The Roaming Dairy was established by Oliver Chedgey in 2018 and is based at the Kingsclere Estate in Hampshire. The herd of 450 Jersey Cross cows graze outdoors all year round, on rotation. Cows are milked out in the field using a mobile milking parlour. Milking happens once a day, between 7am and 11am. This approach is more in keeping with their natural rhythms and avoids the stress of walking to and from a parlour and standing on concrete – which can lead to lameness.  

In an innovative shared farming approach, the herd is co-owned with the Kingsclere Estate, which owns the land the Roaming Dairy is based on. Kingsclere contribute the feed from their arable operations, while Oli owns all the machinery and puts in all the time. They both take a share of the milk price according to what’s been put in.   The Roaming Dairy is one of several enterprises based at the Kingsclere Estate, where the 450-strong organic herd is a key element of estate owner Tim May’s vision to regenerate the estate for a fertile future – “this innovative milking method is now in its third year of trial at Kingsclere Estates, and it’s having a visible effect on soil fertility.” 

It’s a five-year tenancy agreement. Long tenancies, like three generations long, barely exist anymore. And it’s now very rare to give over five years, because the system is changing so rapidly and is so full of uncertainty, landlords are unwilling to commit. Because I only have five years of security here, I didn’t want to pour concrete onto Tim’s land in order to build a parlour – in five years it would be Tim’s. Creating a mobile parlour has meant that effectively, if I tip Tim’s farm upside down, all my bits come off. So, I can take them with me if I leave. Not only is this setup cheaper, it’s also more secure. I can go anywhere, which is quite a rare thing for a dairy farmer to have that flexibility!  

We do get a lot of interest. But to this day, I think there’s just two people that have set out to do it. Maybe most people think it looks like awful hard work. I see huge potential for a new entrant to go to the east on big arable, open lands that are desperate for livestock to come back. But people are kind of scared of livestock, and when you mention dairy, people are put off by huge capital costs and infrastructural development. I think my approach goes straight under the radar. I’ve just completed my Nuffield Scholarship and I actually came across quite a few mobile milking parlours in other countries – so it’s not anything new. Maybe it will eventually catch on in the UK. 

The biggest barrier was accessing land. But once I had the farm-share agreement with Tim, the only barrier was my mindset. I guess Tim had already opened his mind up, to let me move a parlour across the fields.. but the landlord’s mindset could also be a barrier. You know, worrying about soil compaction and the impact of 400 cows in a paddock.  

Capital was also a barrier, but we went with the mainstream banks. We went with peer-to-peer lending to get the funding in the end. So there would’ve been a barrier there. Getting a milk contract was also a barrier.. We couldn’t get a conventional contract, there wasn’t one on the market at the time. But we could get an organic contract to supply Arla. However, the estate wasn’t organic at the time… so the entire estate converted to organic in order to allow us to sell our milk. So that again was our landlord’s mindset that changed. A lot of landlords would refuse to convert the land. I wasn’t really chasing organic milk production, I was just chasing any sort of production. but the organic in hindsight suits the system perfectly.

No. It’s something we’re looking at. It’s probably our next move, in order for us to be able to tell our story. But the first priority has been paying off the debt. Arla pay me twice a month, so that’s not to be underestimated. With direct sales I guess you have to try and be a dairy farmer and a marketing sales person. I think it’s better to concentrate on one thing first, and get good at it, then think about what can happen next. I’m not saying you can’t start with direct sales, but it certainly pushes the risks up. You can start doing that with say ten cows and build up your sales gradually. But Tim had this big chunk of land that needed grazing so we needed the bigger herd size. 

I’ve actually recently bought a pasteurizer, but it needs a bit of focus. I’ve been busy doing my Nuffield Scholarship. If I’m going to pasteurize, I’m going to do it properly and I need to clear a bit of head space for that. Because it’s not just a case of sticking it on the side of a building.. it needs to be marketed and done properly, all the hygiene and logistics of it. It’s the sort of thing that after six months of setting up, once everyone knows how it works, will be easy. But we just don’t have the head space to do it justice at the moment. 

