A move to milk processing has proved successful beyond expectations for a family farm in Derbyshire. Chloe Palmer reports.
For a family who only chose to milk cows seven years ago, the journey to processing more than half their milk production has been a rapid and exciting one.
Paul and Lenora Harris bought Alkmonton Old Hall Farm in 2008 after spending more than 30 years running their successful civil engineering company. Farming has always been their passion since they met at agricultural college, so buying their first farm was a milestone.
Their son Richard has inherited their enthusiasm for farming and a few years after moving to Alkmonton, Richard and his parents established the Alkmonton Ayrshire herd in August 2013.
Richard says: “We chose the Ayrshires as a breed because we had an idea we would eventually like to process the milk, so milk quality was important to us. The dairy processing enterprise finally became a reality after I met Jo, a local dairy farmer’s daughter.
“Understanding and getting the nutrition right was one of the hardest things about managing the dairy herd. Balancing the ration correctly has taken us a while. I was used to suckler cows where nutrition is principally about quantity, whereas with dairy cows the quality has to be exactly right.
“We grow almost 90 per cent of the diet for the cows on the farm and have fine-tuned what we feed. We are now growing spring-sown wholecrop which is sown as a mix of 40 per cent barley and 60 per cent peas and needs no fertiliser or sprays.”
A recent addition to the rotation is lupins, which the family started growing in 2020, to replace soya in the diet and they have proved very successful in the first year.
“We drilled 10 hectares of lupins in April and combined them in September. We were really pleased with how the crop has performed and so this year we are planning to grow 20ha.
“We mix the lupin seed with rolled barley and after introducing it gradually into the diet, this has allowed us to replace 1kg of soya with 1.2kg of lupins.
“Lupins have a favourable amino acid profile and are highly suitable to feed to ruminants. They also have a high energy content with virtually no starch, so far we are very pleased with how they are feeding,” Richard adds.
Alkmonton Old Hall Farm is a mixed farm with extensive arable acreage and therefore straw is readily available for the milking herd to be loose housed. This produces ample quantities of box muck for the arable land.
This system brings challenges, however, because mastitis can be an issue when managing a loose housed herd, according to Richard.
“We are very lucky to have our vet, John Cammack, of Glenthorne Veterinary Centre, and his experience and advice has been invaluable where we have encountered problems, as has his input into general herd health and management.”
The robustness of the Ayrshire has meant health issues are relatively few in number and the breed has proved especially well-suited to producing the high-quality milk for the Harris’ new direct retail business.
“The Ayrshire cow has excellent feet and legs and fertility is excellent, so this has made their husbandry very straightforward. They typically achieve an average of five lactations and we have several of our original cows still in the herd and producing well.”
After Richard and Jo got married in 2019, they began planning their new processing facility and by February 2020 the conversion of the old cow shed to the processing room was well underway.
“We re-clad the cow shed and then after a lot of research and help from a dairy engineer, we purchased a mixture of second-hand and new equipment to install in it.
Jo says: “We began promoting our new venture via social media and we did a leaflet drop around new local housing estates. We also contacted farmshops, butchers, pubs, coffee shops and restaurants in the area who were all really keen to stock our milk and support a local business.”
The first bottled milk left the dairy for customers in June 2020 and the business has gone from strength to strength ever since. Alkmonton Dairy now runs four milk rounds in and around the Ashbourne area using its smart Ayrshire liveried vans.
“Although Covid proved a real headache while we were developing the dairy, it proved to be fortuitous when we started selling our products. We have had so much interest in our doorstep deliveries and we launched an app/online ordering system so customers can update and amend their orders easily until the lunchtime the day before their delivery.”
“We are now selling between 6,500 and 7,000 litres of milk per week in a variety of bottles, both glass and plastic. Rather than the traditional pint glass bottles, we decided to opt for a screw top 500ml or one-litre bottle which have proved extremely popular.
“We find our customers are also very good at returning their bottles which has helped.
“The other half of our daily milk production is sold to Muller and they have been brilliant with us and are very flexible, being happy to take the milk we can spare, even though quantities change from day-to-day,” Jo adds
he business has had to be agile in its approach, with the ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, responding to overnight changes in its market and new opportunities.
Jo says: “We were supplying cream to the pubs and restaurants but when they closed, we suddenly had a glut of cream for which we had no market. So we decided to start producing and selling both salted and unsalted butter.
“This has proved to be an excellent way of using the surplus cream and so far is selling really well. Our customers like to know exactly where their food is coming from and appreciate a premium, local and honest product,” Jo adds.
Jo and Richard hope the growth in demand for Alkmonton Dairy products will eventually necessitate an increase in cow numbers. Richard already has a large cohort of heifer replacements and he also plans to sell some freshly-calved pedigree cows this year.
He is passionate about the Ayrshire breed and has spent time researching genetics so he breeds exactly the cow he is looking for.
“Our bull Swaites Dermott is an ex-Cogent AI bull and he serves all the heifers. We use sexed semen on most of the cows, but I have also bought conventional semen from bulls dating back to the 1970s as I am looking for some older bloodlines to ensure we do not restrict our genetic base too much.
“I am looking for a cow which is not overly big and has a good square udder, excellent legs and feet and has strong figures for fats and protein. I want my cows to last and when choosing a bull I will look at the cow in front of me and then select the bloodlines accordingly.”
Richard and Jo are keen to build on their success and they are both committed to being the best at what they do, whether it is the farming business or the next new enterprise. Jo says: “The next step for us is to continue to grow the dairy retail business and hopefully in the near future be retailing all of the milk we produce. We can then look to increase cow numbers and the corresponding milk production to the point where we reach the capacity of the dairy.
“It is a careful balance because we do not want to expand so quickly that we risk underselling our high quality product.”