The Real Milk Club

GrassWHY WE SHOULD WELCOME THE AGE OF THE MICRO-DAIRY?

Food lovers living near the Oxfordshire village of North Aston must think they’ve won the lottery. They enjoy home deliveries of healthy, nutrient-rich milk of a quality you seldom see in supermarkets. It’s from a small, local herd of cows grazing pastures strewn with clovers and herbs.

This traditional milk doesn’t just taste good. Modern science shows it to be filled with the kind of nutrients that enhance the human immune system and protect against heart disease and cancer.

Most supermarket milk isn’t produced this way. On modern, industrial dairy farms cows are bred for maximum production. They’re only allowed limited access to their natural food – grass. Instead they’re fed large amounts of grain and soya, feeds that are unhealthy for cows and which deplete the health-giving nutrients in their milk.

GrassAt North Aston Dairy Matt Lake produces organic milk from 15 traditional Ayrshire cows. He runs them on 40 acres of clover-rich pasture which supplies most of their feed.

Though it produces superb quality milk, this kind of small-scale production would be considered hopelessly uneconomic in a dairy industry where the average herd size is 100. But Matt has found that by paring his costs to a minimum – mainly through the use of second-hand equipment – and by selling direct to consumers, he can make a reasonable living.

This is good news for his customers. It means they’re assured of local milk that, in health terms, will beat supermarket milk hands down. The extra nutrients you get in the milk of grass-fed cows include anti-oxidants like vitamin A; omega-3 fatty acids which protect against heart disease and boost the immune system; and a substance known as CLA, a powerful cancer-fighter.

GrassIt’s also good news for the animals. On their natural, mainly grass diet, Matt Lake’s Ayrshire cows stay healthy unlike many of the high-yielding Holsteins that make up much of the national dairy industry. Under pressure to produce vast quantities of milk, these over-worked animals suffer from a host of ailments including lameness, udder disease and infertility.

On their grass diet the North Aston Ayrshires stay largely free from these conditions. Unlike much of the national herd, they stay out on pasture for a full eight months of the year. In winter their feed is mostly haylage (wilted and fermented grass) and rolled oats, supplemented with protein and minerals.

Having produced milk of exceptional quality, Matt is careful not to spoil it by over-processing like the big dairy companies do. Most of his milk is simply passed through a pasteuriser (purchased second-hand) before being put into one-litre glass bottles. For customers who want semi-skimmed milk, some is put through a separator to remove fat.

Almost all supermarket milk is homogenised – a violent physical process that smashes up fat globules and disperses the fat through the milk. The process destroys the natural membrane surrounding fat globules, a membrane that has been shown to have many health benefits. These are all preserved in North Aston Dairy’s milk.

Matt delivers his milk on Monday and Friday afternoons, mostly to homes within a couple of miles of the village. Some is also sold at local farmers’ markets. For Matt, who started the business three years ago with just three cows, it was a chance to combine his twin farming interests - local and organic.

GrassOne key element is his choice of the Aryshire breed. Ayrshires are hardy, well suited to a pasture-based system. They also have the ability to convert grass and forage into milk of high quality.

The grass-fed milk is going down well with locals. North Aston Dairy is part of a larger organic farm, and the milk goes principally to customers of organic vegetable boxes. So popular is the milk that advertising is limited to local parish magazines.

North Aston Dairy is one of a handful of “micro-dairies” now springing up all over Britain. They are finding a keen demand for locally-produced milk of high quality. Though mainstream dairy industry is moving to ever bigger herds, the new milk entrepreneurs are finding they can make a living from just a few cows so long as they sell locally and sell direct to consumers.

With even large-scale dairy farmers now struggling to break even in the face of crippling capital costs, the conditions are now set for a dramatic rise in the numbers of micro-dairies. They’ll give a boost to local economies while giving non-farming youngsters the chance to get started in food production.

But consumers will be the main beneficiaries. The advance of the micro-dairy will give many more the chance to taste “real milk” – milk from cows grazing clover-rich pastures. It’s the way milk used to taste.   

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