Looking good in glass

Mountain Hall Farm: On taking a gap year

This update very much continues the theme of the last. After a welcome but brief respite from milking over August, we spent our time planning for the new cows we had sourced from Cornwall, along with building dairy parlour v2.5. Following one of our heifer’s, Lizzie, trashing of our parlour, we decided the old design wasn’t really robust or safe enough for the job. On top of that we were planning to milk 9 cows this winter, and needed a system that could better deal that number of cows, as we had issues with getting cows through the parlour the way we had it laid out before.

Over the summer I’d happened to visit a couple of local dairy farms and I made mental notes on how old-fashioned ‘abreast parlours’ had been designed. Out with the wood, and in with the steel. Along with Anthony, our good friend who now works with us, I set about building a new parlour using scaffold bars. And so #ScaffLife was born.

It was essentially a large ‘Mechano’ task. Two very fun weeks of drilling holes, setting scaffold and bolting it all together. It had been a while since I’d managed to get my teeth stuck into a solid project, and it was fun to do it alongside Ant, with music blasting and the sun shining. It’s very satisfying to see a job from beginning to end. As usual we had some help from a few friends and my father-in-law.

At first, I was a bit nervous of how it would come together, and whether we’d finish on time, but like always it was finished in the dark the night before the new cows arrived. It’s by no means perfect — I mis-calculated the size of some of the gates (a 3 ft gate needs 3ft 6″ — never forget that!), and it’s certainly not perfectly square — it leans a little in parts. But it’s solid, should be durable, and now having used it for 3 months, I’d say it’s a pretty decent construction. At least, it’s now ‘Lizzie-proof’.

Just about finished in time

Three of the new cows, Gladys, Lola, and Betsy, settled well into milking, though Mefus didn’t. Mefus, after calving a strapping bull calf, Ned, was a struggle to milk. Even after 3 weeks she hadn’t settled down, and after nearly falling on top of me once, I decided we’d try again once we’d weaned her boy Ned at a later date. If she doesn’t make it as a dairy cow she’ll make a fine tap dancer…

Gladys waiting to be milked

GRAPHIC CONTENT: For Lola however, it wasn’t all straightforward. We went out one morning and found a dead calf that had been stillborn with its head sticking out the back of her. It had probably been dead a few hours. We called the vet out, and the two of us tried to pull the calf out to no avail, so in order to reposition the calf, as its shoulder was caught on Lola’s pelvis, we had to saw the head off, push the calf back inside and then for well over half hour, pull with a special ratchet device and eventually get the headless calf out. Poor Lola laid on the floor shaking for a while, before getting up and walking straight off.

Our next two calvings went better, but not without a little drama. Our beloved Bobbin calved perfectly well but the calf was a bit weak and shivery. So I struggled for a few hours trying different ways to get little Maisie to suckle, however Bobbin wasn’t too keen on the idea and kept kicking me and the calf off. As the calf was weak we decided to bottle feed it some colostrum we’d frozen earlier in the year. Later that day I tried for the second time tying Bobbin with a halter to a post, made a makeshift crush out of some cattle hurdles and put the kickbar on her. This time she took the calf, and after a minute or so I took the kickbar off and Bobbin continued to suckle the little one.

Not long after this little Sansa was born to Holly, a cow we’ve had since she was 4 months of age. I saw Sansa just after she was born at about 3am. She suckled well almost straight away so I went back to bed for a few hours sleep.

At a few days old we found Maisie, lying outstretched, with breathing laboured. She didn’t look good at all, and we discovered an infection around her belly button. This is bad because it’s a mainline straight to your internal organs. I rushed down the vets, picked up some Metacam (anti-inflammatory) and some antibiotics. Within minutes of receiving these she was up on her feet again. We had to administer the antibiotics every day for 10 days, and gradually she recovered strength and threw the infection off.

Maisie went back to running around with her sister, and best friend, Sansa, but sadly a couple of weeks back we found her lying dead on the floor. It was a shock as only 45 minutes before had I seen her moving about, perfectly healthy. We’re not entirely sure what happened to her, as the infection had definitely cleared up, and her general health was fine, so it didn’t make sense. The only evidence we’ve got is that she was bleeding from inside her ears. We suspect that she might’ve had a head injury – most likely inflicted by another cow. Perhaps a cow had knocked her backwards into the steel post that was next to where she was found? In truth we’re not completely sure. She’s a sad loss and we’ll miss seeing her Sansa playing together.

Sansa and Maisie, sisters and best friends

As mentioned above, we’d been hoping to milk 8 or 9 cows this winter but that never materialised. Ceri, after weaning her bull calf at about 6 months, wasn’t able to give us much milk at all, Ruby had picked up a staph aureus udder infection (as she had the year before), Mefus was ill-mannered, and Bobbin just wasn’t able to produce more than half a litre for us. This cut our yield projections severely.

