For Chris and Rachel Knowles a simple system involving once-a-day milking and rotational grazing is producing high quality milk which is in demand from local businesses. Rebecca Jordan reports.
FOUR years ago Chris and Rachel Knowles faced up to a number of questions their business was posing at Trink Farm, just outside St Ives in Cornwall. As a result, they have successfully embodied the farm’s traditional history and evolved it into a secure future.
Chris’ great grandfather sold milk into St Ives. Three generations on, Chris and Rachel are doing the same. In both cases this was, and is, in response to demand.
Rachel started with a batch pasteuriser in 2016 bottling just 15 litres a day in her kitchen which was sold in a pop-up shop with an honesty box. Each batch took four hours to pasteurise and after three months it was obvious there was no chance she could keep up with demand.
That autumn she took a week to get to and back from the Women in Dairy Farming conference in Worcestershire as she researched, visited and studied many farm milk vending machines and pasteurisers along the way.
Following a successful grant application Rachel invested £18,000 in an in-line pasteuriser and, on May 17, 2017, produced her first bottled milk from the new premises next to the milking parlour. By 2019, 600 litres were pasteurised three times a week at 73degC for 20 seconds.
Production peaks at 3,000 litres a week in the summer with bottled milk available to buy either at a vending machine at the dairy or through an independent delivery service to local catering outlets and farm shops.
Rachel says: “Chris and I both went to Seale-Hayne college and, in lectures, were taught about the forces of supply and demand. The trouble is you come back home and carry on farming in just about the same fashion and do not have time to sit back and look at the bigger picture.
"In our case it was obvious there was a demand on our doorstep for our milk but we were failing to acknowledge that. We had lost the point of our story.
“Chris’ father, Robert, was always keen the public came and saw our cows so we have always had the public and schools visit. In fact, we are the Cornish host farm for FarmLink and have about 500 children here each year.
“The one question they have always asked is: ‘where can we buy your milk?’”
Rachel says however, that the cornerstone to the success of her side of the business is the high quality milk the cows are producing at Trink. She describes it as a sustainable grass-fed system, something which has been in place for at least two generations.
She explains that 40 years ago Chris’ father Robert was milking Ayrshires at Trink. However, over the years the cows have been crossed with British Friesian and, more recently, New Zealand Friesian and New Zealand Jersey.
Chris explains: “This type of cow complements our rotational grazing system and the youngstock are hardy enough to outwinter. The real bonus – which has evolved from years of breeding for the same type – is consistently top quality milk. Milk solids are significant which means our milk is very popular with coffee shops and restaurants.”
When grass growth is at its peak the cows receive about 0.5kg of concentrates a day, which increases to 2kg a day when grass growth drops off in the autumn.
Pre-lockdown 60 per cent of the bottled milk was sold to local schools, coffee shops and restaurants. That trade obviously dried up overnight. Sales at the vending machine and local farm shops, however, increased.
Today nearly 8 per cent of Trink’s total milk production is bottled, the rest is sold through Arla.
Chris says: “My father was always very loyal and supportive of farmer co-operatives and we consider ourselves lucky Arla has given us permission to sell a percentage of our milk direct. Everything seemed to come together at the right time to help make the right decision for us all.”
Chris and Rachel are not frightened to consider new ideas both for the business and on-farm. Chris admits he has learned so much from other farmers on farm visits up and down the country organised by his grassland discussion group The Rough Grazers.
The farm is designed so the grazing ground circumnavigates a 45-hectare (110-acre) block of higher moorland called Trink Hill. Chris has installed a network of cow tracks and large water troughs to facilitate and maximise the grazing system.
After careful consideration he has embraced a once-a-day milking system. In 2018 Chris ran a trial, milking just 90 cows once-a-day in the morning. As that went so well the whole herd moved over last year.
He says: “Milking just once-a-day makes sense and is so simple. It means cows utilise all the grazing more efficiently – especially those fields further from the parlour. Cow fertility has also improved because they are not under so much pressure. Milk volume is down so this spare energy aids conception.
“The incidence of lameness has reduced as they are moving less and our cell count and mastitis rate is similar to when we were milking twice-a-day.”
Heifers calve down at two years old, and this year a fortnight earlier than the rest of the herd from February 4.
In-calf heifers are kept on off-ground and overwintered on Trink Hill.
Chris and Rachel rent a block of 40ha (100 acres) where weaned calves are reared until a year old.
Chris says: “This land, made up of 50 fields, is a ready-made design to introduce youngstock to paddock grazing. They learn to graze grass efficiently before entering the herd which is run on a strict rotational grazing system.”
Small fields in this area do not lend themselves to large modern machinery so, this year, Chris decided to make all winter forage into round bales. The decision also complements rotational grazing as grass is cut as and when a surplus appears.
About 60 per cent of silage is harvested from more mature grass which is destined for dry cows with the balance – made from young leafy grass – fed to cows in late autumn. This stock is also available if grass stops growing in the main season.
“Overall, we feel confident we have made the right decisions by sticking to our philosophy of keeping things simple – whether that be in terms of milk production or retailing our own branded milk. We believe our strapline ‘from grass to bottle’ and our focus on milk quality over quantity ensures our business is sustainable,” says Chris.
“There is no great secret to what we are doing and there is no reason the concept cannot be repeated elsewhere.
"The fact is we have a great tasting product which is consistently of a high quality. We have taken control of the marketing of some of our milk and are now starting to reap the rewards.”