: suppliers must commit to “achieving the maximum days possible for grazing outside”.

That does seem a little ambitious.

It isn’t good enough, according to Darwent. His network sells milk with a “Pasture Promise” that cows will be grazed for at least six months of the year. “It’s frustrating,” he says, “just as we are establishing a wider understanding of what free-range milk is all about, others appear to be trying to capitalise on it without any clear definition of the farming system.” Still, Enjoy Milk and Pasture Promise are competing for the same slice of the market so some friendly fire towards the new brand on the shelf is to be expected. Given the polls there should be plenty of consumers to go around.

Will foodservice buy into it, then?

They should do. Milk has been commoditised and some are now trying to “liberate the good stuff” and give it to chefs and baristas. The Estate Dairy is one such example. “Every single point of the coffee-making process is focused on quality, but milk is often overlooked,” explains co-founder Shaun Young. Coffee shops, for example, spend a lot of time and effort touting the provenance and quality of their beans as well as any fair trade certifications, so why can’t it be the same for milk? “It makes sense [for foodservice] to start talking about milk,” says Enjoy Milk’s commercial manager, Rob Ward. “They can add value.”

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