Building financial resilience has been at the core of decision-making for one Pembrokeshire dairy farmer who began selling pasteurised milk direct to the consumer last year, among other diversifications. Anna Bowen reports.
Seeking additional income to safeguard his farming business, dairy farmer Nick Roch decided to cut out the middleman and begin supplying his milk direct to the consumer.
While raw milk vending is growing in popularity, Nick opted for a different route and has been selling batch pasteurised milk through the on-site vending machine at Kilanow Farm in Stepaside, Narberth, since spring 2019.
Given the farm’s location is in an area with a high prevalence of TB, it was felt this was the most suitable direction to go in and the venture, Nick says, has been instrumental in building financial resilience.
Batch pasteurising, in contrast to the standard pasteurisation process, sees milk heated to a significantly reduced temperature over a longer period. A process which is said to better maintain the taste of milk in its raw state.
Nick does all the processing himself on-farm in a converted shipping container, with the pasteurising system able to handle 100 litres at a time. Nick is now setting up similar systems for other farmers, through an agreement with vending machine manufacturer Milk Station Company.
Today the direct sales business, which trades as Simply Milk, supplies its own on-site vending machine alongside a further four off-site locally, two situated at farm shops, one at a bakery and one at a social club. These venues take a percentage of milk sales.
Milk which is not through the machines is sold to Dairy Partners.
A 49-hectare (120-acre) National Trust tenanted farm, Kilanow, where Nick and his partner, Marie Turpin, live is home to a 100 head herd of Holstein Friesian cows.
The farm is managed by Nick and one full-time farmworker, with relief staff used as necessary.
Since 2018, cows have been milked via two Lely Astronaut robots. The decision to switch to a robot system made with the view that visitors coming to the on-site vending machine, especially tourists, could easily see the cows being milked.
Nick says: “The robots fit our business. With the vending machine, they make it easy for customers to see the cows being milked. Since setting them up we have hosted lots of farm tours for groups like the local Cubs and the Women’s Institute.
“The children who visit, even those who are not from farming backgrounds, are very knowledgeable. They research online before the tours and arrive with plenty of questions.”
“People come here because it is a novelty, but they get a fix for the taste.”
Installing robots has also influenced the farm system, encouraging a change to a flying herd which sees all cows now served to Wagyu via artificial insemination (AI). However, the large number of replacements on the ground in 2018 means the business is yet to have to buy any in.
“Running a flying herd means I can buy a cow which suits the system,” says Nick.
“Crucially I can check teat placement. In the time that it would take to rear a heifer to calving, I have two lots of Wagyu calves and I do not have the risk of breeding and raising an unsuitable heifer.”
The Wagyu calves are sold at 12 months old to Warrendale Wagyu, which buys them at a set price per kilo for finishing.
Warrendale has a list of approved AI bulls, two of which are available through Genus, which complete all the AI on-farm.
“Before the contract with Warrendale, we had a Wagyu bull,” says Nick. “They are an easy calving breed; I very rarely have to assist anything and the calves are bright and lively.”
Kilanow’s cows graze from March to November, with the aim to have them outside as soon as the season allows.
Grazing follows an ABC system, which works by splitting the grazing area into three main blocks in the form of morning, afternoon and night paddocks which are all accessed via a network of tracks.
Nick says: “Strip grazing the paddocks means we can keep the grass allocation tight. This is important for the robots as it keeps the cows moving on to the next paddock and we do not have to go out and move them ourselves from the morning to the afternoon field.”
A customer introduced Nick to the Free Range Dairy Network and work with founder Neil Darwent led to Kilanow becoming the first farm in Wales, as well as the first robotically-milked herd, to join the network.
Involvement in the network, Nick says, is a good talking point for customers visiting the vending machine who ask about it. He displays the logo and uses it as a marketing aid.
When it comes to marketing, Kilanow’s location, a stone’s throw away from the popular beach at Amroth and close to tourist hotspots Tenby and Saundersfoot, brings in footfall.
But it is local support which has been key to the success of the vending machine, with sales from that on-site at Kilanow during lockdown up to 80 litres per day at its peak.
Not a car passes the farm without Nick raising his hand to wave and passing a comment or anecdote about its occupants.
“That delivery driver arranges his route so he can call in twice-a-week,” says Nick as a van passes the farm.
“The Iron Man route also passes through the farm, so we get lots of cyclists who are training or trialling the leg, especially after a family friend, who is usually in Tenby, set up their doughnut van over lockdown. A cyclist then recorded the vending machine on Strava and that brought even more customers.
“People come here because it is a novelty, but they get a fix for the taste. Customers from further afield say they wish they had something similar near them.
“The hardest thing is convincing people that milk is 96 per cent fat free, we still get enquiries about semi-skimmed. The vending machine is open 24/7 and people arrive at all hours.”
In the last year Simply Milk has sold 55,000 litres of milk at £1/litre. Customers also have the option to buy a glass bottle for £2, which they can then wash at home to reuse.
Elsewhere in the business and Nick and Marie also own Blackmoor Farm, a 13ha (33-acre) holding where the land is used for youngstock, silage production and Marie’s equine enterprise. They also run a successful and expanding holiday cottage enterprise.
Future plans include opening a vending machine-style shop, stocking produce from local farms. Ideas include barbecue packs, Kilanow Wagyu and lamb from local sheep farmer John Hallett. Demand for Nick’s processing containers is also increasing and on-farm his aim is to grow the herd to 120 head.
Looking ahead and Nick is optimistic about the future of his farming business.
“People have never been so interested in food,” he says.
“Opinions are changing and people want to know how their food is produced and where it comes from. Our customers are really interested in the free-range accreditation, for example.
"Farmers have a great opportunity to keep doing what they are good at, while adding value. If we can get this right, then it is farmers’ time.”