Friday, August 17, 2018

Making a future in milk and ice cream

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

A £2 million investment on a Norfolk dairy farm has seen cow numbers more than triple. Judith Tooth reports.

“We’ve put in the investment; now we need our foot on the floor,” says Alex Dann, fourth generation dairy farmer at Pound Farm, North Tuddenham, and the driving force behind a major expansion of the family’s herd of pedigree Holsteins.

After three years’ training in dairy management at Reaseheath, experience gained on other dairy farms and a lot of research visits, Alex was keen to take the family business in a new direction, from a mixed farm with 120 cows to a specialist dairy unit. The plan was to use the farm’s own herd to build up numbers to 300, with a new parlour and housing.

“We’d got planning permission, but hadn’t made too much progress beyond that,” says Alex’s father, Simon. “Then one morning I got a phone call from the next door farm. Charles Carey had reached 70 years old and was selling up, and was I interested in his 200 pedigree Holsteins and their followers.”

The family’s bank had already agreed in principle to the 300-cow build, but its risk department had seen the milk price tumble from 28 to 17 pence per litre in the intervening months, and drew the line at further investment.

Opportunity

But it was too good an opportunity to miss, and finally the AMC came to the rescue. The new unit, with a bigger parlour and more bulk tanks than originally planned, has been up and running for a year.

It wasn’t an easy transition: for 18 months Simon and Alex were milking two herds in two places. Now everything is under one roof – or two, as there are two new buildings in place of the one planned originally.

One houses 125 cows and the milking parlour – a 25:25 herringbone swingover design; the second, 250 cows. Total investment in buildings and livestock was £2 million, with a Leader grant for cluster flushes and a variable speed vacuum pump in the parlour, and a slurry separator.

Design advice came from Tim Mckendrick of Taunton-based consultancy The Dairy Group and inspiration from Essex dairy farmer John Torrance, who runs a high-yielding herd in a similar zero-grazing unit.

With limited land available for grazing at Pound Farm – the dairy unit is sandwiched between two major roads – and the ability to grow two-and-a-half times more grass in a given area than a cow can graze, the buildings are designed to hold the cows year-round. Only the youngstock and dry cows go out to grass.

Efficient design

“The buildings have a steeper pitch than you might expect to allow for better ventilation, and there are LED lights rather than skylights, so the cows keep very cool in the summer – much better in these conditions than being out in the hot sun,” says Simon.

“Alex wanted wide passageways to give the cows a lot of space to move around, whereas I was sure we could get more cows in. But he was right.”

The aim is to be as self-sufficient as possible. A 100kw roof-mounted solar array at the unit helps with energy costs, and the only crop sold off the 270ha farm now is grass seed, harvested after two cuts of silage.

Instead of selling cereals, winter barley, undersown with grass, is used for whole crop silage, and winter wheat combined as moist grain, crimped and clamped. Maize is grown on 140ha, of which 80ha is rented, and a further 8ha is used for grain maize, combined and crimped – which the cows love. Ben Watts of Kite Consulting is nutritionist for the dairy unit and, says Simon, a very good dairy businessman.

Shared experiences

Alex is a member of a dozen-strong dairy discussion group, set up by AHDB knowledge exchange officer Shirley Macmillan. They benchmark herd performance, organise talks and farm visits, and support each other.

“This cow club is the best thing that’s happened, a real driver for the younger generation,” says Simon. “Alex is so motivated to make the dairy work.”

The next plan is to move to three times a day milking, as part of a drive to increase yields from 30 to 40 litres per cow per day.

“It will mean better cow welfare, as they will be carrying less milk at any time, they will milk more quickly and the shed will be cleared three times a day,” says Alex. “But it depends on getting a rota of staff – that’s our biggest challenge.”

Genetics will also play a part, with replacements being bred from the top performing 25% of the herd, using sexed semen. And a new herd monitoring system could also help improve performance: Cow Manager, which uses microchipped ear tags, is being trialled on 50 cows, measuring each cow’s fertility, health and nutritional status and sending real-time information to smartphones.

Adding value

“For example, the system monitors activity, and if a cow is doing nothing for more than 10% of the time, or if she’s eating 20% less than normal, it tells me, so it’s a great way of preventing illness. It also means I can manage the cows off the farm if need be. I’d like to roll it out for the whole herd.”

Most milk produced goes to dairy cooperative Arla, but 10% is made into ice cream on the farm. The venture began as Norfolk Farmhouse Ice Cream, a type of franchise with a Dutch company to make ice cream on-farm using equipment that pasteurised raw milk as part of the production process. Simon built up a good business, but in time the costs didn’t stack up, and so a new and independent brand, Dann’s Ice Cream, was created.

There are now 12 varieties of ice cream produced using milk from the farm’s dairy herd and egg yolks from its two flocks of free-range hens, and 12 dairy-free sorbets. Cafés, restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions such as Holkham, and the East of England Co-op take 60% of production, with the remaining 40% sold by Dann’s Farm staff at outdoor events and shows, and from a small farm shop.

“We made some mistakes to begin with, but now we’ve got the product right, with the help of our production manager, James Smith, and our sales are up 40% in a year,” says Simon.

After a five-year break, the family welcomed 2000 visitors on Open Farm Sunday this year, and the next chapter in the farm’s development is converting a barn into an education centre.

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