The Riverford Dairy is run by Oliver and Louise Watson – brother and sister of Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson. They provide us with fresh organic milk, cream and natural yogurt from their pasture-reared herd, prepared in their traditional dairy just a stone’s throw up the road from our Devon home, Wash Farm.
The five Watson children grew up watching their father, John Watson, farm with an ecological awareness that was streaks ahead of his time – including his concerns about rapidly declining standards of animal welfare on conventional farms. All of the children have ended up working in food and farming, and trying to use their businesses as forces for good (as well as offering some really tasty produce).
Wash Farm has been certified organic for over 30 years – which is good news for the Riverford Dairy herd. Organic cows spend more time outside than any other system, including free range! Pasture-rearing just made sense to Oliver: “A cow is happiest when it’s fulfilling its natural characteristics, which in a large part is living in a field and eating grass,” he says.
The cows graze the fields in rotation with our organic veg. Sharing the fields is a holistic system that works for everyone: the cows enjoy fresh grasses and clover, instead of the imported maize and soya feeds eaten by many non-organic cows. They also get to munch up any vegetables that aren’t quite good enough to go out to our customers. Broccoli is a favourite – but we can’t give them beetroot, or their milk turns pink!
In return, the cows’ manure is a brilliant natural fertiliser, keeping our soil rich and healthy.
“My really big interest is improving the condition of the soil,” says Oliver, “One of the massive problems facing the whole agricultural industry, which hasn’t really manifested itself yet, is the declining organic content of soils and their impact on moisture retention, flooding and global warming.”
At the moment the cows still have to go inside for the worst weeks of the year, staying in the barn and eating silage (fermented grass, like coleslaw for cows). In a few years, Oliver hopes to be housing very few animals indoors – instead, getting our soils and grassland in outstanding condition, so that the herd can stay out in the fields all year round.
“A lot of people just think I’m completely bonkers,” he says, “I turned a group of cows into a field the other day full of chicory and stuff that was up to your shoulder – you couldn’t see them! My cows hadn’t ever seen anything like it, but they were completely at home with it, they just loved it.”
The team certainly see the effects of all this roaming and green eats: “You can notice when a cow is at ease in her environment, and I think that’s really evident at Riverford Dairy – that she is a really laid-back cow,” says assistant herd manager Bronté. “She loves her life outdoors, she’s very easy to bring in and milk, very easy in the parlour, and very friendly.”
“The value of a product isn’t just what it tastes like, it’s what it embodies in terms of where it comes from, and how it affects our world,” Oliver says. We couldn’t agree more – and because pasture-reared cows give the most flavoursome milk, it really is good stuff all round.