Breaking into the barista coffee market and overhauling their dairy farm infrastructure and breeding choices has transformed one family farm. Marie-Claire Kidd finds out why there is far more to come.
The innovation continues in Lancashire’s Lune Valley. Not satisfied with developing the perfect milk for coffee companies, brothers Joe and Ed Towers are experimenting with technology and working to reduce greenhouse emissions from cows on their farm and beyond.
Joe and Ed, of Brades Farm, near Lancaster, attracted national attention when they introduced Britain’s first speciality milk for baristas to the hipster London market in 2016. Brades Farm Barista Milk, a blend of Holstein Friesian and Jersey milk, has a carefully controlled protein content to ensure the perfect ‘microfoam’ for lattes and cappuccinos, and a honed butterfat content to add the right level of sweetness.
It has won them various accolades from foodies and business experts alike, including the Dairy Innovator of the Year Award at last year’s British Farming Awards. The move has reinvigorated the 142-hectare (350-acre) farm which, like many similar businesses, has been rocked by crashing milk prices and the prospect of hopeless contracts. Since winning the award last summer, Joe and Ed have sold their local milkround to concentrate on the barista milk business.
One year ago, they were supplying London restaurants, coffee shops, delis and caterers via wholesaler Allan Reeder. Now, they have increased London sales and, while the main bulk still goes to London, have expanded into Lancaster, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Chester.
The family has a long history in the area. It began with their grandad, Richard, who bought the farm in 1960, arriving with just six cows. Soon after, he bought a milkround, which at first he got round in the family car. Joe and Ed’s uncle Chris began to pasteurise milk and cream on-farm and started selling milk in plastic bottles, building up sales in Lancaster and on local doorsteps. Chris then sold the milk round to his eldest brother John, who passed it to his sons.
As time has evolved, Joe says they knew the farm business needed to innovate. “The possibility came along to work with a Copenhagen-based scientist and coffee expert to develop a bespoke milk for coffee.
“I had spent a year working for a coffee exporter in Tanzania and Kenya as part of my degree in agri-food marketing at Harper Adams University, so this had great appeal to me.”
In 2013, Joe, who looks after processing, marketing and customer contracts, returned from university. Together with his brother, he began introducing a number of innovations across the business. The transformation started on-farm when they introduced Jersey cows imported from Varde, eastern Denmark, to their herd of Holstein-Friesians in 2015.
Joe says: “Jersey milk has more protein and butterfat which is key to developing the perfect milk for coffee. We blend the milk from our two herds after undertaking laboratory analysis when the milk tanker arrives.
“Baristas find fluctuations in protein causes milk to perform unpredictably. We ensure our barista milk is always 3.6 per cent protein. Milk is not homogenised, which is essential for silky latte art, which holds its pattern for longer.”
The sweetness in milk comes from butterfat, explains Joe.
He says: “Average butterfat in UK milk is 3.9 per cent. We found the flavour of coffee can be improved considerably by upping the butterfat content. Our Jerseys can produce milk with as high as 6 per cent butterfat, but milk this sweet can overpower the senses. We found our sweet-spot at 4.5 per cent butterfat.”
Cows are fed a conventional diet of caustic wheat and a protein blend. Ed adds whey permeate, a by-product of the cheese industry, which increases the protein content of the milk. As part of their reseeding regime each year on the predominantly grassland area 5-10 per cent is used to grow wheat, which is harvested as wholecrop to feed to cows along with their own grass silage and maize silage, bought-in for the first time this year.
Ed, who is responsible for farm management, is also breeding for higher protein throughout both herds, which he keeps separately. He breeds Jersey to Jersey and black and white to black and white, selecting through bulls via artificial insemination. He has redeveloped the farm’s infrastructure to ensure milk consistency and animal welfare, installing a bridge connecting the Jersey housing to two adjacent pastures, separated by a stream.
