Well we had a little mini opening this weekend and sold our first milk. We thought we would try things out quietly so my Dad and John put up our subtle dairy signs on Sunday morning along with the lovely new blackboards which John made for the shop. We pasteurised some milk on Saturday evening and put a small amount in the vending machine for Sunday morning. A few people saw the signs and came in to see us which was just perfect to test it all out.
Nick hanging the sign
Hanging sign at Farm entrance
It is only the whole milk that is for sale until the other vending machine arrives but we salted a new batch of soft cheese to be ready for that yesterday and made basil soft cheese and mint soft cheese which are ready now too.
Will be running the next batch of milk through the pasteuriser on Monday evening ready for sale on Tuesday morning. We will be pasteurising in the evening every other day from now on, using the milk from that morning and afternoons milkings so it is as fresh as it can be when we process it. The tanker from the dairy that takes the rest of the milk comes every other day so our milk will be on sale nearly a day before the rest of it leaves us for processing.
We are really pleased with how the vending machine is working so far, and hopefully the cheese and cream vending machine will be here soon too.
Milk blackboards in the shop
Our new labelled bottles
Work on the farm is a bit grim in the cold and wet of February but its all been happening this week. We unloaded our supply of plastic milk bottles on Friday afternoon along with cream and cheese pots. Our milk bottle labels arrived on Monday, along with the new cheese maturing trays.
The whole and skim milk have passed all their tests and the shelf life testing is back on the cheese and cream so we can set the use by dates for them all. Just the testing on the semi-skimmed milk left to complete and those sample are going off on Wednesday. The cream we have been making is a lovely extra thick type and we are experimenting with a double cream too which will be tested this week too.
Had a bit of a disaster when one of our milk pumps died on us which has delayed us slightly but now have a spare arrived and a back up on order so that will be re-installed this week hopefully, so we can use it to fill the vending machine.
A vending machine for the cheese and cream is due to arrive next week, the final bit of equipment we need to get the self serve shop open.
Our new shop – almost ready to open
We went to see Charlie in Hertfordshire on Wednesday. He has a vending machine for raw Jersey milk which is very popular. He has told us how things were going for them and what we need to think about. His biggest problem is the glass door to the filling area being closed while the milk bottles are being filled. The machine is designed to steam clean after it is used so if you shut the door while it is filling you get a bottle full of hot water instead of delicious milk!
So we are days rather than weeks from opening. Making a new batch of soft cheese, Bure’s Essex Soft Cheese, on Wednesday which we hope will be the first batch that will available for sale the following week. By which time we hope it will feel a little more like spring won’t be too far away.
Winter is here with a blast of chilly air and giving the farm even more work to an already hectic schedule. Cows drink between more than 10 gallons of water a day (lots more in summer) so keeping all the water tanks full is absolutely vital for their well being. With the temperature showing minus 8c when my sister got up to milk it was unsurprising that most of mornings for the last week have involved defrosting pipes and tanks and carting water to the cows, calves and stables until all the pipes where back running.
We had quiet Christmas but a bit of a stressful New Year with fireworks upsetting the younger cows. Our girls are quite chilled and we haven’t had any problems for some years, but we always keep a close eye on them at New Year and 5th November just in case. They can be spooked by loud bangs if a firework goes off near the cow sheds. Like all herd animals if one runs they all do. This year unfortunately was one of those times and one of our two year old heifers slipped and injured herself. We thought she might have broken her leg on first look but thankfully she was just a bit bruised and bashed. She is back completely fit and healthy again now which is a great relief.
In the dairy, we have done our final milk run test and hope to have the whole milk in the vending machine after we get that test result in about 10 days. We have got the cream consistency to the extra thickness we wanted and that is now being tested too.
On the cheese side we have been taste testing how the soft cheese works with a variety of herbs. We are just waiting for shelf life testing on the cheese and then we will have it available for sale.
It’s the night before Christmas and the calves are fed and tucked up for the night, cows milked and having their evening meal, a quiet end to a hectic week.
All good things come to those that wait, and the dairy got conditional approval for food safety on Monday, quite a milestone for us. Still a couple of weeks of testing to complete in the new year before everything is ready but a fantastic step towards opening. On Tuesday the vending machine arrived and was installed by George from Fen Farm Dairy. So that is now ready to go once the testing is complete. Wednesday and Thursday we were experimenting with the cream separator to get the different thicknesses on the cream to see what is best.
Merry Christmas from the girls!