Once a month I get told what my price is going to be. It’s not like this month they’re going to give 40p one month then 20p the next. They might take a penny or two off me and then they might put it on next month, so it kind of levels out. Even if there is a massive crash, they’ve got contracts out there, they’re signed up for by supermarkets so they would get a price. Is it enough? Probably not. Milk is undervalued, but it’s where the market is. They’re trying their hardest to get the right price but it’s the supermarkets that dictate price. Personally I think you could add 4p to a litre of milk and no one would even notice that, there wouldn’t be outrage. I just don’t know why they don’t do that. In reality you could probably put 9p on it. Are you going to stop buying milk because it’s 9p more per litre? I’d love to get the top five supermarkets in a room. If you add 7p to a bottle of milk, no one’s going to notice. There should be a law passed to ensure the fair pricing of milk. 

Selling it so cheaply devalues it and basically promotes waste. We don’t need people buying food so that they can just tip it away. A third of our food is wasted. And then they’re trying to encourage farmers to produce more food to feed the world, and that gives us a bad name because our emissions go up. So then you’re like, well hang on, if we produce less, you put a better price on it, and people will look after it. But they don’t want to do that. 

Although, you might say that in dairy we’re our own worst enemy because if you raised the price and reduced the waste, farmers would produce too much. Whereas actually it should be a way to reduce the intensity of production and help with the move towards the organic system or the regen system or the low-input system. If you gave back to the farmer, he’d be able to invest and farm properly. But as dairy farmers, some would then invest in another a hundred cows, or they buy more cake and then there’s too much milk. So it needs some level of controlling.

Yes, that’s very complex, isn’t it? There’s a lot of family farms still around today, where the older generation are in charge and have become increasingly adverse to risk. Or the younger generation are too scared to take a risk because granddad or dad built the farm, and there’s an emotional attachment to that piece of land and farming in that particular way. I guess my advice to them would be that they have to understand why they’re doing it and what they want out of life. 

Some of these farms are waiting for the neighbour’s field to come up or the neighbour’s farm to come up. But the thing is, that farmer is also thinking the same about your farm. So both of them are at loggerheads for their whole lives. Just waiting. So location matters, I’d be prepared to move to where the opportunities are – and there really are hundreds of opportunities. You just have to put yourself out there, start networking and exchanging knowledge and put your head up and say, I want to do this. Then the opportunities will come. Now with social media and everything is a lot easier than it was 20 years ago. And be prepared to go knock on some doors! Showcase what you can do. There’s a guy coming here for six months in February. He’s only 22 and he’s desperate to get into dairy – so he approached us to ask if he could come and do six months work to gain some experience. Then he’s going to head off to New Zealand for a year to learn more skills. So be proactive and chase the opportunities. I’d be very open to teach people and  I think most farmers would, because they’re getting labour, which is short. Especially if you’re passionate, I mean, people love having passionate people around. 

Not for us. We are attractive because of what we do. We milk once a day and we try to look after people. We try to make it enjoyable for staff, and because it’s quite unique here, people want to do something a bit different. We’re also out of the dairy belt, so it’s not like there’s five dairies down the road. So we’re fine for staff, we’ve retained staff well and they’re all young.  But I know farmers are struggling. Dairy can be a mundane routine, in the dark, with traditional farming sometimes in sheds. 

Dairy has had some competition from the plant-based movement, but a lot of those companies are in massive debt and their sales are falling off now. As farmers, I think we need to really push the nutritional value of our milk because these other products look like milk, but they’re not actually offering the same nutrition. People are asking more and more questions about their food, which is brilliant. The problem with putting food production in a factory is that big companies can control food and dictate the markets. There’s big money in these processed plant-based productions. It’s a worry. When you control food, you control society. But a lot of these products are too expensive to produce, and they can’t get the costs down. 

And maybe we need a better understanding about the role of animals on the land. Everyone’s talking about carbon, but it’s just one metric. It’s not a true measure of sustainability. It’s such a hard thing to prove the relationship between nature, climate and cows. In a barn or in a factory you can just monitor these things, but when it’s out in the field, it’s more complex. There are huge grass-based systems in Ireland and New Zealand that are slowly starting to prove beneficial relationships. A lot of these negative stats about livestock grab the headlines.. But we need more understanding.  

We are mainly pasture fed. But in the drought we’ve fed maybe a hundred kilos of cake per cow. We could be Pasture for Life but there’s no extra money for it.. and then if we went through a similar drought to last year, it becomes a welfare issue if the cows have to go without. The thing is, in a drought situation everyone is after buying the same stuff so it gets more and more expensive. We are very fortunate – because the estate is split in half between arable and grass we can get some of the arable stuff if we need to.  So we’ve kind of made ourselves a bit robust, which you have to be.  I think you have to be self-sufficient as much as possible, and it really helps being very low input generally. We graze on 100% herbal leys.   

