The Delights of Pasture-Fed Dairy

Guest blog by Angus Birditt, Pasture For Life

In a food world where sourcing often feels more obscure and tricky than traceable or transparent, it’s rather difficult to find out exactly what you’re eating. I think it’s almost impossible nowadays to a live our fast modern lives and know exactly where everything you’re eating and drinking comes from – who made it, how it was processed, what went into it, how the environment was managed. However, I would like to be proven wrong!

There are certifications out there for being Biodynamic and/or Organic like Demeter, Soil Association and OF&G that can at least give us confidence in what we are buying. But even then, often they are produced outside of the UK, so the chance of meeting the producers is low. There is one certification however that audits to high food and farming standards and I can get involved in personally – and you can to – and that’s Pasture for Life, a unique, non-profit organisation whose mission is to transition animal farming in the UK onto a sustainable and regenerative path.

Pasture for Life provides farmer-to-farmer education opportunities, support academic research and develop pasture-fed supply chains, and through their certification, they certify 100% pasture-fed enterprises like Hollis Mead Dairy. For me, as a food writer and someone who wants to know where my food is coming from, this Pasture for Life certification gives me confidence and enjoyment in what I’m eating, knowing exactly how the land was managed, how the animal was raised, what the animal was fed and which farm it came from.

How is ‘pasture-fed’ different to ‘grass-fed’?

Well, grass can (and often will) refer to a monoculture, whereas pasture is a biodiverse habitat made of multiple species (types of grasses, herbs, legumes, wildflowers, hedgerow flora). The term ‘grass-fed’ is also weakened in the UK as an animal only has to be fed a ‘majority’ grass-fed diet (i.e. >51%) to meet the legal definition of grass-fed according to Defra.

Using the term ‘pasture-fed’ helps to set products apart from those marketed as ‘grass-fed’ – and if they are 100% pasture-fed (i.e. certified Pasture for Life) you’re onto a winner. The term ‘pasture-fed’ also enables Pasture for Life to talk about the wider benefits of ‘pasture vs. grass’ such as the nutritional differences, and the broader system of farming ruminant animals which focuses not just on what the animals are fed but how the on-farm ecosystem is managed. 

What are the wider benefits of pasture-fed? And how does a pasture-fed dairy compare to a conventional dairy?

There are plenty of benefits! Firstly, it’s superior nutritionally. It’s clear to understand that whatever we feed our animals will eventually impact the nutritional quality of meat and milk. Pasture-fed produce is much higher in omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as on animal welfare – pasture being the natural diet for cows and sheep after all! Most of the cattle and sheep in the meat and dairy industries are finished on grains (spent brewer’s grain, maize, barley) and sugar beet, chosen for their high-calorific composites that can produce higher yields than that of pure pasture diets. Here in the UK, we grow huge acreages of cereals to feed ruminants, precious arable land that could be used to grow food for humans. I remember Oliver from Hollis Mead telling me they produce 2/3 of the yield of a conventional dairy, focusing instead on less is more, i.e. higher nutritional values, higher animal welfare standards and biodiversity improvement.

Talking of animal welfare, pasture-fed animals are given the freedom to express their normal behaviours and often live in family groups. They feed on a natural diet of pasture and forage such as hay in winter and they are less likely to suffer from disease and require little veterinary attention or antibiotics.

Those following 100% pasture-fed practices also see dramatic environmental improvements, such as increased biodiversity, soil health and carbon storage. They have a fantastic series called Biodiversity Case Studies that showcase their pasture-fed member farmers working alongside nature, producing nutrient-dense food whilst improving the level of their local biodiversity. 

Why pasture-fed is on the rise?

I believe citizens are increasingly passionate about being involved in the journey of their food, not just being consumers. Also, thanks to the likes of Pasture for Life and other food and farming organisations and programmes like Saving Our Wild Isles (which featured Neil Heseltine of Hill Top Farm, a Pasture for Life certified farm in Yorkshire), we are as a nation becoming more conscious of climate change and want to reflect that mindfulness through our food choices and buying more sustainably in general.

Plus, pasture-fed is a totally different farm system, animal experience, and end-product to what most people are used to. Chefs, butchers, and farmers are finding that 100% pasture-fed products are a unique selling point, with benefits to the environment, animal welfare, and nutrition and flavour. In Edinburgh, you will find Pasture for Life’s first fully certified restaurant, L’Escargot Bleu, headed by chef Fred Berkmiller, which garnered ‘Best Restaurant in Scotland’ in 2019 and 2021 at the Slow Food UK Awards.

So all-in-all, eating pasture-fed produce like Hollis Mead dairy products, you can be mindful of the fact that you’re consuming nutrient-rich foods, sourced from happy animals, and farmed in a way that looks to improve the level of biodiversity on the land. If you are both Pasture for Life certified and Organic certified, as is Hollis Mead Dairy, I think that’s pretty much the closest thing we have to perfection at the moment!

How people can find/support Pasture for Life producers in the UK?

Head to the Pasture for Life website (pastureforlife.org) and clicking on ‘Where to Buy’. This will take you to a map of the UK and locations of certified producers. These certified producers (farms/businesses/butchers) either sell direct from the farmgate, via a box scheme and/or through a retailer. Each certified producer will have a website, clearly stating who they are, what they do and how they raise their animals to Pasture for Life’s high levels of food and farming standards.

If you would like to reap the other benefits of Pasture for Life, for example, join its growing community, attend their in-person events and join their webinars – you can join as a Pasture for Life Member.

Find out more at pastureforlife.org/members

Look out for the Pasture for Life ‘Certification Mark’ here – pastureforlife.org/certification

Visit Pasture for Life website (pastureforlife.org) | Our Isles (ourisles.co.uk)

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