Glasgoforest Farm was Scotland’s first dairy farm to go organic in the late 1990s and now the business has evolved to include new revenue streams and expansion.
Lynsey Clark reports...
At Glasgoforest Farm, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, the Willis family has transformed its dairy business over the past four years, maximising milk from forage and taking advantage of the farm’s roadside location to branch into the retail sector.
It is a strategy that has paid dividends so far and has resulted in them securing a few awards recently, including Farm of the Year at last year’s Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCo) conference.
The farm was, in fact, the first organic dairy farm in Scotland.
Having moved up from Wiltshire in 1989, Anthony and Anne Willis began converting in 1998, hoping a premium price product would help combat the milk price drop at the time.
They were fully organic by 2000. Anthony sadly lost his battle with cancer in 2004, after which, son William, who had completed an agriculture and business degree at Aberdeen University, formed a partnership with his mum, Anne.
Since then, William’s brother Angus has given up his job as a solicitor in Aberdeen to join the family business, while their other brother, Sandy, works in recruitment in London.
William says: “When I came home to work, we were milking 85-90 cows in an old 16:16 Alfa parlour and were calving all-yearround.
The whole system really needed to be streamlined, so in 2008 we built a new shed for 100 cows and took on 130 acres of rented ground, which allowed us to expand the herd.
“In 2014, with the help of a £100,000 Young Entrant grant, we built a new shed with 163 cubicles and a 16:32 parlour, with handling facilities. That has allowed us to have 140 milking cows, now producing an average yield of 7,800kg at 4 per cent butterfat and 3.25 per cent protein, with milk from forage currently at 4,400 litres per cow.
"We have also moved to a block calving system, to help increase that milk from forage.”
Calving now takes place in May, June and July, which helps maximise the milk contract with OMSCo, whereby a lower spring production results in a higher winter milk price. Furthermore, on a typical year in Aberdeenshire, the cold weather results in a lack of grass in spring, so William says it suits to have the cows dry at that time of year.
He adds: “We have developed a New Zealand-style paddock grazing system and the cows calve outside in the paddocks. The grass is measured every week and the cows have access to a fresh section of grass every 24 hours. This system helps maximise the grass growth and improves the quality of it too.
"We want our cows to be eating the best quality grass and silage as possible.
“Cows are fed to yield in the parlour and as grass growth starts to drop, they receive a TMR of silage, barley and soya, which is gradually increased into winter. We buy-in soya and parlour feed and grow 20-40 acres of barley producing about two tonnes to the acre, which allows us to produce organic straw for feeding too.”
To achieve the best possible results from their system, attention to detail has been paramount for the Willis family.
Heifers calve at 24 months and the farm was a monitor farm for AHDB’s calf to calving scheme, which has helped the family focus on getting it right from birth.
Newborn calves are given high quality, tested colostrum that has been frozen and they then receive whole milk until weaning at 12 weeks – at which stage, they will be eating 2.5kg of concentrates.
At seven months, they go onto a TMR diet, before going out to grass mid-April, on a paddock grazing system, where they are moved every three days.
William says: “We have focused on improving herd health by using as many preventative measures as possible, and by keeping cell counts down we have been able to minimise antibiotic usage. The new parlour and cubicle shed was designed with this in mind, with comfortable mats and wide feed passes, plus rubber mats on the parlour floor.
"We have also fitted an automatic dipping and flushing system and a glycol milk snap chiller.
“The drying off procedure is something that we make sure is done properly. We are using Orbeseal now, which has been far more effective and has allowed us to almost stop using dry cow therapy altogether.
“We are hoping to increase the numbers to 150 milkers and that will be the optimum size for our system at the moment.”
The business will, however, continue to grow in other directions. With Angus returning home to work, it was essential to have another source of income, so the family decided to install a milk vending machine at the end of last year, allowing them to sell milk directly to the customer.
They have branded this retail side of the business Forest Farm Dairy.
William explains: “The new parlour is on the roadside, just off a busy road, so it is an ideal, visible spot for the vending machines and we have already established a core group of customers, who are in regularly.
“The milk is pasteurised on-farm, but not homogonised, so it has a unique, authentic taste, that you cannot get from shop-bought milk.”
Originally, a 200-litre machine was installed in December 2017, but William says it quickly became apparent that a bigger capacity was needed.
“After two months, we bought another 200-litre machine, and more recently, we have replaced the original one with a 400-litre machine. Now, about 110,000 litres of milk goes through the vending machines, which is roughly 10 per cent of our total milk production.
"We are selling an average of 300 litres per day, at £1.20 per litre.”
It is an area with definite room for expansion and that is where the family’s current focus is.
William adds: “We have worked hard at streamlining the dairy business and have got it to a place that we are happy with, and the vending machines are performing better than we could have hoped. The next stage is to hopefully branch further into the retail sector, so watch this space.”