Herd expansion may be key to survival for many British dairy units, but one Somerset farm is proving small herds can still survive and prosper, as Aly Balsom finds out from Chew Moo’s Ice Cream.
Not many dairy farmers will be feeling particularly positive at the moment, but one small herd has secured a bright future thanks to a move into ice cream production. At just 40 cows, the Graylands herd is among the smallest of about 50 registered pedigree Guernsey herds in the country. Like many UK dairy farms, most Guernsey producers have had to expand to survive, with the number of herds declining over the years, although total cow numbers have remained similar.
However, for the Parfitt family, Dundry, Somerset, any hopes of expansion were quashed four years ago when attempts to buy some neighbouring land failed.
Having also lost a significant amount of money when their milk buyer, Dairy Farmers of Britain, went into receivership, the family had no choice but to diversify to survive. Nick Parfitt says: “We could not get more land, so we needed to make more of our milk. We wanted to add volume, and ice cream does this.
If we had not gone into ice cream and the milk price was as it is now, we would have given up.” With a well-established pedigree Guernsey herd, ice cream provided a logical outlet for the high quality milk produced, without the need for any major management changes. The family business, coupled with the size of the herd and location overlooking Chew Valley Lake, also provided a strong marketing message and helped with the name – Chew Moo’s.
Mr Parfitt says: “We always had a pedigree Guernsey herd as we like the milk’s richness. When you do not have many cows, it is about quality, rather than quantity and this helped with the ice cream.”
In 2011, Nick and daughter, Suzanne Hobbs, started to look into the practicalities of producing ice cream on-farm. Market research was carried out and they applied for a grant.
Surveys of nearby pubs, shops and consumers showed a strong interest in locally-produced products. Establishing an early supply deal with Michelin-star gastropub The Pony and Trap at Chew Magna, also helped quickly grow their reputation and demand for the Chew Moo’s brand. Being close to Bristol and Bath also provided a ready market right on their doorstep.
The need to stand out from the crowd was something the family team recognised early on. This has been reflected in their fun cartoon cow branding and 23 unusual flavours of ice cream, which include white chocolate and honeycomb, elderberry ripple, and whisky and marmalade. Suzanne says: “We wanted to stand out and have a few different flavours to make us unique.
“The flavours are all adapted around a plain, cream base mix called ‘The Golden Guernsey’.”
Along with their own farm shop, Chew Moo’s now supplies 50 different outlets in the South West including shops, delicatessens and restaurants.
They also have a cart and a trike to enable them to supply events and weddings. Suzanne says the success of the business, which is run separately from the dairy farm, has taken the family by surprise.
“We are surprised how quickly it has grown. Sales have tripled from last year and we do not do much advertising. It seems to be word of mouth, with people trying it in restaurants and pubs and then wanting to buy it themselves,” she says. Such is the demand, the business had to invest in a new shed and freezer room ahead of schedule.
This will enable them to store about one month’s worth of ice cream and help them make the most of any big supply arrangements. It is a real family operation, with Nick’s wife Nic, son Simon, and niece Jo Langley helping make ice cream in their on-farm processing unit.
Having started by using 100 litres of their milk a week to produce 160 litres of ice cream, the farm now produces 1,000 litres of ice cream a week. Nick says: “About one day’s worth of milk is used for ice cream a week, the rest goes to Alvis Brothers for cheese. It is nice to think we can make a profit on a small amount. What one month’s worth of milk brings in, we are doing in one week with ice cream through summer.”
The family has had to invest heavily in the facilities, so it is only this year they have seen a potential to make a profit, says Nick. Overall, the changes have been made without having to make any significant alterations to how the herd is run. However, following discussions with their farm vet, Langford Vets, Nick made the decision to move from year-round to block calving.
With the farm located on a hill and prone to cold weather or late season burn-off, making quality silage can be a challenge, so calving from January to March will make the most of early season grazing, says Nick. “By calving at the start of the year, we will get most of the milk off grass. This will hopefully be cheaper and we will get peak yield when we need it for ice cream.”
The move to block calving will be made slowly by rearing home-bred replacements and pushing cows round. Target calving period should be achieved by 2017. Generally, cows are turned out about the third week of March and they are kept out until about November. Nick believes breeding has a big part to play in producing a cow which will thrive in the challenging weather conditions which the farm experiences.
He says: “We have stuck with traditional breeding, where many [breeders] have gone towards American breeding, which is more Holstein in stature.
“I like a cow which is not too big, has a nice, tidy udder and I do not like them too lean. If they are more traditional I think they last longer and keep condition and they can survive in the weather up here as it gets quite cold in the winter.
“As such, our herd includes several cows aged 13-14 years.” Nick uses AI on a proportion of cows, with a home-bred bull on the rest.
Generally, AI bulls will be selected for longevity, milk fats and proteins. However, he admits selecting for a British-style Guernsey does restrict the pool of genetics to choose from and he is concerned for the future of this type of animal.
He says: “It would be a shame if this traditional type of Guernsey died out. I think there is room for them as they last longer and it is the style of cow I like.”
The herd includes three main families; Meadow Sweet, Beauty and Justina. The foundation cow for the Meadow Sweet family, Kelsmoor Meadow Sweet was bought by Nick’s father, Colin.
Her relations all had good success in the showring with Colin, who is a regular in the Guernsey classes at the The Royal Bath and West Show, Dairy Show and North Somerset Show. In the past, the family has taken about eight cows to each event and has won champion Guernsey several times.
This year, Colin will probably be taking two or three to the Dairy Show, which is set to host the English Guernsey Cattle Society National Show.
With so many family members keen to get involved, Nick and Suzanne remain convinced the move to ice cream has been a positive one. And this comes despite a cold, wet summer which has seen ice cream sales dip at a number of key events.
Nick says: “As far as I can see, the future seems quite promising. And even though we have not had a great summer, we are still doing well and that is a promising sign.”