After coming home to find the family dairy farm struggling, Bryce Cunningham decided to strip the business back and start again.
Erika Hay finds out how turning back the clock has enabled Mossgiel Farm to thrive...
Recently, Scotland celebrated the birthdate of its national bard, Robert (Rabbie) Burns.
A prolific writer, Rabbie also farmed at East and West Mossgiel, Mauchline, Ayrshire, and there is no doubt he would have plenty to write about if he were to visit the farms in 2019.
Part of Ballochmyle Estate, the 87 hectares (215 acres) are now farmed by Bryce Cunningham and, though 250 years have passed, there are fewer differences than you would expect.
Faced with bankruptcy a few years ago, Bryce made the brave decision to turn back the clock and farm the land as it used to be.
Although Bryce grew up at West Mossgiel, then farmed by his grandfather and father, he left school and worked for Mercedes- Benz for 10 years.
Meanwhile, the farm and the herd of 130 Ayrshire dairy cows were modernising and progressing, through new buildings, technology and genetics, including red and white Holstein blood, to produce up to 9,500 litres per cow per year.
In 2013, however, Bryce came home to help as his grandfather and father were ill, and sadly both passed away within a year of each other, leaving him in charge. The farm was not the way he remembered, but he struggled on until 2014/15.
When the milk price dropped from 28ppl to 9ppl, he lost £110,000, followed by a letter from the bank saying the farm was no longer supportable.
Using his vision of how the farm was run when he was a child, Bryce sold 16ha (40 acres) of land which he owned, and 75 of the cows to pay off debts.
Bryce had no money to buy feed or fertiliser, but he also wanted to restore the farm to a more natural state and, now, his reduced herd thrives on a grass-only diet.
He also bought a small pasteuriser to start selling milk direct to the public.
Ayrshire bulls have been used to get back to a smaller, hardy, native cow, and calves are kept on their mothers for 12 weeks and weaned naturally onto grass. Calves are also not dehorned or castrated.
He says: “Calves are on their mothers full-time for the first four weeks, eight hours a day for the second four and four hours a day for the third four, while the cow still comes into the parlour to get milked. Yield is down to 4,000 litres to 4,500 litres per cow per year, including at least 1,000 litres which goes to the calf.”
This low-input, low-output system is easier on the cows, but the key to its success is producing good grass and making top quality silage.
But 2018 was a struggle, with the exceptionally dry summer leading to a reduced crop of silage with a metabolisable energy (ME) of only 10, and protein at 14.5-15 per cent.
Bryce says: “I was thinking about moving to spring-calving anyway, but this sped-up the decision.
“I sold any cows not calving in the 10-week period through March and April. Gradually we hope to reduce that to six weeks.”
Alongside those management decisions, Bryce was thinking about how to sell his milk. Local shops were not prepared to pay the premium for organic, so he spent days knocking on doors of small stores and coffee shops in Glasgow to try to find buyers.
He came across the McCune Smith cafe in Glasgow, where they discovered that his nonhomogenised, organic, Ayrshire milk was ideal for the barista trade.
“The balance of protein in my milk means it froths easily and maintains the microfoam structure on the top of a cup of coffee,” says Bryce.
“The flavour also complements coffee better than standard milk.”
McCune Smith alone now takes 55-60 litres of Mossgiel milk per week and once Bryce discovered this unique selling point for his milk, he worked to keep the right balance of whey and casein in his product, by feeding a consistent diet.
But he also made minor alterations to the pasteurisation process in terms of time and temperature, using a batch pasteuriser instead of the more modern continuous flow.
Bryce has even invested in his own specialist barista coffee machine, so he can test every batch as it comes out of the pasteuriser.
As word spread, the demand for Mossgiel milk grew until Bryce had to approach two other organic dairies, Osliebrae and Drumsmodden, locally for supplies, and now he processes all the organic milk in Ayrshire.
He has doubled sales from 6,000 litres to 12,000 litres per week in the last year and now supplies 200 shops, cafes and restaurants locally, in Glasgow and in Edinburgh.
He also has two vending machines, one in Glasgow and one in the local village and is well on the way to turning the business around.
But he is still on the lookout for new outlets, and Bryce decided to set up a doorstep delivery business just before Christmas.
“I think people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from and what it is packaged in, and new is not always best,” says Bryce.
With that in mind, he decided to provide his delivered milk in old-fashioned pint bottles, but the venture required another injection of cash which Bryce did not have.
With a resounding no from the bank, he crowdfunded £10,000 to allow him to buy his first batch of 35,000 bottles and a second-hand, broken washing and sterilising plant, which he refurbished.
When he launched his home-delivery service in November, he received 2,500 emails in two days from all over Scotland, crashing his servers and losing all his online orders. Once he got over that initial hiccup, he signed up his first 350 customers within a 35-mile radius, with another 270 on the waiting list.
The next step is to up the processing capacity and get more vans on the road, however in the meantime, Bryce is trying to link up with local milkmen and a social enterprise scheme which delivers vegetable boxes in Glasgow, to see if they will also deliver his milk.
He says: “I think the whole idea of old-fashioned, healthy food is inspiring people. There is a whole generation of people who have never seen cream rise to the top of the bottle, or tasted milk the way it was 60 or 70 years ago, and they are loving it.”
Committed to reducing waste, Bryce aimed to be completely free of single-use plastic by the end of January, which he achieved by Burns’ night. The glass bottles can be re-filled up to 50 times, while the four- or five-litre plastic tubs which go for wholesale can be refilled up to 20 times.
He lost just two wholesale customers who had no storage for the new containers but the glass bottles have been incredibly well-received by the public and doorstep sales have already increased. Not happy with reducing waste on the processing and sales side alone, Bryce is also looking into a bio-silage wrap made from waste langoustine shells.
He has also recently been working with the Soil Association to get the quality of his soil right to produce the best swards and maintain condition on the cows.
There are still only 45 milkers, but the plan is to increase numbers to 80.
There is also plenty of housing but through soil analysis, rotational grazing and reseeding with the right mixtures, Bryce is confident the farm can carry more stock.
All the bull calves are fed an entirely grass diet and finished at between 12 and 18 months at 110-120kg deadweight. They are slaughtered at Paisley and butchered locally before the meat is marketed as rose beef and sold through the website.
The meat retails at an average of £12/kg and is very popular with people following ketogenic and paleo diets as it is entirely cereal free. Even the offal sells out quickly, says Bryce.
All this has been achieved in a remarkably short space of time, but Bryce is driven to push the business. He expects sales to double again this year and is currently speaking to local authorities as it is his passion is to get Mossgiel milk into schools.
He has also become a major local employer, with up to 10 people employed at certain times of the year.
And, if Rabbie Burns could come back and see what is happening in his old haunt, he would surely be impressed and may even pen a poem or two in praise of Mossgiel family farm.