Angus D. Birditt
No 'One Farm Fits All'
Low Riggs Farm, Stonebeck by Angus D. Birditt
High up in the upper valleys of Nidderdale in Yorkshire, you will find Low Riggs Farm, home to the Hattan family. Once you conquer their 3-mile rugged drive, you will discover the family’s isolated farmstead, a cluster of low-lying buildings made in the local stone. The farm itself is surrounded by banking fields, sliced at various angles by perfectly laid drystone walls. The whole place is a world of its own, a true microcosm of landscape and climate.
In only a few minutes of being there, I found that Low Riggs Farm is a haven for birds. Redshanks, curlews, lapwings, all red-listed species encouraged to nest in the long grasses of ancient hay meadows that the Hattans are restoring, not only to improve soil health but also to boost the numbers of these stunning birds. Each band of green field stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with what Andrew tells me is his small ‘collection’ of Northern Dairy Shorthorns, another endangered breed of animal on the farm, which, with the help of the local community, he saved from near extinction. All mightily impressive to say the least, and I haven’t even got onto their cheesemaking yet! Alongside their efforts to restore nature on their farm, the Hattan family make an award-winning cheese called Stonebeck, a Wensleydale-style cheese using raw milk from their collection of Northern Dairy Shorthorns.
Northern Dairy Shorthorn & clover pasture by Angus D. Birditt
Now, you may be thinking why I am talking in depth about this particular dairy farm in a small pocket of Yorkshire. But the reason is that I want to show (or reaffirm) how fascinating, diverse and progressive our dairy industry can be.
Like the Hattans at Low Riggs Farm, and a few further examples to follow, I hope to promote that there is a motivated network of individuals, families, friends and communities on the ground, in our fields, who are farming our soils and animals to environmentally-friendly practices, producing nutrient-dense food and supporting a rural economy.
But before we do that, for context, I want to briefly take you back to the last couple of centuries to look at the evolution of the food and farming systems as a whole. I did say briefly, so I will try and keep it short(ish). What we find ourselves in today, is a food and farming system that has rapidly accelerated towards uniformity and centralisation, that is, moving away from localised and regionalised systems, away from the point of supply and diversity. Whether this has had positive or negative effects on society is perhaps for another article altogether, but what this centralisation has undoubtedly resulted in, is a change in our general understanding and connection to our food; where, how and who produces it.
If we fast forward through those two hundred years until now, past Robert Bakewell's 'in-and-in' selective breeding efforts and The Green Revolution that came and, well, stayed, and with it, burgeoned an increased focus and reliance on mechanisation and containerisation, we do indeed find our dairy industry swimming in the deep-end of the centralised system.
One of the most significant inventions that spearheaded this drive towards centralisation in the dairy industry was in the 19th Century with the introduction of milking machines. This new efficient way of milking removed the tiresome job of journeying into the fields and milking the cows by hand. Soon, dairy farmers realised that by doing away with extra hands on the farm and increase the size of their herds, they could produce more milk yield and generate more money with less manual labour. Of course, overtime, more farmers followed suit, competition increased and prices were squeezed.
Nowadays, this centralisation has resulted in the majority of milk being sourced from a relatively small number of factory-farms, each with a-thousand-head herds or more, producing huge quantities of milk at rock-bottom prices, which is no good for man, woman or beast, or environment for that matter.
Furthermore, these centralised factory-farms more often than not have their animals 'zero-grazed', meaning the cows are kept indoors year-round, which can't be right, surely? With the accessibility of bought-in feed at a drop of a click online, these cows are efficient to feed and efficient to milk effectively under one roof, hence the name 'factory-farm'. Before such centralisation erupted, farm and herd size were traditionally governed by how much winter feed they could grow on the farm.
Andrew Hattan at Low Riggs Farm by Angus D. Birditt
‘The anthropological lesson of human social and political evolution suggests that the current global concentration of agricultural production, processing, and distribution into fewer hands portends a future of increasing human struggle and conflict.”
- Kendall Thu, The Centralization of Food Systems and Political Power
Soon, we'll get onto some inspiring and positive stories of good dairy farming that you can support, however, it’s fair to say that more recently we’ve seen the opposite being broadcast towards our ears and eyes with mainstream media pouring out wholly negative articles and programmes, seemingly highlighting only one side of the dairy industry. Take the BBC’s Panorama episode on ‘A Cow’s Life’, for example. The programme, quite rightly, exposes the terrible animal welfare conditions at a dairy farm, yet it failed to represent the dairy industry in its entirety; equally showing what other possibilities that ‘a cow’s life’ could have in the dairy industry - it should have been called 'A Cow's Life in Intensive Dairy Farming'. I have met many dairy farmers who would have been disgusted to see such behaviour, themselves proudly working to the highest levels of food and farming standards, including the highest levels of animal welfare.