Ned needed a hand getting back to the field

So, this month we made some pretty important decisions.

Firstly, the microdairy, at its current scale isn’t making us any real money. After we’ve paid off all the direct costs associated with the dairy; feed, bottles, electricity, testing, insurance, and so on, there’s roughly 50% of the income leftover. A proportion of which must go towards the fixed overhead costs of running a small farm; fencing, tractor, vehicles, trailers, barn maintenance, rent, tracks and so on. After that we have to pay labour costs, and finally what’s left is ours. Our current slice of the pie is reduced to a few crumbs at best, and not enough to sustain a family livelihood.

To be fair this time last year, the dairy wasn’t able to contribute much at all towards the overheads and labour costs, and now it can cover them. But in order to make a livelihood from this we need to be milking more cows (or rather more accurately we need to be selling more milk). More cows will increase our outgoings slightly, but not proportionately, therefore relatively-speaking, we can keep our outgoings fairly constant, despite milking more cows. Running a business is all about hitting the ever-elusive sweet-spot in scale. We hope we’re nearing that tricky target.

But here’s the conundrum; in order to milk more cows we must invest more money in our infrastructure, as right now I’d say we could comfortably milk six at best. We want to be milking about fifteen, but in order to get there we’re going to need to improve our facilities. This means we must further develop the dairy. We currently have two milking stalls, but I left enough room to add two more.

With our current milking machine we can only milk one at a time, yet to be time-efficient (and therefore efficient with our labour costs) we need to be milking four at a time. To achieve this we’ll add three more milking units — essentially putting in an old-fashioned four abreast parlour. To cope with this extra milk we’ll need a bulk cooling tank that can handle 150–200L of milk. Thankfully you can find these setups secondhand as every other dairy in the country is ripping these out to scale-up and modernise their own facilities. As with everything else we do, we’re about 40 years behind everyone else!

To go with this we’re investing in a vending machine, as bottling just 25L a day takes around an hour as it is (including cleaning etc.), and we don’t feel like we can do it any faster. The vending machine means the customer can fill their own bottle up, saving us eventually 4 hours a day. It will also save us the time-consuming task of washing and sterilising bottles, as customers will then need to look after their own glass bottles. This is something larger (but still small) dairies have been doing successfully for many years.The vending machine isn’t cheap, but will be paid for within a year by the savings in labour costs alone.

Looking good in glass

With extra cows, comes the need for extra barn space. We don’t need much more space, as we have several cows that we will sell-on or cull for beef, to make space for the new cows, but I would like to increase it slightly. Thankfully we have an area that is already half concreted, and has three walls in place. All we need to do is put down a little extra concrete and a roof.

This month, along with a local farming friend, I’ve been putting in a new collection yard for the cows. This is where they wait pre and post milking. We’ve had to clear away the mud, set gate posts in concrete, add a layer of stone, and pour concrete on top. This is the bit I’m most excited about as it will make our life so much easier! As with everything we’ve made it multipurpose, so it will double-up as a handling facility as well.

Whilst improving the dairy infrastructure, we must also source some new dairy cows, and here too we’ll be making another change in direction. Much as we love Jersey cows for their inquisitiveness, beauty and creamy milk, the simple fact is they don’t produce enough milk for us to make a profitable dairy at the scale we’d like to be. In a 100% pasture-fed system with the calves being kept at foot 24 hours a day until they’re 4 months of age, we can struggle to get enough milk to sell. A Jersey cow, 100% pasture-fed, milked once-a-day, can produce something like 10–12L per day at a max. By the time a calf is 3 months of age, it’s taking pretty much all of it. Contrast that with a traditional British Friesian or Kiwi-cross, that can produce more like 20L in a similar system, and it’s easy to see why it’s more profitable. Yes they’re a bit bigger (though we’re talking traditional Friesians here, not modern Holsteins), and need a bit more land per cow, but the biggest limiting factor for us is time, not land, as we’re able to rent land from neighbours.

Hitting the right scale for your farm is key. Get it wrong and it won’t survive financially. Every time you add a new piece of kit or machinery, you have to earn that little bit more to justify and maintain it. It’s those ‘hidden’ costs that can get missed when doing your spreadsheets if you’re not careful. Entropy is one thing that can be relied upon.

I now feel like we have a pretty comprehensive spreadsheet with just about everything included so we can now plan our business accordingly. How I wished I knew more of this at the beginning. But the learning curve has always been steep, and none more so than uncovering the true financial cost of building and maintaining a small farm.

