Updated: Oct 30, 2019
For more than 20 years, the iconic image of Tablehurst Farm has been the beautiful rust-red Sussex beef cattle grazing our fields. Early in 2019, after much careful consideration, we made a decision to diversify into dairy farming on a small scale. Those with a long memory of Tablehurst will know that this is not our first foray into dairy – we had a herd of milking sheep in the early days of the community farm, milked in what is now the staff dining room – but it is our first time farming dairy cows on a (small) commercial scale. Some of you might be wondering why we would take up dairying when our sister farm Plaw Hatch has a much bigger and very well-established biodynamic dairy operation. The explanation is that government rules forbid us (or anyone else) from selling raw milk other than direct from the farm where it is produced. We aren’t allowed to sell Plaw Hatch’s milk, so we decided to start producing our own.
Why raw milk?
Most "fresh" milk for sale in the UK is first subjected to two processes that fundamentally change the nature of the product. First, the milk is pasteurised - a process which involves cooking the milk at above 60 degrees celcius. Pasteurisation, kills beneficial bacteria in the milk, reduces the vitamin content, and denatures the milk proteins, making them harder to digest. Secondly, the milk is homogenised. This process, which prevents the cream in the milk from subsequently separating, involves subjecting the milk to high pressures which break up the natural fat globules in the milk and changes how they connect to the milk proteins, leaving us with an even more denatured product.
Raw milk undergoes neither of these processes - it is simply taken from the cow and refrigerated, providing you with a completely natural product. And if you like the cream mixed into the milk, we recommend a simpler process than homogenisation - just shake the bottle before you pour!
Establishing our new dairy
The first stage in the new initiative was to create a dairy facility where the cows could be milked and the fresh milk stored. Rather than start from scratch, we decided to convert the existing stables adjacent to the car park below the café garden. This involved quite a bit of building work, and the installation of new equipment; by time it was completed, it had definitely turned out to be a “just in time” operation!
Our first group of cows was just five strong. We had decided to look for Jersey cows, and we were lucky enough to find a farmer on the island of Jersey who was selling all his animals. This allowed us to obtain pure-bred cows from a very well-established herd. Getting them back to Tablehurst was a bit of a challenge, not just because a sea crossing was involved, but because Jersey is technically outside the EU! Still, they arrived in March and are now settled on the farm. The new herd is grazing the land close to the stables through the summer, and will feed entirely on farm-grown forage, hay and silage come the winter. we have since expanded the herd to eight animals with three purebred Jersey heifers from the north of England, all of which are due to calve for the first time in December this year.
We chose Jersey cows because we felt that their distinctive milk would complement the wonderful range of dairy products that Plaw Hatch Farm already produces. Jersey milk is slightly different. It has a higher fat and protein content and is particularly suited to being processed into raw cream and butter, ice cream and cream cheeses. What additional products we will eventually produce with any excess milk is not set in stone yet. For most products additional equipment will be needed so it is an investment decision. For the time being, we are delighted to be selling our own raw Jersey milk direct from the Tablehurst Farm shop.
We love our Sussex cows but the relationship to dairy cows is quite different. Whilst the Sussex cows are quite independent, spending the whole summer on the fields, the daily contact and routine with dairy cows is much more intimate. The milker meets the individual cows every day for milking and builds a personal relationship with each animal. In contrast, the relationship to the beef cows is better characterized as a relationship between the herdsmen and the whole herd as a family.
What happens to the calves?
Tablehurst is adopting the “calf at foot” method of dairying, which means that the Jersey calves will stay with their mothers for up to six months until they are mature enough to be weaned onto a grass diet. This simplifies our process, because we only have to milk the cows once a day, but it does mean that the quantity of milk available for human consumption is reduced. Some of the female calves will eventually join the milking herd. The remainder, both male and female, will stay at Tablehurst to be reared for beef.
Before we were able to start selling the milk, we had to have the facility inspected by the Food Standards Agency, and the milk tested to ensure that it was safe for human consumption. We are delighted to report that the inspector was very positive about our facilities and the milk has passed all its laboratory tests.
A wider trend
We aren't alone in taking up small-scale dairying just now - microdairies are popping up all over the country at the moment. We have also joined a new organisation called the Raw Milk Producers’ Association. This has been set up to provide support to small scale raw milk initiatives exactly like ours, by allowing producers across the country to share their experience and expertise. Tali Eichner, the Dairy Manager at Plaw Hatch, was very instrumental in the creation of RMPA and is now one of its directors; she has been an invaluable source of help and advice as we have been getting started.
Buying our milk
The milk is for sale now through a self-service vending machine outside our farm shop. You can either bring your own container, or we can sell you a reusable milk bottle for you to fill (the shop staff will happily show you how to use the machine on your first visit!) We chose this method of sale minimise packaging and to eliminate the need for the farm to invest in bottle washing facilities.
Although the dairy herd has been cared for to full biodynamic standards from the moment the cows arrived at Tablehurst, the milk will not initially be certified biodynamic since the cows came from a conventional (albeit very traditional) Jersey dairy farm. It will only be a matter of time, however, until the milk is certified biodynamic.
About Jersey cattle
Jersey cows are a small breed of dairy cows originally bred on the Channel Island of Jersey. They are docile and curious and one of the best “forage converters” meaning they can turn rough grass into milk packed with butterfat, protein and vitamins. They are healthy, robust and very fertile although they can be stubborn due to their alert nature. Castrated males are said to be excellent oxen but bulls are exceptionally lively (!) so we won’t be having one on the farm.