That's not to mention the occasional article in national newspapers that warns readers of raw milk, and even our capital’s transport system banning 'unhealthy' artisan cheese adverts on the tube.
It's important here to remind ourselves that our food and farming systems are vast and complex, and each industry within it (beef, plant-based or dairy, for example) is in itself acutely complex, multifaceted networks that have evolved so much, and at such a rate, that one cannot simply silo these enormously complicated industries into binary arguments, such as, whether an industry is 'better' or 'worse' than another industry (i.e. plant-based vs. meat), or even whether there is a 'good' side and a 'bad' side within an industry.
Look at the production of milk, for example, in both dairy and plant-based industries. You'll have many producers in both industries aligning to the highest levels of food, farming and environmental standards, whilst you'll also get plenty of producers in both aligning to the lowest standards. Producers in both industries could be promoting deforestation with the use of unsustainable soya (feeding cattle in the dairy industry and ingredients for plant-based alternatives), or it could be the case that neither are using unsustainable feed/ingredients. And that's the same for chemicals to grow the plants, poor human welfare and high numbers of air mileage for transportation. So no, there it isn't just 'one is better than the other'.
These binary arguments are not the fault of the individual, however, but the fault of those who govern the food system, making it so very difficult to understand the differences and complexities involved. It is those in charge of legalisation, market forces and marketing campaigns that has caused such disputes. But what is encouraging, however, is that in general there is a growing public consensus towards protecting and improving the natural environment, whatever opinion you have.
What is encouraging as well, whether it gets off the ground or not, is the government's new environmental schemes that reward farmers for 'public goods', finally seeing farming/food and conservation as one, a holistic entity, vastly different to the last 60-odd years where they have been regarded as two separate issues. With their new legally binding environment targets, which will hope to 'protect our environment, clean up our air and rivers and boost nature', there is hope yet. But to accomplish such targets, it will inevitably be our farmers - the stewards of our land - who will lead the way in innovation and attempt to halt biodiversity decline and improve human health. It is up to the government to pay them for their efforts, accordingly.
The Rare Dairy & Shetland Cow by Angus D. Birditt
In the dairy industry, there has been attempts to distinguish the types of farming involved with ‘intensive’ (as I have mentioned in reference to centralisation) and ‘extensive’ modes of production – still binary, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction. In reference to the former, there is a term called Sustainable Intensification, an approach that uses 'innovations to increase productivity on existing agricultural land with positive environmental and social impacts.' Both terms 'sustainable' and 'intensification', is said to 'carry equal weight'. What this means, I believe, is an indoor herd with no grazing, where farms are investing in technology to increase efficiency, such as, robotic milking, accelerometers, AI tech for welfare, methane mitigation and slurry/nutrition management, renewable energy, heat exchangers and zero soya. This system is driven by the need to reduce greenhouse gases using cows that are hugely productive within an efficient environment.
But let's get back to the purpose of this article, celebrating the extensive side of dairy industry. But what is ‘extensive’ dairy farming? I define it as farmers working to the highest possible levels of food and farming, caring for their animals and community, producing healthy food and improving the level of biodiversity on their land.
Extensive dairy farming – like any extensive farming – is utterly diverse, not only in region, people and product, but also in animal, breed, milk type, soil, landscape and ecosystem, all of which needs to be championed and regarded, respectively.
Besides the Hattan family who make Stonebeck, another wonderful example of an extensive dairy farmer is Becky Bain at The Rare Dairy in Shropshire. Located at Abbey Farm, The Rare Dairy is home to a small herd of rare-breed Shetland cows. Becky works as close to nature as possible to produce raw, organic dairy products, including milk, yogurt, mozzarella and cream. Her enterprise would be called a micro-dairy with 20 cows milked once a day. Each cow is known by name and many of them in the same family – Becky introduced me to daughter, mother and grandmother all in the same field! Her cows are all ‘cow-with-calf’, meaning that Becky allows the calves to suckle their mothers until they are naturally weaned – the weaning of calves is a contested issue in the dairy industry that needs to be addressed.
