Low-impact dairy farming

One of my smallholding goals is to keep dairy sheep – although, with prohibitively high set up costs, stringent hygiene standards, and an onerous level of work, I had always thought it would be something to defer until later. But at Monkton Wyld and Fivepenny Farm the dairy operations are encouragingly rustic and leave plenty of time for other activities and interests.

Herd size

Firstly herds (or flocks) need to be small.  At Monkton Wyld Simon Fairlie has 2 Jersey cows from which he makes a basic income – although he suggests 4 would generate a better wage. With a small herd milking can start later – the traditional 5am start is designed to accommodate a large herd – and finish earlier. At our 9am class Simon pointed out that his work was already finished for the day. My plan is for a flock of 5 Dorset Horn sheep. I find it hard to consider anything fewer than that a ‘flock’. Any more, and it will become hard work – plus I want to know the sheep as people. It amazes me how different the ducks’ characters and temperaments are. I would never have known this if I didn’t have so few.

Grazing

The fewer animals you have the less land you need – although I guess it is possible in theory, if you have the time, to wander round the lanes letting them graze the verges. There are several matters to consider. Firstly the animals simply need somewhere to be. Unlike horses, which are sometimes kept predominantly (wholly?) in stables, cows and sheep need a field. Sheep need to be somewhere well drained so that they don’t get foot trouble. Secondly there is the matter of grazing. They need enough space to be able to eat a significant amount of food straight from the land. Lastly is the matter of fodder production. If you buy in fodder it will increase costs and decrease profitability. Simon spoke extensively of grazing systems and nutrient cycles and drew diagrams on the board, the gist of it being that you divide the land (with electric fencing run off a solar panel) and rotate the grazing to control which sections are grazed and which are to be mown for hay, and when. This needs to occur at the optimum time (and is a topic in its own right) and, with enough people or little enough land, can be done by hand with scythes.

Milking

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Simon’s milking parlour looked comfortingly like a traditional old barn, not the modern concrete and mechanical monstrosities you normally see. The floor and ideally the walls should be impervious and easy to clean, but other than that there doesn’t appear to be any specific requirement. I might be using the wrong search terms, but I can’t find any regulations. With a small herd it is feasible to milk by hand. I’ve never been terribly keen on the idea of vacuum clusters extracting milk mechanically, and privately aspired to hand milking whilst expecting a certain derision for sentimentality and lack of professionalism. Not at all. You can hand milk professionally. This reduces capital investment and, with no clusters, pipes or bulk tanks to clean, minimises the environmental health hazards.

Dairy processing

The dairy where milk butter and cheese are processed is where the health regulations really kick in. The walls and floor need to be impermeable and able to be pressure washed. Windowsills need to slope so that cannot gather dust, and the room has to be ventilated but also fly and rodent proof. The equipment is normally made of stainless steel. Pasteurisation does not require any special equipment as it is simply a question of heating the milk to 76 degrees. Jyoti’s co-operative got a grant to buy a mechanical cheese maker, but at Monkton Wyld they use a big pan on a paella gas ring, and stir by hand. Milton fluid is used for sterilisation and everything is washed really well. There are records to be kept and you have to have your dairy approved by your local authority in the first place, but it all looks do-able, even on a shoestring.
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Stainless steel is de riguer in the dairy
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Cheese is made in a whopper pan on a paella gas ring

The market

The good thing about Monkton Wyld is that the community provides a ready made market for Simon’s milk and cheese. He gets paid more per litre for his milk than I pay for it in the wholefood shop. He pointed out that the community is the size of a small village, and stressed that to start a viable smallholding you need to think about who your market is going to be. I know this in theory: they say it in business plan workshops. But I am so used to selling things remotely, to random people online, I have lost touch with the concreteness of local marketing. If there are people there who want your stuff, you’ll sell it. But if someone else starts up doing what you do, you are going to lose a lot of your market – unless theirs is crap or yours is better (or cheaper). It highlights the importance of cooperation rather than competition as well as finding gaps in the market. It is not only ‘What can you sell your customers that they can’t currently get?’ and ‘What can you do to fill the gaps between what the current suppliers sell and do?’ but also ‘How can I assist or complement the work of other local suppliers?

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