The new vending machine
So lots to be jolly about this season. On the farm Christmas day is work as normal the girls need to enjoy their Christmas too. An early start for the milking but we do try and get done on time so we can have a proper family Christmas dinner in the evening. It’s the only day of the year when the hot cooked dinner is in the evening rather than lunchtime.
So a Very Happy Christmas to you all and best wishes for 2017.
It has been quite a couple of weeks. Still so much going on at the Farm. The milk pasteuriser has arrived at last and was fitted up a week ago. We ran it last Saturday and made our very first pasteurised milk and used the milk to start making a soft lactic cheese.
Clare with the new pasteuriser
Yesterday, we started our first make of the ‘Chalvedon’ alpine style cheese using the pasteurised milk. Everything seems to be going well with the new cheeses so far, but we will of course need to see how they mature and develop.
The cream separator is being fitted today and we will be making our first cream tomorrow. We also start testing and there is plenty of that to do before we can sell our products, but we feel that we are on the homeward stretch with bottles, labels, pots and lids are all on the way. We are working hard to try have milk and cream ready for sale by Christmas.
I was interviewed live on Sadie Nine’s BBC Essex show just after 7.30 this morning. Quite terrifying, but it did seem to go fairly smoothly. I was asked to go on to talk about dairy issues regarding a recent national drop in milk production as a result of a lot of farms going out of business. This has meant higher milk, cream and cheese prices and potentially a shortage of cream at Christmas. There’s been quite a lot about this in the newspapers. I also talked with Sadie about our micro dairy at the Farm and the milk and cheese developments.
Clare with Sadie Nine
Out on the Farm, the cows came in a couple of weeks ago too as the temperature dropped. They won’t be out on the grass again until the spring and will enjoy being tucked up out of the rain. The rain has come just in time, we hope. The crops and grass have been so dry. They will have needed the couple of warm days this week to finish germination before winter sets in.
After many months of planning and problems we are nearly there. The rest of the milk equipment is finally on its way. John collected the bottle filler last week and there is now just the pasteuriser and separator to come, both scheduled for delivery this week.
Most of our equipment is refurbished and the bottle filler came from a lovely farm where they sell raw Jersey milk to the north east of London. They have swapped to a vending machine from selling pre-filled bottles. We need a bottle filler because we are planning to sell both.
Bottles are ordered, labels being designed and the vending machine being built. The vending shop space will be finished at the end of the week. Still some weeks of fitting, calibration and food safety testing, but the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Then we can start making cheese with the pasteurised milk too.
On the farm, the cows are enjoying being tucked up for the night. We have been sowing grass seed to rotate some of the fields and are now desperate for some decent rain to help it germinate, but it looks like the fine weather is going to be with us for a little longer. That’s the downside of farming in one of the driest parts of the country.
Cows heading in for the night
As well as the excitement of the milk kit finally arriving we should be getting the first milk price rise at the end of this month after about 2 years of cuts. The current market price is going back up but it takes a while to filter through to many farmers and we are still at the lowest prices for years. A penny rise for the end of October and another penny promised for November. Still a long way off the breakeven point but a positive step in the right direction if the trend continues.
We thought summer was nearly here last week but then we all got a little bit soggy again. My sister had an even earlier start than usual to check our girls were ok in the thunder (she is normally up at 3.30am every day to milk the cows). Whilst they like to be out normally they were huddled under the trees and keen to keep dry but they were all fine, which is more than can be said for Piglet the terrier who definitely does not like Mr Bang coming.
Piglet (on the right) with Maisy
We had more delights of urban fringe farming and a second big bang of the week with a car crashing through the gates into the horse field and being abandoned, with a very quick police response removing it as it appears to have been a robbery getaway vehicle. Horses merely ignored all this and walked back to the stable paddock.
Once the fencing was repaired the rain has meant a bit of time for indoor work and things have moved on in milk room. The two tanks for full fat and skimmed milk have been installed, the plumbing is in, the piping to transfer fresh milk from the parlour tank is all in place and the mini shop space conversion has begun and the door hung.
In the meantime we had our cheese consultant visit to see how we are getting on. He liked the cheeses we have been trialling and gave us some advice on fine tuning the recipes over the next couple of months. Starting yesterday we have the first new batch of Chalvedon made, we are tweaking the temperature and brine levels. We will be trying it in 10 days and then maturing it for 1, 2 and 3 months to see any differences. The rest of the milk equipment is (fingers crossed) still on schedule to be installed in July.
