Two brothers who left their careers to return home to the family dairy farm in North Yorkshire have implemented a broad programme of change, as Wendy Short finds out.
Faced with the prospect of finding a way to make a 40-hectare (100-acre) hill dairy farm support three separate households, direct milk sales offered a solution for Ben and Adam Spence, who run Home Farm in partnership with their parents, David and Susan.
Their location in the village of Aysgarth attracts tourists all year round and since the launch of their portable milk vending machine this March, they have also found it to be popular with local residents.
It is taken to a different Wensleydale village seven days a week and parked at various sites, including a pub car park and a veterinary centre.
Currently, about 6 per cent of the milk produced by the 100-cow herd of commercial black and whites is being sold direct to the public under ‘The Home Farmer’ brand.
Some 80-100 litres a day are bought from the vending machine, which Ben and his wife Samantha converted from a horse trailer. In addition, the business also sells milk to local shops and cafes.
A traditional, Wensleydale-style branded cheese made from raw milk and processed on farm is expected to go into production in the near future.
It will be a joint project, undertaken with the support of the Wensleydale Creamery which buys the farm’s surplus milk, with the raw milk product expected to fill a gap in the local cheese market.
Ben says: “Our aim is to sell at least 50 per cent of our milk direct within the next five years and ultimately move to 100 per cent of production.”
Ben is a trained accountant with an additional qualification in agricultural business management, while Adam previously worked as an architectural engineer.
Samantha works as an actuary, but is hoping to join the farm business on a full-time basis.
“We did consider setting up a milk round, but we felt it would be too onerous and time-consuming,” Ben says.
“The vending machine only needs to be restocked and moved to the sites daily.
“We could have had an alert sent via text message when supplies were running low, but it would have incurred extra cost and the mobile signal in the dale is unreliable.”
Raw milk will give the cheese a unique selling point, he says.
“We decided to pasteurise our liquid milk to appeal to a wide audience and we found little difference between the taste of raw milk available from retailers, compared with our pasteurised whole milk,” he says.
“But The Home Farmer product is not homogenised because our customers like the old-fashioned style of product with cream that settles on the top.
“Pasteurisation destroys some of the natural properties of the milk. Therefore, our milk is what we call ‘gently pasteurised,’ using minimal treatment.
“We had one comment from a customer who has started buying cereal for his breakfast specifically because he enjoys the cream and the general flavour of our milk.
“The additional legislation and labelling that is required for marketing raw liquid milk to the public and restrictions on its sale to retailers limited its appeal for us.
“However, there are fewer regulations which apply to raw milk cheese, because it is categorised as a processed foodstuff.”
Milk from the walk-in vending machine is mainly supplied in one-litre glass bottles, which can be bought for £2, with customers owning the bottles and responsible for their cleaning and re-use.
However, the machine, which has a 150-litre capacity, also sells milk in one-litre plastic bottles to cater for day tourists.
The farm has kept a flying herd since the cows from the longestablished bloodlines were culled during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
In-calf heifers are sourced from a single unit in Cumbria to maintain biosecurity and are of mainly British Friesian breeding, as these have been found to thrive on the land, most of which is classified as disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged area.
Their calves are put to a British Blue or Aberdeen-Angus, with the calves sold at six weeks old to a private buyer or through the auction mart at Leyburn.
The all-year-round-calving cows are not pushed for yield, giving an average 5,000kg at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein, with concentrates fed to yield in the parlour to a maximum of 9kg/head on an electronic identification system.
High solids figures are a primary objective, but the family has been told that Jersey cow milk is not ideally suited to cheese production and, therefore, they have recently added four Montbeliarde females to the group as an alternative.
The simple feeding system relies on three cuts of silage being taken each year and placed in the clamp above a band of brewers’ grains.
No sheep are kept on the unit and the cows are strip-grazed and turned out day and night for seven to eight months of the year.
Despite the brothers’ intention to establish a direct milk sales business, they first turned their attention to the cattle housing and parlour, making animal welfare and environmental concerns two of their top priorities.
The existing layout was more than 40 years old and in need of attention, so it has been replaced with a new, single-span building which houses 108 cubicles, the parlour and the cheese-making facility.
The new building development and the diversification project have received grant funding from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, the Defra small farm grants scheme and the Yorkshire Dales Leader Programme.
The three-metre ventilation ridge, which is covered by an opaque material and runs laterally across the building, has been one of the most successful elements of the installation, allowing lots of light in and providing excellent ventilation.
Meanwhile, rainwater harvested from the roof is used for the cow troughs and for washing down the parlour floor, having been stored in a 50,000-litre tank.
It is passed through two particular filters and a UV filter before use. The new installation has also been fitted with a DeLaval rapid exit, 24:24 parlour, along with LED daytime lighting in the housing and there are plans to fit red night lights at a later date.
Flexible cubicles have been installed in the main housing area.
“The original cubicles were rigid and not an ideal fit for the cows. We used to have issues with animals becoming trapped,” says Ben.
“The new design has flexible rubber arms, a rubber loop and rubber neck rail to allow freedom of movement. We have had no problems since they were fitted.
“The 60mm mattresses have 45mm of latex foam, as well as a sloping rear profile, which helps to move waste into the passageways, and a front brisket board.
“In the old unit, we might have seen two or three cows lying down at any one time, but the situation has reversed and there are often fewer than half a dozen or so cows on their feet when we go into the building in the afternoon after feeding.
“The mattresses have produced a saving on bedding, as they only require a light dusting of sawdust.”
Ben adds: “Four years ago, our father was managing the herd single-handed and, although we helped out whenever we could, our time was limited and he had been considering retirement.
“The expansion of the herd was not something that we seriously considered, because of the size of the farm and the lack of availability of land in the area, so selling our milk direct was an obvious choice.
“Our parents encouraged us to find a nine to five job with a regular wage and we have no regrets about trying out alternative careers.
“But it has been the right decision to return to farming and we are enjoying the challenge of starting a new business.
“It has allowed us to be our own bosses and it has given me more time to spend with my young family.”