We’ll continue to have a mixed herd, so our milk will continue to be creamier than you can buy in the shops, but having the Friesians will mean the dairy is financially sustainable and able to support a small farm and small family. Having a dairy which makes a small profit for itself isn’t enough in the real world. In the real world you must maintain the farm, put money aside for the future, pay the bills, and have enough money to enjoy life. That puts a lot more pressure on the dairy. If you have income from elsewhere then the dairy doesn’t need to cover this, but if you don’t then it must.

All of this work takes time. Time we don’t currently have. Which is why we’ve decided to postpone milking until calving again next September.

Whilst we love selling 100% pasture-fed, calf-at-foot, raw milk, and will miss not selling it for the next 9 months, we must make sure we’re spending our time, energy and money as wisely as possible. And not fiddling about with cows’ udders whilst the farm falls apart.

Coupled with the change towards having more cows, and more Friesians, we’re also going to start processing milk into yoghurt and kefir, particularly the latter. Kefir is a growing market, and sells for a much higher price per litre than milk. I think there’s a real chance that we can become a well-known source of locally produced kefir, and as it can be sold in shops, it opens up market potential that we’re not currently reaching.

Likewise with our beef business, we’re exploring simple ways of adding value, because there too selling beef at competitive prices means there is little left over for us. Ultimately milk and beef are both commodity products, and though many are allured by the attraction of selling direct, the reality is that once you’ve factored in slaughter, butchery, packaging, transportation, and labour costs, you’re not much better off selling direct.

We managed a few days away in Dorset

The second major factor that has influenced our decision to take a break from milking is that we’re expecting a child early next Summer. This has meant two things. Firstly, I’m absolutely knackered, as for the last few months I’ve had to do everything on the farm, whilst also making sure to take care of the house and my wife, as she’s been feeling too tired and too unwell to do very much. She’s now into the second trimester of the pregnancy, meaning she’s feeling better. But three months of doing everything, coinciding with buying more cows and re-building the dairy, has meant I’ve had too much to do, and my battery is very low. The last few months has been a battle between me and my energy levels.

In order to do the work necessary I need to have my energy back. My battery won’t recharge until I have a break. I need a week or two off the farm to recuperate and replenish.

Last time I talked about the terrible twins of energy and time, but let’s not forget the third. Farming, it seems, is all about the terrible triplets of time, energy and money. They are the three major factors that will determine success. The ‘macro-elements’, if you like. The ‘micro’ being how you then allocate those resources. Quite simply, the reality of building a farm from scratch with no previous experience is that it takes large amounts of all three macro-elements. In the last three years we’ve hardly taken a day off, ploughed increasingly more money into the farm, and as a result we’re exhausted — as I talked about in detail in the last update.

However, it’s taken time to realise that our original plans for the microdairy simply aren’t financially viable. As mentioned, just because something makes an income, and profit even, doesn’t mean it makes a living. It can be quite misleading if you follow the rounded, hypothetical gross profit figures that are useful at the very beginning when initially distinguishing which enterprises may or may not be viable. But you need real figures, and net profit numbers, to really ascertain if it’s financially sustainable. And in our case we’ve learned what we’ve been doing isn’t.

So the major changes are being made, with us pushing ahead as quickly as we can to make them, so that the dairy doesn’t drain all our money before it turns profitable. It’s the same for all startup businesses – it’s a race against the cashflow. There’s a reason why 90% of new businesses fail.

These last months have been all about transitions for us. From the two of us, to eventually three of us next year. From the two of us living here, to two friends joining us on the farm. From makeshift microdairy to a traditional small dairy. And for me personally from my 20s to 30s. With the nights drawn in, the end of the year is always a good time to reflect and re-assess.

There’s so much more I want to add to this piece, but I can’t as it’s too long already, but very briefly I just want to say how fantastic all our friends have been the last few months. We wouldn’t want to be doing this anymore if it wasn’t for them. We’re very lucky. My 30th birthday was very special because of them.

Next year will be our last throw of the dice for the dairy. It either works or it doesn’t. If come this time next year we find again that it’s just not working then I think we’ll call it a day on the dairy front and will focus our energy on the beef business as that’s ticking along nicely, despite receiving virtually no attention.

Indeed, that would be the sensible decision now. To focus all of our time, energy and money on the beef business and build that to its potential, and whilst I would be very happy to do that, a part of me really needs to know if we can make the dairy work. We’ve put so much into it, I wouldn’t want to back out before what may be the final hurdle in the steeplechase. It’s the dairy that we’re most passionate about, even if it does stretch us to our limits. It’s the challenge of it that makes it all valuable and worthwhile. Wish us luck — we’ll need it.