Grass-fed milk – kinder to cows, better for people
Updated: Feb 15
Back in the 1920s dairy farmers were under greater financial pressures than today. But an innovative farmer-engineer called Arthur Hosier came up with a radical solution. Threatened by low prices and cheap imports, he decided to keep cows outdoors on his rolling Wiltshire downland for 365 days a year, even milking them outside in mobile milking units.
Though the land was cold and exposed, the cows were expected to stay out on pasture all year round in all weathers. Despite the climate they remained remarkably healthy under their ‘free-range conditions’, quickly adapting to the outdoor life by growing long, thick coats. At the same time they stayed free of the crippling ailments that plague modern dairy farms – lameness, infertility and udder disease.
They didn’t seem to contract tuberculosis either. In the 1920s TB was rife in the human population, with tens of thousands dying from it every year. Many were believed to contract the disease from contaminated milk. But in their healthy, outdoor conditions Hosier’s cows never developed TB. Even ‘reactors’ – cattle giving a positive result in TB tests – failed to develop the disease when brought on to the farm. He claimed: ‘If all cows were kept in the open air on dry land and properly fed, tuberculosis would be non-existent in five years.’
Keeping cows outside on pasture dramatically cut Hosier’s production costs, enabling him to make good profits while other dairy farmers were struggling to break even. What’s more, the milk he produced was purer and healthier than most other milk around. In a speech to the Farmers’ Club in London he said: ‘Milk produced from cows living in the open air is better in every respect. It is of much higher food value than milk produced in stalls [inside]. It keeps longer, and is higher in butterfat. Infectious diseases of the udder are almost unknown.’
Hosier delivered his speech in 1927 when the world economy was in recession and farmers were struggling to make a living. He showed that by producing healthy milk from pasture, and selling direct to the public, there were good profits to be made.
Over the next few years a small number of farmers adopted the system. By 1930 a total of 86 had taken up ‘open air’ dairying, producing between them enough milk to supply a city the size of Leicester. Two years later a team of economists from Oxford University carried out a study of over 70 open-air herds. They concluded that in many parts of Britain the future of dairy farming lay in the adoption of these simple, open-air methods.
Had Hosier’s revolution continued we’d all now be enjoying a wonderful, health-giving food. Unlike today’s milk it was so pure it didn’t need heat treatment to make it safe. This meant it retained its full complement of nutrients, including vitamins, enzymes and protective fatty acids. It would have helped prevent many of today’s most crippling ailments – heart disease, many cancers, osteoporosis, arthritis and asthma.
Sadly it wasn’t to be. The big dairy companies convinced the government that the only safe milk was milk that had been pasteurised. In effect this meant farmers could no longer sell their milk direct to the public, no matter how pure it was. Instead it would have to go to one of the dairy companies for heat treatment. The dairy industry had effectively taken control of the nation’s milk supply.
Despite the clear health benefits of pasture-fed milk, dairy farming has since gone in precisely the wrong direction. Herds have got bigger and cows have been concentrated in ever larger numbers inside sheds, where they’re fed diets containing large amounts of industrial grain.
It’s almost impossible to buy healthy milk in today’s supermarkets or, for that matter, from the home delivery floats of the major dairy companies. It’s true there are still a handful of pasture-fed herds dotted around the British countryside. But inside the stainless steel silos of the dairy companies this good milk is swamped in the deluge from farms that fill their cows with cereal grains and soya. Even the so-called healthy milks are spoiled by the standards of their poorest producers.
Despite these changes – or perhaps because of them – dairy farming has been in crisis for years. When she was Environment Secretary, Liz Truss promised to help farmers sell dairy products to China. There was talk of a ‘futures’ market for dairy products, allowing milk to be traded in advance, giving farmers greater long-term price security.
Some in the industry talk openly of ‘restructuring’. Their argument is that the dramatic fall in dairy farm numbers hasn’t led to shortages. Instead production has been concentrated into bigger herds. The process needs to continue, they claim, so Britain ends up with a truly efficient dairy industry. In other words, milk production must become a large-scale factory operation rather than a farming enterprise.
But there’s an alternative. A growing number of dairy farmers are finding that by making the best use of pasture they can reclaim that most elusive prize in milk production – profit. Two West Country farmers – Neil Grigg and Tom Foot – established a large dairy herd that stays outdoors all year round. They’re milked once a day through a portable milking parlour designed and built by Tom from an old milking frame found abandoned in the hedge.
In a reinvention of Hosier’s methods of the 1920s they are producing high-quality milk at very low cost. They’re able to sell it at a premium price to a nearby cheese company where milk of this quality is highly valued.
At the other end of the size scale, new farmer Nick Snelgar developed a small mobile milking unit along with a pasteurisation (heat treatment) plant suitable for a small farm. He also built up a flourishing market for local milk in the homes and shops close to where he lives in the village of Martin in Hampshire.
Nick discovered there was a keen demand for grass-fed local milk. He found that at the prices people are prepared to pay, a herd of no more than twenty cows can provide a decent income for a new, young farmer. He hopes the development will open the way for thousands of micro-dairies around the country in the same way that micro-breweries have taken off.
Could pasture-based production lead to a new golden age for UK milk, just as it did in the 1920s? Not everyone’s a fan of milk, even the grass-fed sort. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, argues that dairy foods have taken a heavy toll on human health over the past 9,000 years or so. The fatty acids they contain – palmitic acid and myristic acid – raise blood cholesterol, he argues. They also increase the risk of developing heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
By contrast, the Weston A. Price Foundation – the nutrition foundation set up to promote and continue the work of the healthy-eating pioneer – recommends whole milk, cheese and butter from grass-fed animals. It adds that all these foods should be eaten raw and unprocessed. In traditional societies, dairy foods were often fermented so they provided plenty of enzymes to aid digestion.