Significant effort goes into developing new market opportunities for dairy exports, and rightly so, but the importance of safeguarding our position in already established markets cannot be understated.

Increasingly, consumers are expecting more from their food and those that produce it. What was once a fad or trend is now an accepted behaviour and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of these changes. Change has also been driven by millennials (those aged 24 to 39), who continue to make food choices based upon their awareness of issues such as climate change, the environment and animal welfare.

Dairy cows grazing. \ David Ruffles

The term “sustainability” means so much to so many. Some of the key issues that remain front and centre in the minds of consumers when choosing dairy products in Ireland’s established dairy markets (the UK, the US, Germany and wider Europe) are nutrition, genetically modified (GM), antimicrobial resistance and animal welfare. Grass-fed dairy addresses consumers’ needs for reassurance in relation to some of these issues.

Ireland has always been well positioned in terms of sustainability and the introduction of the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme (SDAS) in 2013, backed up by Origin Green, allows the industry to make claims supported by data. The uptake of the SDAS by farmers across the country must be commended as it has allowed the industry to build a strong reputation across the globe. However, it is imperative that we do not stand still as consumers continue to look for evidence that the food they consume is produced in a sustainable manner.

Perception of grass-fed

Grass-fed is a claim that is resonating more with consumers. Bord Bia has conducted extensive research with consumers on their perception and understanding of grass-fed. The most commonly held definition of grass-fed is that animals are “grass-fed as much as possible, weather and animal welfare permitting”.

Grass-fed is associated with higher levels of animal welfare as cattle can lead more “natural” lives outdoors. As well as being considered more natural, grass-fed is perceived as more nutritious and more sustainable – all of which are key consumer trends.

Over half of consumers globally said that grass-fed would influence their choice of dairy, with over two-thirds of consumers in key European markets showing an interest in grass-fed dairy.

Comparison to Netherlands

Our grass fed system confers a significant natural advantage that we must use to its full potential.

According to Bord Bia SDAS data, average grazing days on Quality Assured dairy farms in 2018 and 2019 were 248 and 249 days respectively and although Irish dairy produce has always been declared as grass fed, the market now requires evidence to support the claim. The Bord Bia Grass Fed standard will allow the industry to make verifiable claims beyond our competitors.

Dairy cows grazing.\ Donal O' Leary

The Netherlands is a country the size of Munster with over 60,000 dairy farms. Intensive dairy production at this scale cannot be achieved without significant feed input in the form of grain or alternative crops, however, the Dutch currently dominate the grass fed image in Europe through their ‘Weidemilk’ (meadow milk) logo. The terms of Weidemilk – known as the ‘Grazing Covenant’ – require cows to graze outdoors for a minimum of 120 days, for a minimum of 6 hours per day - with a minimum of 25% of cows having to be grazed to the desired level. This equates to a total of 30 days with, in theory, no requirement for a proportion of the diet to be derived from grazed grass.

FreislandCampina reports that 83% of farms practice some form of meadow grazing with a 2018 Arla report stating that the average grazing season for conventional farms was 120 days.

The Bord Bia Grass-Fed Standard will allow the industry to make verifiable claims beyond our competitors.

The Grass-Fed Standard

Irish dairy farming is predominately a grass-based dairy system and the Grass-Fed Standard provides verifiable proof to the market of Irish dairy farmers’ dedication and capability to produce milk from a predominately grass-based diet.

The Bord Bia Grass-Fed Standard was developed by Bord Bia using Teagasc’s grass-fed model. In order for herds to qualify, they must satisfy the following six requirements:

  • Herds must be members of the SDAS to be considered for assessment against the Grass-Fed Standard.
  • The assessment of conformity (grass-fed status) must be completed using the grass-fed dairy model.
  • The assessment must be completed using data collected during SDAS audits and stored on the Bord Bia Quality Assurance database.
  • The average grass-fed figure for a group of herds that constitute a pool of milk for primary processing must achieve a weighted average of 95% on a fresh-weight basis.
  • The minimum acceptable grass-fed figure for an individual herd to qualify as grass fed is 90% on a fresh-weight basis.
  • Animals must be permitted to graze outdoors on grass for at least the national average grazing days, plus or minus 80 days (national average based on three-year rolling average to account for uncharacteristic weather events).
  • The Grass-Fed Standard asks no requirements of farmers other than to be a member of the SDAS. Processors that wish to use the grass-fed logo, must comply with all grass-fed requirements and undergo an audit against the standard at 12-month intervals.

    Launch and rollout

    Bord bia ad in context

    As part of Bord Bia’s marketing campaigns, the Grass-Fed Standard was introduced to trade audiences in the UK, Germany and the US in November. The objective is to communicate to trade customers the capability of Ireland to quantify the grass-fed nature of milk produced on SDAS farms. A more intensive follow-up campaign is planned for 2021 as verified grass-fed product comes on stream from Irish processors.