Lucy (25) and Adam (28) took over Lyde Green Farm in Hampshire as new entrants in 2021. They have 210 Jersey-cross dairy cows which are grass-fed, and have transitioned to a calf-at-foot system. They sell to a major milk processor, as well as selling fresh raw milk, milkshakes and dairy cow meat directly from the farm. They run regular open days and invite schoolchildren to visit their farm and learn about dairy.
We learnt as we went along at the beginning. Every obstacle presented a different moral and ethical question, as well as a financial question. The important thing for me was to keep the cows and calves together for longer than is done with conventional dairy farming. I was fairly naive about that. I always thought that separating calves was a choice made by farmers, but now I see that the industry makes it pretty hard to do things differently. The nice thing is that we started from fresh – we didn’t have family members telling us to farm a certain way. Whereas with family farms, it’s a big bold move to say that you want to make big changes. So, we’ve been able to go through and question every single part of the process and ask, well, does this work? Can we do it differently? Can we do it better?
The biggest barrier is financial. We currently wean the calves at eight weeks because at the moment, we can’t afford to keep the cows and calves together for longer, as much as we would like to. It costs us about £280 per calf to raise them to eight weeks, and they sold for just £10 each at market recently. So, for us as a business, when the UK milk price is currently below the cost of production, we’re getting less for our milk than it costs to produce it – and then on top of that, keeping the calves is adding a lot to the costs. It’s so hard for farmers to make different choices when they actually have to put food on their own tables and pay their bills. It is insane to me that this is still the case.
I didn’t agree with calves being separated from their mothers in the dairy industry. But now I’ve got more perspective as to the financial constraints that farmers are under, I understand why. That farmer is just a human trying to make a living. It is not that they’re doing farming badly – they’re not making profit even doing farming well. So my hope is that the topic is one that is steered by the dairy industry. I just think farmers’ mindsets alone can’t change the way things are.
Our cows are also having to transition to the new system. We inherited our herd when we took over the farm, and they had already had four or five calves taken away. Now when we leave the calves with them, they’re like – what is this? What am I meant to do with it? They’ve never raised calves before, so we’re basically dealing with two hundred and ten first time moms! I’m hoping they will adjust soon and start to understand what we’re trying to do.
No! We do a half-on half-off system so they’re with the mums during the day and in their shed at night. That’s basically to make it financially viable. There is very little information out there about half-on half-off systems. Most of the data behind it and a lot of the people I speak to are making it work with 30 cows, milking once a day, and selling direct. So, they can push that margin on it. Whereas our system is totally different. We’ve got a 210 cow herd on a commercial unit.
We don’t at the moment, we take a loss on the calves. But then we sell raw milk direct through a vending machine and we have a butchery unit, which produces great meat from the dairy cows when they come to the end of their life in the dairy. Dairy beef is not highly valued, it tends to go into the lower quality cuts, such as in ready meals. We pay £1,500 a head for our Jersey-cross dairy cows, but at the end of their lives they are worth £200 or less. But we thought about this – we thought, surely the meat is great – it’s had up to 12 years to slowly and naturally mature. And it IS! People buying direct from us absolutely love the steaks and all the different cuts. Putting them through the butchery can make us up to £1000 profit. It’s just another way we’re trying to cut losses and add value.
Another option we’re exploring is looking at rose veal because veal can be up to a year old – it’s not just tiny calves. If we could sell that directly, it would be a sustainable way of producing a good product. That may be a way to overcome the financial barrier of keeping the calves at foot for longer. There are so many barriers to farmers making the choices that we’ve made. Currently we have a lot of questions about whether we can actually make this work. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. We’ve been in this system for a year and a half now, and we have been taking a loss on it every time. We can’t sustain that.
So how do we change it? I feel like we could change what happens on our farm, our own individual story, but that doesn’t change the bigger picture of the industry for the future. I am interested in how we can actually get the industry to encourage all parties to talk and begin having conversations about making things better. I actually emailed all the supermarkets when we were struggling with the calf prices and pointed out how awful it is that practices like shooting calves at birth are still going ahead, due to the financial model that we’re stuck in. It was one of the big buyers that source for supermarkets that valued our eight-week-old calves at £10 pound a head!
Within farming, I think there are two things that need to change. One is farmers’ mindsets. But the industry must support that change of mindset by addressing the financial barriers. Retailers must market differently, and they must look critically at how the prices are set. Because the hard truth is that at the moment, milk does not pay well enough to support a shift in mindset. There is a huge amount of pressure on farmers to produce data for climate targets, which benefits the processors’ and retailers’ marketing strategies. But farmers don’t necessarily see that trickle down into financial benefit. The climate issue is not straightforward as there are reports that suggest a housed intensive herd is more carbon efficient than a grazing herd. But you have to ask, how is that being measured? If you look at our unit, actually look at the environment our cows are in, the trees, the woodlands, the hedgerows, all the things we’re doing. It doesn’t feel right that we would have more of a negative climate impact than an intensive unit.