He says: “We came up with ‘Freedom to Choose’. On a sunny day, about half of our Jerseys choose to go outside and half choose to stay indoors. On rainy days, our cows outside race for cover and soon the field is empty.
“This allows us to continue to optimise the quality and consistency of milk by maintaining control of the diet for a portion of cows, while giving them the option to graze.”
They produce 80,000 litres of milk per week. One-third is sold to coffee shops in London, Manchester and Liverpool as Brades Farm Barista Milk. One-third is sold locally to Woodbine Dairies, under the brand Lune Valley Dairy Farm. One-third is sold to Dales Dairies on a farm gate contract.
The changes the pair have made complement each other and are part of a much more balanced approach. Some innovations on-farm are extensive, such as the shift to producing barista milk, and some are smaller.
For example, there is WiFi on-farm and Ed, his family, his team of workers, his vet and nutritionist are connected via a WhatsApp group.
He says: “It means we can be in touch quickly and share relevant information among the whole group. It makes things much more efficient.”
The WiFi also allows customers to log in on their phones and see the cows, which helps the brothers and their clients emphasise to coffee drinkers just how traceable this single origin product is. Ed is causing a stir by milking on a Segway personal transporter, a self-balancing two-wheeled scooter. His video showing how the Segway helps him in the parlour has received 250,000 views on Facebook.
Now, other farmers are doing it.
He says: “Necessity drives innovation. If things had not been so tough for dairy farmers, we would not have innovated like we have. “Sometimes it is just adapting technologies, such as the Segway.
That was an idea I thought I would try because I have a bad hip. I could not milk for a year until I used a Segway.
“Others on-farm use it too because it is more enjoyable and easier. It is quiet, so it doesn’t bother cows and it is quicker.”
As well as dabbling with technology, Joe and Ed are investigating what dairy and beef farmers can do to reduce greenhouse emissions. Joe is embarking on a Nuffield study looking at opportunities to reduce methane emissions from beef and dairy cows by altering diets.
He says: “Ruminant production is responsible for about 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, Canadian researchers became aware feeding seaweed to cows may decrease methane emissions.
“More recently, a team at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Queensland, discovered a seaweed species which reduces methane emissions by 99 per cent when fed as 2 per cent of cow diet.
“Whether farmers can seize this chance to make their industry more sustainable depends on the prospects for the commercial production and the potential to scale it up.
“The purpose of my study is to evaluate the challenges and opportunities relating to procurement of this possible feed ingredient.”
Ed says: “We are trying to do what we can on-farm. As Joe got researching, other things came up. Some are medicinal, some are natural feed supplements. It is an interesting area.”
At Brades Farm, the brothers are trialling a natural plant extract which reduces methane emissions from cows by a claimed 30 per cent. Apart from getting climate smart, Ed says the brothers intend to continue to increase animal health and welfare and reduce costs at the farm, and are looking for any further opportunities which may arise.
He says: “We want to secure more sales on barista milk. We are super excited about our climate smart work. It is not something we want to keep to ourselves. We would like to see widespread uptake of innovations which work.”
They are sharing their findings with McDonald’s, which is sponsoring Joe’s study, and Tesco, Joe’s former employer, among others.
Ed says: “These big companies are putting a lot of work into reducing their impact on the environment. If we can be a showcase, that is our influence.”
On winning the Dairy Innovator of the Year Award, Ed says: “It is fantastic to be recognised for the hard work we put in. This award means so much for our team.
“Dairy farming is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world and we try our best to look after our animals and provide what our customers want. It is a battle every day, so to be appreciated means everything.”
With milk prices regularly hitting the headlines, our award will look to dairy producers who are positive about the future of the industry and are working to build a successful enterprise. You will be striving to produce milk more efficiently, or perhaps instigating and developing change in core areas including production, health and welfare, nutrition and fertility. You may have come up with new ways of marketing your milk or identified new markets to limit the negative impacts of commodity price fluctuations.