Clare and Tom Noblet are creating an exciting buzz within the British cheese market and, thanks to their creativity and attention to herd health, it seems they are only scratching the surface.
A share farming partnership has enabled Tom and Clare Noblet to fulfil their ambition of dairy farming.
The dynamic husband and wife team are already enjoying culinary success with an added-value cheese venture after only a few years in operation.
The couple started share farming with Max and Jenny Burrow six years ago, whose family farm at Whin Yeats, Carnforth, south Cumbria.
The 102-hectare (250-acre) unit has been farmed by the Burrows since the 1960s but the couple were keen to offer opportunities for others to get on the farming ladder.
Tom grew up working on a number of farms in Garstang, Lancashire, while Claire, a dairy farmer’s daughter from Ingleton, Yorkshire Dales, trained as a nurse, working initially in cardiac intensive care before going into community nursing.
“We didn’t have the capital to invest in dairy cattle or to take on a farm ourselves but we knew we wanted to build something of our own," explains Clare. "Share farming was a way of being able to build ourselves up over a period of time and also an opportunity to learn from Max and Jenny who know the farm inside out.
“When we heard they were looking to share the farm, we contacted them and agreed on a share farming partnership after I worked as an employee for 12 months," says Tom.
During that 12 months, with the help of the Prince’s Trust, administered by the Cumbria Farmer Network, the Noblets bought pedigree Holstein heifers born into the Burwhin herd, which was established on-farm more than three decades ago.
They bought two or three per month as they were born, then paid for their keep, which enabled them to gradually buy a share of the herd.
But faced with the fluctuating milk price and the desire to safeguard their future, the couple decided to embark on a new venture to add value to their milk and broke into a competitive market with an artisan product in 2015.
Tom says: “We talked to The Specialist Cheesemakers Association and shops and identified a gap in the market for a local farmhouse cheese. There were a handful of cheese-makers in Cumbria, but nobody in our area.”
Following talks with Andy Swinscoe, owner of the multi award-winning Courtyard Dairy in Settle, they began making unpasteurised hard cheese using a traditional recipe.
"We started making the cheese in small batches at home to see the kind of cheese our milk could make," explains Clare, who taught herself to make the cheese through reading. As their research evolved, the couple also attended a course at the Ribblesdale Cheese Company where they learned how to establish a dairy and understand its associated costings.
"The recipe started off using an old Wensleydale recipe Andy had and he has helped us refine it for the market. We have made changes to the starter culture which means you can taste more of our milk in the cheese which as a very fresh, lemony taste."
During summer 2015, the couple, who are parents to Beth, eight, Lucy, seven, Jessica, five and Tom, two, built a small 12-metre (40ft) cheese dairy next to the milking parlour to begin commercial production of Fellstone Cheese.
Milk comes straight from the 80-cow Holstein-Friesian herd into the 600-litre cheese vat located in the dairy.
Tom says: “Using unpasteurised milk from our own herd of pedigree Holstein-Friesian cows means we have full traceability of the milk and can be sure of both its quality and safety.
“The milk we use for our cheese comes through a pipe, directly from cows in the milking parlour into our vat, meaning it is as fresh as it possibly can be, and has not been stored or transported.
On its arrival into the dairy, the warm milk begins its journey into cheese.
"It is far more energy efficient to work with the warm milk rather than store it, chill it and reheat it," says Clare.
Starter culture is added and the milk is left for an hour as the acidification process. Animal rennet is introduced to help clot the milk to form a solid curd.
The curd is then cut into smaller cubes to release the whey. Once it reaches the desired temperature the whey is drained and fed back to the cows. Clare will then cut it and continue to remove the remainder of the whey so it solidifies.
It is then salted and placed into a mould and pressed overnight before being bandaged in muslin cloth, buttered and stored for between four weeks to three months.
"The butter helps keep the right texture and doesn’t let it dry out. As a new dairy, we are always refining our recipes. The hard part is waiting for each batch to reach maturity to find out whether the changes we have made have worked.”
Clare and Tom are currently making two types of cheese. Both are unpasteurised, pressed and cloth-bound, but differ in their process, with the starter culture used and the times and temperatures achieved while making.
It takes 1,200 litres of milk to make 120kg of cheese and appetite for their product has grown rapidly. Such is the demand, about 2,200kg were make during 2017 but the couple are forecasting to reach production of one tonne by the end of this year.
Alongside their local farmers’ market at Kirby Lonsdale, they have established themselves in award-winning cheese outlets, such as Cartmel Cheese, the Courtyard Dairy and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, which has the potential to export the cheese to the USA.
The couple also sell their cheese on-farm alongside unpasteurised milk and free-range eggs.
When asked why the uptake on their cheese has been so rapid, they advocate the flavour and quality coming through from their milk.
Tom says: “It is clean and healthy and full of butterfat. In summer, when the cows are out on the fellside, you can see and taste the difference in colour and flavour.”
Attention to detail is paramount with the herd, particularly with the sale of unpasteurised milk and cheese.
The milking routine shared by Max and Jenny and Tom and Clare has just earned the herd first prize nationally in a competition run by First Milk, which buys the 95 per cent of milk which is not processed for cheese.
The NMR-recorded herd is currently averaging 9,000 litres a cow at 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein and the average bactoscan over the competition’s 12-month period was less than nine, with a cell count of 63.
A focus on strict hygiene processes, cows are only milked by Tom, Max and Jenny.
Tom says: “We manage a closed herd and some of the cows have been at Whin Yeats for more than 25 years. Cows enter the herd at about two-and-a-half years old, having had their first calf. Our oldest cow is Wendy 40, who is 14 years old and has had 11 calves.”
Equal emphasis is on parlour management. The routine starts with wet-wiping using an iodine solution, teats are then pre-dipped and stripped out before clusters are attached. After milking, they are post-dipped and any cows with a high cell count are barrier dipped.
The herd’s feeding system is kept simple, with milking cows being fed a grass-based diet plus straw and Trafford Gold. They are topped up to yield in the parlour and, since the introduction of whey at 150kg/day, the lactose has lifted yields by up to 800 litres.
Looking to the future, plans are underway to replace and relocate the farm’s 34-year-old parlour with a similar sized 10:20 computerised swingover parlour in an extension of the cubicle housing. This will allow herd numbers to be expanded to 100 cows in-milk.
While the couple are half partners with the livestock and machinery, they are running the cheese-making as a separate business on their own, buying milk from the farm enterprise. And, with a 50-year tenancy agreement in place, are hopeful they will eventually take over the partnership once they have built enough capital.
"We want the farm to be sustainable so we can continue farming it in our lifetime and the cheese production will help make that happen. We are really pleased at how it is all going – its hard work but so worthwhile and it is growing a lot quicker than we could ever have hoped for."