A key player in the Northern Ireland dairy sector, Draynes Farm remains true to its original ethos of taking their quality milk to market while creating new opportunities to enable its survival in a competitive market. Barbara Collins finds out more.
Draynes Farm started producing milk and cream in the 1930s. Back then, it was run by brothers Seamus, Aidan and Dermot who used a horse and cart to deliver the milk around their home, near Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The trio had spotted a doorstep business opportunity bringing milk and cream straight from their churns into homes.
While significant development, expansion and diversification followed, Draynes Farm is still a family-run business. And while they still produce all their own milk and cream on-farm, their customer base has grown dramatically.
For the first 50 years, the Draynes family continued the doorstep trade but 30 years ago decided to branch out into retail and food service and started delivering to shops, restaurants and coffee shops. By that stage, Seamus’ son Michael had taken on the management of the 113-hectare (280-acre) farm, which he farms in partnership with his wife, Stella.
Michael says: “A phone call came through to the farm from a restaurant in the other side of Lisburn. It was from a chef whose father got the milk on the doorstep. They wanted some of our milk and this was start of delivering to food service and retail. It just grew organically.”
Michael manages the farm and dairy while working closely with the commercial manager Phillip Sanaghan, who is in charge of sales and marketing.
With a turnover of about £5 million, the farm business is a key player in Northern Ireland’s dairy sector, processing 6.5-7 million litres a year.
The 280-strong herd of cows is managed as extensively as their system allows on a twice-a-day milking system. Friesian Holsteins have always been the breed of choice, says Michael, because of the quality of the milk.
A key area of investment has been the purchase of three robots to assist with milking, averaging a cost of £250,000 each.
“There was nothing wrong with the old system but you have to move with the times,” explains Michael. “After we added the modern automated, computerised milking system which lets each cow decide when it is ready to be milked, our yield quickly doubled.
“We are committed to maintaining the most comfortable and hygienic living environment for our cows. They have magnesium bedding, cow pillows and an automated bovine back scratcher. it is like a spa for them.”
The technology has allowed Michael and the other farm staff to get to know the animals better and improved the overall efficiency of the herd.
“The cows now come in themselves to milk,” he says. “Herd numbers have decreased slightly but the overall quality of the milk has improved.”
That quality has also been monitored by the help of a nutritionist who regularly monitors their feed and adjusts it accordingly.
Cows are turned out at the end of April to graze on the grass and are also fed nuts, seeds and silage before returning inside towards the end of September.
“One of Heston Blumenthal’s team came over to see where the cream for Abernethy Butter comes from and the nutritionist said the cows were fed like Olympic athletes with the perfect ratio of proteins and carbs,” says Michael.
Meticulous attention to herd health has meant there have been no major issues and regular vet visits ensure they are able to keep on top of everything.
“We are scrupulous about health and hygiene. Having a stress-free herd is really important to us.”
Calving takes place predominantly in winter after cows are bred through artificial insemination, although some are naturally served by an Aberdeen-Angus bull which sweeps during summer to make sure all animals are served.
All milk is pasteurised and bottled on-farm before being distributed in the company’s fleet, along with some sub-distributors who still do some doorstep deliveries.
Philip says: “The business is now split equally between food service and retail. We do not sell to the multiples but they are in some smaller supermarkets, such as Nisa, Spar and Costcutter.
“The farm business is an important player in the Northern Ireland dairy sector, but we are a small artisan producer. Our business isn’t about the multiples. From the start it has been about supplying local customers with quality local produce.”
Apart from a change in their customer base, one of the biggest changes over the years has been a relatively recent one.
Five years ago the couple decided to look at a diversification project.
“At that stage we were delivering milk and cream across the three counties of Antrim, Down and Armagh,” says Phillip.
“It has always been about the organic growth of the business but we did want to add value to our product and we knew our milk and cream were good.
“Ice-cream is a fun product and we thought there was a gap in the market for a premium ice-cream from a working farm. We had invested in the herd and in new technology and this has all contributed to the quality of the milk.”
With a butterfat level of about 3.5 per cent and protein at 3.4 per cent, the milk is tested in a laboratory in Co Tyrone on a weekly basis.
Michael says: “Obviously fat levels are higher in winter. We add our milk, cream and also a little butter which makes for a rich product.”
Heading up the ice cream is John Draynes, Seamus’ son who had grown up helping on the family farm. After a change of circumstances in his alternative career he returned home to his roots.
“I was always around the farm,” he says. “I did start a career sailing on a yacht but there was a downturn during the recession so I came back to the farm to do some work.
“I enjoyed it and when the ice-cream idea came up, I put my hand up and here we are experimenting with flavours and texture all the time.
“While I was trained and did courses, I found I just have a real passion for it and I learn something every day.”
A relationship with Fivemiletown Creamery meant they had distributed their ice-cream for them before the company got into difficulties and their ice-cream disappeared.
Phillip says: “Their ice-cream maker then worked with us and we bought some of the flavours and started with one of theirs which was a nude ice-cream. This means there is essentially no flavour, just milk, cream, butter and sugar, which is churned.
“There was an appetite from the restaurants for something had the effect of whipped cream but the texture of ice-cream. It works particularly well with strong flavours like a dark chocolate torte.”
Since then the flavour range has grown to 14, with new ones being added from the in-house team and from various chefs’ suggestions. The newest flavours are Espresso and Raspberry Ripple and their chocolate sorbet was named runner-up in the Best New Product category at the Balmoral Show Food Pavilion this year.
The ice-cream is made on-farm, and like the milk and cream is delivered in the company’s fleet of vehicles across a 60-mile radius from around the farm.
“We also distribute other dairy produce from local producers,” says Philip.
“We wanted to build a portfolio so we have Clandeboye yoghurt, Ballyrashane butter and buttermilk, Fivemiletown cheese, Cavanagh Free Range and Clement’s Eggs.
“The reason we have done this is as they all share our commitment to freshness and taste.”
The farm’s market has grown through word of mouth and traditional selling but social media plays an increasing important role. Phillip says the most important thing is their reputation for convenience, reliability and flexibility.
“Because we do everything on-farm, we can get the milk and cream to customers quicker and fresher, so it has a longer fridge life with less wastage. Coffee shops in particular have been a big growth area.
“Our milk is consistently good and the ordering procedure is simple. Customers have a standing order which can be amended up to 11pm the day prior to delivery.”
Michael and Phillip agree their biggest challenge has been staying ahead of the game.
Michael says: “In any business, you have to keep on your toes. We have invested in technology, we keep abreast of trends, and we make sure the products are consistently good.”
Philip adds: “We think the time has come to spread our wings a little. There is certainly scope for the ice-cream to go further than three counties and we are looking at Dublin in the near future.
Michael says: “Our milk and cream have been around for decades and that market will always be there.
“Diversifying into ice-cream and creating our portfolio of quality dairy producers places us at the higher end of the scale in the dairy sector. We don’t want to be massive, we just want to keep doing what we are doing and growing at a steady pace.”