Another vital thing is open communication. There are so many elements within the industry that aren’t spoken about because of the worry of getting bad press. It is so hard when the media just gives a snapshot of what goes on in dairy, totally out of context. Parts of the dairy industry are not comfortable viewing but often there are valid humane reasons for why things are done that way, but it’s not explained well. When things aren’t talked about, nothing changes, and we all just carry on doing what we’ve always done. We need to do things better. Before I came into the industry, my perception of what Red Tractor and organic meant was very different to reality. The picture they paint is not the reality of what farming really is at the moment.
The farming industry can be quite closed. We don’t open ourselves up enough because we are fearful of being exposed in a negative light. This frustrates me because I love an open conversation, especially with people who don’t eat meat, because I think at the end of the day both parties just want better animal welfare and happier cows. It’s just a question of how we can make that happen. When I look at bigger picture conversations happening within the government, I rarely see farmers’ voices being included. There’s always spokespeople instead. We can’t frame and discuss the bigger picture without including the people that are actually living and working in that picture.
Selling directly is brilliant. We sell raw milk from our vending machines. We’re a low-input herd and we don’t push our cows, but we produce about 6,500 litres of milk every two days within our herd, so the amount we can sell direct is limited. We can’t put that entire amount through the vending machine and with the debt that we currently have, we couldn’t take the leap to selling everything directly. There are too many risks to that – what if you get TB in the herd or another health issue? What if people don’t buy the milk? Even if it’s low, we still need the guaranteed income from our buyer. And as farmers, we’ve already got so much on… and when selling direct, we’ve also got to be shop owners and marketers. All of this can feel pretty exhausting.
There is definitely a growing interest in raw products and a growing concern about ultra processed foods, and plastic reduction. You see that a lot on Instagram. It’s just that life is so busy, people have so many commitments, they don’t have time to shop directly at different places when we can just get everything at one supermarket. That is one of the hardest things we’ve come up against. The interest is there, but that doesn’t always translate to sales, although we do have some great regular customers.
I have looked into it as it would be so great to have other outlets, but there is a lot to think about – the expenditure of setting up a processing unit on-farm, and then we’ve got to have the staff to fulfill that. Looking at the overheads, that doesn’t feel possible at the moment. Also, if we have a TB case or something else goes wrong, we very quickly come off sale. This year we’ve had three or four months where we weren’t selling because of a health issue within our herd and there was nothing we could do about that.
So at the moment, we have to maintain our contract with our buyer. And with these contracts, you can’t flip between buyers or advocate for the price of your milk. They tell you every month what your milk is worth. We get a text on the 29th of every month, letting us know what our milk price will be the next day. It can drop very suddenly, with no warning, and we have no control over it. It’s unbelievable. Imagine if you said to another industry, we are going to text you every month and tell you what your wages are, because actually this month we’re finding it a bit hard. I was baffled by that concept! It’s a really hard pill to swallow because our costs haven’t changed and we are producing the same milk, the same quality, the same quantity, the same everything, but just getting paid less for it.
But there are a lot of benefits to having a contract. To be fair to our buyer, compared with other milk buyers, they are doing more. But the majority of their farms are housed, intensive units, that’s where 99% of their milk comes from. So, if they were to showcase what we are doing and reward us for that, it sort of suggests that the majority of their suppliers are not doing it the best way, and they might not want to highlight that.
I just think our cows are amazing animals and I love seeing them being good at what they are good at. My favorite time of year is calving. We are in a transition phase and its been hard, but seeing the cows when the system works well is phenomenal. Plus, we see that translate into health benefits for our cows and calves. Our calves are definitely a lot healthier – we see a lot less of the common issues that you see within conventional herds. Watching them running wildly around the field, so healthily. I love that. It’s so amazing to see. There is a massive feel-good factor.
Stick with it is probably the main thing. The journey can be so hard. There are times that I think I should never have done this. One night the cows kept breaking out of the fields to come back to their calves, it was one o’clock in the morning, we’d had about two hours sleep. I was in tears. But it is about moving forward, questioning and finding value in every single part of your system and asking how can I make this better? You’ve got to be really resilient. You’re going to have everything thrown at you and you’ve just got to keep smiling. And then when you watch a cow and calf in the field share a lovely moment, …then it all feels fine.
I think we have to take this horrible feeling away from conventional dairy farmers that they’re doing it wrong. Because they’re not necessarily doing it wrong, they just don’t have any other options. I’ve had conversations with farmers who have felt uncomfortable about what I’m doing because it’s not the normal thing. They feel I’m trying to promote a future that isn’t realistic. And at the moment it isn’t realistic.
With a conventional farmer milking 400 cows, you can’t just leave all the calves with the cows because they have no infrastructure or financial pathway in place. It’s just not realistic. Nothing can change until the industry supports this change. I think there’s things in the dairy industry we could change now off our own back. But while the industry leads farmers to have intensive housed units, taking all the calves off, that is what will happen because farmers have to have financially viable businesses. So we are limited until the system changes, and when I say the system, I mean supermarkets, meat buyers, milk buyers, and the government.