The Rare Dairy Shetland cows by Angus D. Birditt
Every single aspect on the farm at The Rare Dairy has been meticulously examined. The wood for the fences and gates has been sourced from local native woodlands and the barn has been designed for the highest level of animal welfare with good airflow, enough natural light and a comfy floor. To make the floor as comfy and sustainable as possible, Becky has covered it in a thick layer of sand, allowing for a soft landing when the cows lie down – Becky tells me to imagine dropping to the floor with my knees first, that’s how a cow drops to the floor. Becky says, ‘It’s a great height, so they need a soft grounding to land.’ Not only is Becky an extensive farmer, but she has also been a farm vet for 15 years, so knows the dos and don’ts of veterinary practice. So much so that she has studied herbalism, using nature (as much as possible) to cure her animals if they succumb to any illness. ‘I make a poultice of plantain as a natural antiseptic for any cuts and grazes on the animals instead of using unnatural cures, it works a treat!’
Visiting Becky’s farm and meeting her herd of Shetland cows, I was truly amazed by the attention to detail, level of professionalism and sense of duty towards providing the best level of welfare for her animals. She opened my eyes up to the great potential of micro-dairies; transitioning to more localised systems. These micro-dairies allow for smaller, more manageable herd sizes, often resulting in higher animal welfare standards, they create shorter supply chains, build community, create job opportunities and help the rural economy, plus they allow locals the chance to consume nutrient-dense dairy produce.
Becky supplies her organic, raw milk to locals in the village, which, before the centralisation of our food system, happened in most villages. The organic, raw milk from The Rare Dairy costs more than what you would get in the supermarket, however, when you account for the direct and immediate benefits just discussed, this type of milk is worth every penny. We just need to see legalisation support farmers like Becky and support others to establish micro-dairies across the British Isles.
The Rare Dairy & barn by Angus D. Birditt
Another example of an extensive dairy enterprise can be found in the steep-sided valleys of West Wales, where the Holden family farm at Bwlchwernen Fawr. The Holdens farm in line with nature, farming a small herd of native breed Ayrshire cows. Holden Farm Dairy is Wales' longest certified organic dairy farm, making their renowned Hafod Cheddar. They employ a small thriving community in West Wales, and because they farm to the highest levels of food and farming, their dairy produce is nutrient-rich.
Should we be questioning what our dairy animals eat? In short, yes. But exactly what they should be is a contested affair. Pasture for Life is a farming organisation and certification standards that assures businesses (farms, butchers, shops, etc.) that work to 100% pasture-fed systems. One aspect of this means that the animals involved only consume 100% pasture – none of this ambiguous ‘grass-fed’ or ‘fed on green meadows’ you see on menus or product placement. It also means that no grain is fed to the animal, which is known to be unsustainable and not natural for a ruminant to eat.
A fantastic example of a Pasture for Life Certified dairy business is Torpenhow Cheese Company, run by Mark and Jenny Lee at Park House Farm in North Cumbria. In 2018, they began their organic conversion process, having stopped all chemical fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide use the year before and converted to full organic status in June 2020.
Everything their cows eat is grown on the farm, either directly from the pasture or harvested as straw or silage for consumption during the winter months when they escape the worst of the Cumbrian weather under cover. Where they are in Cumbria, they can grow plenty of grass and native clovers, chicory, herbs and legumes, all of which impart a unique and changing flavour to the milk and cheese throughout the year.
Mark and Jenny work to improve the health of the soil and surrounding biodiversity. By sowing deep-rooted plants in the grass sward of their pastures they can let nature capture nitrogen and fix it in the soil for the grasses to utilise. In addition, the grazing cattle naturally fertilise the paddock and the more they graze the quicker it grows.
They also ‘mob graze’ at the farm. This is a regenerative farming technique increasingly being used by extensive dairy farmers, which allows them to graze one paddock a day every 28-days in rotation, which gives the plants and soil plenty of rest and growth before their herd graze again. The grazing cattle naturally fertilise the paddock and again the more they graze the quicker it grows. Also, by introducing a flock of free-range chickens to follow the cows through the pastures they can mimic the natural process of birds and large herbivores working in harmony to build soil – working towards a holistic way of managing the land.
The Rare Dairy & Shetland Cow by Angus D. Birditt
A further example of a Pasture for Life Certified business, and in general, a standout dairy farm like Park House Farm, is The Ethical Dairy at Rainton Farm. Headed by David and Wilma Finlay, The Ethical Dairy questioned the intensification of dairy farming in 2012, and in their own words ‘worked hard to come up with a different solution.’ What was it? Well, they felt that by keeping the calves with their mothers to suckle (a ‘cow-with-calf’ herd), they could work towards an ethical dairy model, based around treating the animals, the land, our environment and the people who work here with respect and kindness.
