At Smithills Open Farm, expect the unexpected. Emily Ashworth visits the well-known dairy farm to find out how you go from bankruptcy, to being one of the north’s major attractions.
Sleep is not a necessity for Carl Grimshaw and Louise Blundell, who run Smithills Open Farm, Bolton, Greater Manchester. The pair are a constantly on the go, taking every opportunity that comes their way, regardless of how much time and effort it may take.
It is, of course, why Smithills is a successful as it is, last year welcoming more than 150,000 visitors through its gates, offering everything from homemade ice cream to watching the cows being milked. And although still very much a working dairy farm, you can expect to see something much more exotic.
Smithills are now in possession of a zoo licence, and is home to an extensive list of unusual animals and reptiles, including wallabies, meerkats, racoons, tarantulas and a large python, to name a few. Add in the addition of a newly-formed milk round, there really is not much time in the day left over.
Carl moved to the 28-hectare (70-acre) tenanted family farm in 1986, with his dad, Anthony, 59, who, says Carl, is ‘still obsessed with cows’. They had originally milked about 120 Holsteins, the family’s favoured cow, but when the milk price dropped during the 1990s, they were forced to sell their herd.
Fortunately, Bolton Council allowed them to stay on at the site if they turned the farm into some sort of attraction, to fit in with the renowned 809ha (2,000-acre) Smithills Estate the farm is part of.
A visitor farm had always been on Anthony’s radar and this was simply the catalyst.
“The main priority is the visitor farm,” says Carl.
“When we first moved here, Smithills restaurant attracted about 250,000 visitors.
“At that point we only had donkeys, chickens and rabbits, so very small. But we have always prided ourselves on letting people hold and feed the animals.
“We set up in the existing buildings. It was sort of make do and mend. In the first year we had 2,500 visitors, but year-on-year it just grew.
“Then dad bought two cows and a portable milking machine, which he did because he loved milking cows.”
In 2004, Anthony bought a further 15 pedigree heifer calves to rear and sell on, but, in short, he did not want to and so began the basis of the family’s dairy herd. “All of a sudden we’ve got a small dairy herd going on,” says Carl.
“Then we needed somewhere to put them and built a small milking parlour.
“We were getting so much surplus milk, though, and didn’t have any contracts.
“Yewtree dairies, however, just around the corner set up and we were their first customers. They’d come and collect it every day.”
A huge driving force for the couple, though, has been the customers and giving them what they want.
They built a platform so visitors could watch milking taking place and, still to this day, this is one of the farm’s biggest attractions. Although the majority of the farm’s income comes from the open farm, the 250-head herd of Holsteins are central to the business and Carl and Louise have adapted various practices over the years, some of which have not worked out.
The milking parlour ‘was looking old and tired’, so the family replaced it with a robotic milking parlour in 2017. But after two years, they recently made the decision to take it out, partly due to staffing issues.
“The customers were not as interested in the robotic milking as they were watching the cows walk in and be milked by the farmer,” Carl says. “Plus, dad was at the end of his tether with it.
“The only beauty of the robot was people could go in at any time of the day, but they were only spending five minutes in there. “It just wasn’t the attraction we thought it was going to be.”
Milking now takes places three times a day, through an 8 abreast QS swing over parlour. The system averages about 10,000 litres per cow per year. Aside from the tenanted 28ha (70 acres), they also managed to purchase another 73ha (180 acres) about two miles down the road. Another 32ha (80 acres) is set to allow more space to house the cows too.
“We use everything here for grazing and everything away from here for crops,” says Carl. “It’s a high yielding herd, but that’s what dad’s intention has always been. He’s always been ambitious, and he wants the best herd of cows in the country, and the best pedigree cows.”
Cows are housed year-round and are TMR fed. Grass silage and wholecrop are kept in outdoor clamps. Calving takes place all year-round to keep up with customer demand.
The farming side of things will always be a part of the Smithills’ story, but Carl and Louise are ambitious. Of course, their zoo licence has allowed them to display creatures of all kinds from around the world, a unique and popular addition to the business.
“People love them,” says Louise.“It’s quite niche and some come just for these, they stand watching the meerkats for hours. “With the licence, we thought we have to go for it and expand where we can because it’s a lot of money.”
With an on-site cafe, an ice cream shop and petting corner alongside, they are not short of things to do. But with an eye constantly on the future, in 2018 they started processing on farm too, and all milk products – milk, butter and ice cream – mostly go through the various enterprises.
And just to make things more exciting, Carl and Louise took on a milk round which began in January 2019.
“Someone approached us and said, do you want to buy it?” says Carl. “We had 35,000 followers on Facebook at that point so, in January 2019, we put a post on saying we’re starting this milk round, is anybody interested?
“It went crazy and within a week we had more than 400 customers confirmed.”
They did not want it to be a traditional milk round, though, and people text and order online.
Louise says: “We didn’t want notes in a bottle, or to be knocking on people’s doors. We wanted it to be all by bank transfer and online. “And people wanted our milk because it was Smithills milk.”
They have also hit the market at a time when the public was hankering after the glass bottle, providing litre bottles rather than pints, with the addition of a screw top lid.
They now send out more than 6,000 litres of milk per week.
It has certainly been an interesting journey for the family, as building their business back up from nothing is no easy feat. But to see it flourishing year after year is only testament to their passion for educating the public and their dairy herd.
“When we do it, we do it right,” Carl says. “We’ve always had a good reputation and good customer service.”
Homemade yoghurt and cheese are next on the to-do list, as well as pushing the milk round. Only about a third of the milk goes for this currently, but ideally, they would like to see it all go for doorstep delivery.
And if their past is anything to go by, Carl, Louise and Anthony will keep on innovating, developing and growing the business. After working solidly over the last 12 months, they are in a position where they could bring in another member of staff to help.
But, says Louise, just as they are given some time to relax, they ‘will probably just start doing something else instead’.