It has been quite a fortnight of firsts for the us and our new dairy. About a week ago we had a radio interview with Peter Holmes from BBC Essex. He wanted to talk to us about the dairy crisis and our plans for making cheese. We took the plunge and said we would do our first interview with great trepidation. Speaking in public is not really my forte.
Clare and Nick with Peter and the calves
Peter interviewing Clare and enjoying some cheese at the same tim
Peter was great and it wasn’t quite as scary as I thought it would be and we were expecting a small piece on his show today. Completely taken aback by the fantastic coverage he gave us, including announcing our new cheese in the opening news. Not what we were expecting to hear but great that he was a keen on talking about cheese as we are. We are waiting to hear all the suggestions from listeners on what we should name our new soft cheese, we heard a few suggestions on air including Bradfields Spread, Yessex and Essex Cheese. You can hear the show (7th May) on his BBC webpage for the next four of weeks, the main interview is about an hour and a quarter in. The coverage has been great and we have new followers, friends and enquiries already. Welcome to you all and thanks for the retweets.
The batch of Chalvedon pictured on the BBC facebook page has now become the very first batch to go in our cold room to mature, we had the “grand” switching on this week.
We also ventured to the West Midland to pick up the two tanks for the milk pasteurising plant. These will hold the milk once the pasteuriser and cream separator are up and running and are the first bits of kit to arrive. Fingers crossed for the rest to be here in July.
Our pond has long been home to a collapsing, formerly floating duck house. We are as a family rather fond of ducks (my nieces very favourite animal) and always love to see them on the pond. I wouldn’t like to say how many hours of mine and my sisters childhood were spent trying to get the ducks in to keep them safe overnight but we gave up the battle of pet ducks versus foxes many many years ago. If they wanted to stay out all night at least we could give them somewhere safe for them to stay, and that was when the floating duck house was made.
The new duckhouse
We have been thinking about doing something about the duck house for some time but despite its poor condition the duck house has been home to Mr and Mrs Moorhen for years. They usually produce two broods of black fluffy balls with long feet each year and we knew some were on the way as they had rather aggressively chased off the remaining offspring from last batch last month. So with Mrs Moorhen possibly nesting we couldn’t go near the old duck house so instead we finally got round to having a new one made. Launched with fingers crossed a few weeks ago it floated beautifully and has sat empty ever since.
Mrs Moorhen emerged at the weekend with 4 of 5 (they are hard to spot sometimes) new babies and promptly re-located from old duck house to new which was lovely to see but more was yet to come. It appears that rather than desire to live in a new build she was escaping noisy neighbours, hidden away in the other half of the old duck house a wild Mallard was nesting too.
She emerged briefly at the weekend with half a dozen cute ducklings, only to retreat back inside and come out today with more. We think there are 18 baby mallards in total scooting around the pond in all directions with surprising bursts of speed. With two sets of parents as well the pond has never been so busy and there are quite literally babies everywhere you look.
The proud mum
Baby duck near its’ new home
It has been quite a start to the year for dairy farming. Over the last 12 months we have all watched the wholesale milk prices plummet and it is still going down. Some farmers lost 3.5p a litre in a month and we have recently been issued with another 1.5p cut after a 1p cut last month. To put that in perspective every penny is worth £10,000 a year across the whole herd. But we are one of the lucky ones, some farmers don’t have a contract and have to rely on a straight market price which is much worse. So whilst we now lose money for every litre we produce we are not losing as much as some other people.
It is too much for many, another Essex dairy farm sold up last month and we have heard of another 4 or 5 going in east Anglia too. It is so sad to see the animals going, when you have spent your whole life building your herd and suddenly they have no value to anyone.
There are lots of complicated reasons why the price has dropped and I am far from an expert in these but it seems a range of factors from international markets and demand changing. China started importing a lot as their economy grew and it is not so good now, I was told by someone Russia have stopped or reduced EU imports and at home some places sell milk as a loss leader for less than it costs to produce. In the better times some people expanded giving more supply and the problem with dairy is it is like turning a super tanker. You can’t just turn cows milk off or moth ball them until better times.
The sad fact is that the market will rebalance as so many farms go out of dairy there will at some point be less supply and prices will rise again. The challenge is to keep going until we can break even again, and not be one of the ones going out. Our cows perform in the top 10% in the country so we can’t be much more efficient, we can’t scale up as we are a small farm surrounded by development so becoming more self sufficient and selling some of our milk direct is our only survival option. It wasn’t why we started the dairy, that was always for me to have a new role and come home to the farm but now it might be what helps us keep the cows in the fields. We hope to be selling some of our milk soon. So watch this space for further details.