Michael Harding takes a trip to East Anglia to meet Fiona Provan, the founder and driving force behind Calf At Foot Dairy.
As a small-scale farmer I am always interested in hearing about other farmers who are trying out new and innovative farming techniques (or going back to older ideas that have been forgotten in the rush to expand and modernise). So when I heard about the Suffolk dairy farmer and her Calf at Foot Dairy farm I knew I had to go and find out what it was all about. I duly set out into deepest East Anglia to meet its founder and driving force, Fiona Provan.
The basic idea behind Calf At Foot dairying is that the calf is kept with its mother cow until it is old enough to wean naturally, in contrast to conventional dairying where the calf is seperated from the cow within a few days of birth so that all the cows milk can be sold for human consumption. Of course, by letting the calf suckle it’s mother you get a much reduced milk yield, but you do get to rear a healthy calf without the expense of buying in extra milk powder and feed to raise it, and the cows benefit from the close bonding that they form with their offspring.
The Calf at Foot dairy is very small in farming terms, with only 16 milking cows, mostly jerseys but with a few Red Polls (an old dual-purpose Suffolk breed). The herd is small enough that Fiona and her helpers really get to know the individual animals, and the animals get to know the humans! Each cow recognises it’s name and comes to the milking stand when called, helping to create a very calm and unhurried milking session. Each cow and calf pair has to be judged as to how much milk needs to be left for the calf and how much to take from her. With such individual attention it is no wonder that both cows and calves looked to be in great condition.
As a tenant farmer Fiona has had some trouble finding a suitable and secure farm for her enterprise, and has had to move farms twice already, with the attendant disruption and expense. But Fiona has a growing and loyal customer base both in the local area and throughout the UK, sending out boxes of healthy and absolutely delicious raw milk via a special courier. Sales of the delicious Jersey beef are also strong, with customers praising it’s tenderness and flavour, a result of the animals slow milk and grass fed growth. Both the milk and the beef is certified by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) , meaning that the cows are guaranteed to be fed a purely grass diet with no added concentrates, a way of farming that is great for the environment, the animals and the consumers.
Fiona is a real force of nature, and her passion for her cows and for the Calf at Foot model is easy to see. She is very welcoming and would be more than happy to show anyone around her farm and explain just how it all works. She has a small team of helpers – her ‘Dairy Angels’ (Caitlin, Amy, Charlie and Mia) who were all equally passionate about the cows, and the whole set-up seemed really friendly, just the sort of farming enterprise that is needed to encourage people to engage in the rural way of life. In fact all the girls are from non-farming backgrounds but they all now have great knowledge and practical experience of farming and will hopefully carry on farming. Charlie is going to university this year to train as a farm vet, so Fiona is actively seeking a new apprentice to replace her. Get in touch if you want to work on this amazing farm!
I came away from my visit really enthusiastic about setting up something similar on my farm in Sussex, but until I have, I would reccomend everyone to order some delicious and healthy raw milk or some Jersey beef from the Calf at Foot dairy!