Farming the 140-hectare (345-acre) Hesper Farm, Skipton, which has been in the family since 1971, Sam and his parents Brian and Judith have gradually expanded the business in recent years, taking the herd to 180 Aireburn Holsteins and increasing the flock to 250 sheep.
But recognising the increasing pressure on farm income and his role as the next generation farmer, Sam wanted to focus on the farm’s future.
“I know we need more income from the farm to survive longterm,” says Sam.
For this reason, after completing a National Diploma in agriculture at Reaseheath College in Cheshire and spending a year in Australia, he knew he wanted to add value to the farm’s milk.
“In January last year, I made my first visit to Iceland after reading an article about the Icelandic cow and the production of skyr – an Icelandic cultured dairy product, similar to strained yoghurt.”
During his time there he met with dairy consultant Thorarinn Sveinsson to learn more about the product.
“Thorarinn has vast experience in both skyr production and the Icelandic dairy industry. I was instantly enthused by the health properties of skyr so returned to Iceland in April last year to tour farms and spend time learning how to make the product.”
After a week learning the basics, Sam returned to the UK convinced this was a viable option for the future of his family farm.
He embarked on some market research to confirm there was demand for skyr, and then took the product to Reaseheath College to complete trials.
Having achieved his ideal formula, Sam embarked on what proved to be a difficult and time consuming path to bring his product to market.
“There have been two particular areas which took much longer than anticipated. These were securing the finance for this new venture, and the design and sourcing of packaging,” he says.
“Before we could convert buildings and source equipment, we had to get a business loan. The bank wanted a business plan with cashflow predictions. This part of the whole process took about four months.”
Sam overcame these initial hurdles earlier this year, and then converted a calf shed into what is now a fully licensed food production unit.
“So far we’ve launched plain, vanilla, strawberry and blueberry flavours, and we plan to expand the range as the business grows. I’m really confident this product will generate a high demand.
“The health properties are now being recognised in the UK and worldwide as more and more consumers want high protein products with no fat. As demand for skyr grows and we use more of our milk for production, it is critical we continue to produce a consistent product on-farm.”
Hygiene and quality are essential for food production and the team works hard to ensure these factors are met. In terms of hygiene, Brian is a
huge advocate of sand.
He says: “We use sand in some proportion for all animals. It has proven to be extremely comfortable for cows and it keeps them clean, which obviously helps with milk hygiene. We consistently run at about 110 somatic cell count and 12 Bactoscan.
“When the calf housing was converted for skyr production we reviewed our youngstock building and introduced them to a sand based cubicle system, feeding a total mixed ration [TMR]. This has proved a success, reducing the cost of bedding while growth rates increased.”
Brian says nutrition also plays a vital role in producing a consistent product.
“Due to its location and the farm requirements, the farm is all grass. We know we can grow grass well and get the quantity and quality we desire for the herd’s requirements.
“We generally do two cuts of silage, stored in three clamps, and treat with an inoculant. This gives us plenty of feed all year. However, we buffer feed through summer to keep yields up and milk quality consistent.
“The summer TMR consists of grass silage, blend and brewers’ grains. We also include sugar beet feed in the blend as it’s a healthier form of energy than what is gained from starch. The cows really benefit from it, and we have had less health issues, such as clinical acidosis, since including it in the diet.
“Sugar beet can be used with less palatable feeds to stimulate intakes and therefore increase yields, particularly butterfat. The high levels of palatability drives intake, while the slowly available energy helps buffer against digestive upsets.
“This obviously helps improve feed conversion efficiency as well as increasing animal performance, both of which are important to the success of our business.”
In winter, the TMR is similar to summer, but caustic-treated wheat is also included.
Brian says: “The aim is to keep the system consistent. This has always been our philosophy but even more so now the milk will be used all year round for food production onfarm.
“We are a closed herd and will breed from our highest performing cows to maximise profitability. We use 30 per cent sexed semen and breed the herd to Holsteins. We are always looking to improve the herd and breeding gives us the chance to make long-term developments.”
“We’ve been retailing Hesper Farm Skyr for nearly a month and it’s had a strong start; the local community really got behind it. But the real test starts now, seeing if we can keep the momentum – I’m confident we can.”