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The Might of Micro Dairies

In small pockets of our rural sphere, you will find communities bustling with excitement when it's time for collection of their local milk. One such pocket is the Quantock Hills in Somerset, a landscape sculpted in deep valleys and high-hedged country lanes, where the local community are lucky enough to have Phyllida Warmington of Cothelstone Micro Dairy as their neighbour.

Phyllida runs Cothelstone Micro Dairy in the village and parish of Cothelstone, selling 100% pasture fed raw milk both directly from the farm and via courier delivering nationwide. The dairy really is ‘micro’ milking between just three to four cows, with the day to day running by Phyllida and Jeremy, her right-hand man. Angus D. Birditt went to visit Phyllida on a baking hot late spring day, with the country lanes decorated with cow parsley and the first swallows of the year overhead, to learn more about what she does, micro dairies in general and why we need to be supporting our own local dairies.


ADB: Phyllida, what is a micro dairy?


PW: This is a tricky one! There’s no official definition of what a micro dairy is, and it will mean different things to different people. Ultimately, it is anyone dairying on a small scale. To me, that means anything below around 15 milking cows, although of course, any dairy below 100 cows would now be considered small. Some other markers are milking using a portable milk machine, mucking out by hand and milking one cow at a time. 


And why did you establish the micro dairy in the first instance?


Our micro dairy started in 2022. We established it mainly because we thought there are so few people micro dairying. Everyone does it entirely their own way and there’s no real blueprint to it. So, it’s very much been a learn on the job thing, make it up as you go. Farming is incredibly democratic, people share their knowledge so freely, it’s something incredibly special I really noticed coming into the industry.  The cows have my heart, but I also fell in love with grazing, the alchemy and impact even a few animals can have on engineering our ecosystems – it’s astonishing.

"I say 'pasture' rather than 'grass' as it does a better job at describing the rich variety of grasses, herbs, legumes and the odd tree and hedgerow they have access to."


We are hearing more about produce that is 'pasture fed'. What is it and why so important? 


Our cows eat as nature intended, 100% pasture. I say ‘pasture’ rather than ‘grass’ as it does a better job at describing the rich variety of grasses, herbs, legumes and the odd tree and hedgerow they have access too. It’s a biggie for me. Often one of the main environmental criticisms of dairy is the large quantities of grain and soya fed to the cows. What ‘pasture fed’ means for us is healthier cows and better quality milk. It also means we get a lot less of it, but the trade-off is worthwhile. It also means the business is much more resilient without the cost of needing to buy in feed grown elsewhere.


"We are first and foremost ‘forage farmers’...the peak of our cow's milk production is matched by the pasture available..."

I see on your beautiful bottle of milk, you say ‘cow-calf’, what does this mean? 


We are a ‘cow-calf’ dairy, which means our cows suckle and raise their calves for anywhere between 3 to 9 months.  I will be honest and say perfecting this aspect is definitely a work in progress, but it’s something I’m pretty ideologically tethered too. Removing calves from dairy cows at birth is a real issue when it comes to the social licence of dairy farming, but it’s challenging. It’s not a tick box solution to high welfare and it’s incredibly labour intensive. But the bucolic sight of cows with their calves is a good one. 

Let’s talk about seasonality and feed. Tell me why both are so important to highlight?

Our raw milk is an entirely seasonal product, in the same way many other foods are. As pasture fed dairy producers, we are first and foremost ‘forage farmers’ relying entirely on seasonal availability of grasses and legumes to keep our cows making milk. In the same way most other animals give birth in the spring our cows follow suit, the peak of their milk production is matched by the pasture available and this means they can not only sustain a calf but share milk with us while maintaining their body condition.

During the spring and summer months, the cows graze herbal leys and species rich grasses, carefully managed grazing and ‘old fashioned’ type cows means the cows can thrive without need for grains or concentrates. These such feeds can decrease the quality of the milk, be less healthy for the cows and often come with both a hefty environmental and financial price tag.

The human welfare side of farming it not talked about enough. How is it running a micro dairy for you and your wellbeing?

Yes, often a forgotten part of small dairy systems, a restful winter for the cows can also offer high human welfare. This allows time without milking (which would otherwise be 365 days a year) as well as the environmental and financial benefits of being able to winter cows and calves (mostly) outdoors.  

Our cows are milked just once a day, which I believe increases the quality of the milk. After buying in a couple of cows this year, I noted the huge leap in butterfat and protein when I was able to reduce their yield from the high production expected in a conventional setting to our ‘low input > low output’ approach. 

My cows are a mixture of original population Dairy Shorthorns (a rare native breed) and Red Poll and Jersey crosses, they are often mistaken for beef cows as they are small and sturdy, offering the hardiness and efficiency that our native breeds do so well.

What's the future for micro dairies, Phyllida?


I hope it's a bright future. I think there is a real appetite particularly for raw and unpasteurised milk and dairy. It’s finally being acknowledged as the superfood that it is. We’ve just got there with sourdough bread and heritage grains; there’s a wide acceptance that it’s an entirely different product to sliced supermarket bread and is priced accordingly. Milk has still got a way to go but I’ve no doubt we’re on the way there. 


How can someone get involved and purchase nutritious milk like yours? 


Our farm gate is always open, and I really welcome visitors here in Somerset. Otherwise, there’s also the Raw Milk Producers Association to find raw milk near you and the Cow-Calf dairy directory for other cow with calf dairies. 

The Might of Micro Dairies

Article & Photography by Angus D. Birditt

Interview with Phyllida Warmington


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