Tim’s whole ethos on the estate is about building up the soil, and the herbal leys are key to that, as they are deep rooting. And then we’re just the thing on top, basically managing it. That’s how the opportunity arose – to manage Tim’s herbal lays. The herd increases the Estate’s natural capital. 

Until we start direct selling, we won’t actually truly know how much of a direct community we’ve got following us. I think there is a community there, and we definitely do want to tap into that. I think that’s the plan for the whole estate – bring people back. In the 2000s all the people left, the big machines came in, and it became a barren landscape of food production. Arable farms have to be so efficient. There’s now one man where there used to be five, instead relying on the big machinery. But when you’ve got livestock you’ve got to have more people around. People and animal health kind of go hand-in-hand. There’s something incredible about working with animals. Which is another selling point we could be pushing – people pay good money to come out and stroke a cow, or spend a week on a land-based course.  There is a stigma around working on farms which is now changing.   

I want to expand, but not in size. Expansion can mean lots of different things. I’m careful now not to just keep adding numbers. Because I think there’s more money to be made by adding value to the milk, such as creating yoghurts and cheeses that employ different people with different skill sets. And then that opens up doors for other jobs – delivering products and socializing with customers and visitors. This would get the community involved. Whereas you could put another 400 cows out there and employ more people to milk, but if there’s a drought or the milk price crashes, you’ve got too many eggs in one basket. And there’s risks involved, who knows if we’re going to drink milk in 15 years time. The world is moving so fast. You know, milk might be banned or we might find this other alternative. We’re going so fast that I don’t want to take on more risk. 

Expansion also has to be done on a scale that enables me to work the way I want to. I need to be able to employ people, so I don’t have to work seven days a week. Your work-life balance depends on being big enough to support extra staff.. Otherwise it’s just you. Which is fine, but animals need looking after every day. They don’t know if its a Sunday when they decide to escape or be sick! So you really can’t leave them. Yet I’m very conscious about needing time off, and being able to accommodate this.  

I want to expand, but into different things. Like dairy beef, butchery, box schemes – there’s loads of things we can do just with our milk products. Our herd is young at the moment so we don’t really have the option to do dairy beef. But people are starting to value longer matured meat, you get all the marbling and yellow fat which tastes amazing. It’s about seeing where the value is and changing perceptions. But one of the barriers is that the processors don’t want it. It’s easy for them to process a 20 month old Angus that’s only been fed cake. It fits their grid, physically fits their factory system, and the butchers know how to cut it up. But if you can do something unique, again, that’s just another brilliant business model. There’s so much opportunity in everything, it’s just about knowing how to find it. That probably comes back to education, how we’re teaching our children. Apparently it takes 10 years to change the curriculum, so I’m told. What they are teaching kids is outdated. They should be opening their minds, encouraging them to think outside of the box, questioning how and why we do things. We could do open days and events for people to come and look at the cows, come and milk the cows.

There is, but it’s farmer to farmer. There are good networks and discussion groups out there. It’s about getting hold of those like-minded people. Go to Groundswell, join your dairy discussion groups, that’s where you’re going to meet these people. If you search ‘organic dairy farm’ on Twitter, you’d find people, and 90% of them, if you sent them a message, would probably get back to you. It just comes back to that individual person that’s got to go and find that information. 

That’s because a lot of them have inherited debt and they’re in a system that they just can’t get out of. They’re in a hamster wheel. They’ve been sold something, like this grass seed that only performs with nitrogen. So you’ve got to put nitrogen on, and if you cut back the nitrogen, then the grass doesn’t perform, so then you have to buy cake. It’s very hard to change that, especially if you’re in a family and there’s four people in there and you’re the only one that wants to change it. It can be done, but someone has to go through some pain and hard work and take a risk. 

As a society we’ve advocated that to be in debt is fine. And we seem to be comfortable being in debt, whereas I guess our grandparents’ generation weren’t in debt. They’d save up and buy things. When so many people are so far in debt, the only ones that are winning are those working in finance.. And the government that encourages this system. So if you can come out of it, come off grid and do your own little thing and make your own little destiny out of it.. That’s where the opportunities are.