“In traditional dairy farms calves are removed from their mothers within a few hours of their birth - the stress this places on the cow is clear. We wanted to find a way to keep calves with the cows and still have a financially viable farm. Put simply, we don’t want to have to choose between doing what’s right and staying in business. We spent several years exploring ways to make cow with calf viable on our farm.”
And in 2019, The Ethical Dairy committed to this way of farming permanently.
“It works for the cows who have demonstrated a marked reduction in stress, improvement in health and higher than expected levels of productivity. It works for the calves who thrive being reared by their mothers, growing twice as quickly as before. It also works for us and the farm staff, with reduced input costs and a highly motivated farm team.”
If you are out and about, look out for the Pasture for Life Certification Mark on products to denote the high levels of food and farming standards involved in producing it.
Summerfield & Shetland Cow by Angus D. Birditt
The last case study of extensive dairy farming I want to share with you is in the heart of Botton village within the North York Moors. Surrounded by stunning moorland and populated with fine stone buildings, the village of Botton is home to Camphill Village Trust, a charity with its roots in horticulture and agriculture. The charity supports adults with different types of disabilities to work on their land-based enterprises – farms and gardens – through an initiative called 'Social Farming'. This is a simple concept: to combine agricultural and horticultural production with health and social services provided to people with disabilities.
One of the charity’s farms is a small dairy farm with a herd of native Dairy Shorthorn cows that are milked to make their renowned cheese called Summer Field, an Alpine-style cheese invented by head cheesemaker, Alastair Pearson. Alastair learnt his trade in Germany and brought back his methods of making Alpine-style cheeses to Botton. Hence the name, Summer Field is a seasonal cheese, only made within the summer months when the Shorthorns are out on pasture and the conditions are right for making.
Camphill Village Trust is a fantastic example of how extensive dairy farming can support community, maintain high animal welfare, help adults with disabilities learn new skills and traditions and create delicious healthy dairy products like Summer Field.
So, as described in the examples above, dairy farming is a complex industry, and reading one article or seeing one programme cannot simply understand it in its entirety. It is multifaceted, ever-evolving and completely variable to each farming system.
View across Yorkshire Dales by Angus D. Birditt
Even just reading these few examples – of which there are many, many more – I hope you will be heartened by the work of these extensive dairy farmers and producers who are always looking to improve the ways they are working ethically, environmentally and to produce nutrient-rich foods. Not to mention they are fantastic examples to reconnect more deeply to our food and thus create a better understanding of where, how and who makes it.
From the Hattans in Yorkshire making award-winning Stonebeck alongside restoring ancient hay meadows, encouraging red-listed birds to nest and saving a rare breed of cattle, to the Finlays at The Ethical Dairy challenging the ways of farming, working to the highest levels of ethics and feeding their animals an all-natural diet, I hope reading this will inspire you to do your own research and seek your local, extensive food producer, or at least encourage you to question the dairy produce you are consuming.
Take the milk in your fridge, for example. Do you know the source? How the animals and people have been treated in the process? What the animals have been fed to produce it? In my view, we all need to be questioning the provenance and production of our food, whichever style or alternative we can afford.
To encourage this exploration of our dairy industry, we need to celebrate the diversity of milk we have here on these pastoral islands, especially when it’s coming from animals that are reared to the highest levels of agricultural standards. As we celebrate the diversity of grapes in wine production and single varieties of apples in cider making, I hope we will soon celebrate the diversity of milk available to us. Not only do you have Jersey milk, but there is also Shetland, Red Poll, Ayrshire, British Friesian, Shorthorn, Northern Dairy Shorthorn and Guernsey milk, to name a few different native breeds.
To find out how to find local, extensive farmers and producers, you will invariably have to exit the supermarket – other than buying organic milk – and do your research around your local area to see whether a farm shop, delicatessen or cheesemonger stocks their produce. There are also farming charities and organisations that can help you source extensive farmers like Pasture for Life, Nature-Friendly Farming Network, Farms To Feed Us, Soil Association and the Raw Milk Producers Association.
A few other places worth promoting that are working to the highest levels of food and farming standards are:
Stroud Micro Dairy, Meadowsweet Farming, Coombes Micro Dairy, The Calf at Foot Dairy, Old Hall Farm, The Rare Dairy, Stonebeck, The Ethical Dairy, Holden Farm Dairy, Camphill Village Trust, Torpenhow Cheese Company, Hollis Mead.
Are you a micro/small extensive dairy working to the highest levels of food and farming? Contact us to be added to the list.
No 'One Farm Fits All'
Words & Photography by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles