The ethical dairy: experiment and innovation on Rainton Farm

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Dairy farming in the UK faces the same challenges as the rest of the food world.  Growing pressures – economic, environmental, political – are pushing farmers to look for better ways to continue their businesses.  Locavore spoke to David Finlay, who farms dairy cows on Rainton Farm in Galloway, about their innovations in improving animal welfare and sustainability.

David Finlay

The Finlay family have been farming at Rainton since the 1920s.  What changes have there been in the industry in this time? And what prompted the move to organic dairy farming?

The Finlays came as tenant farmers to Rainton in 1928 but the family have been dairy farming in the area since the 1860s. In the 1930s and 40s the goal of my father, James, was simple – to produce food for a hungry population during the difficult years surrounding the Second World War. Milk from the dairy cows was used to create farmhouse cheese, the leftover whey was given to pigs reared for meat, and sheep made use of any grassy areas that were less well suited to cattle.

As time moved on farming and food production became more industrial and more intensive. Cheese production stopped at Rainton in the 1970s as mass produced cheddar became more widely available, and the farm began to focus more on milk production. In the 1990s Rainton started to diverge from the intensive direction of most of the dairy industry. We recognised the benefits of farming organically and, over the past twenty years, we have been exploring new ways of producing food in a more ethical and sustainable way.

You’re now going even further in your plans to improve animal welfare.  Can you tell us more about your new dairy system?

In the dairy sector, calves are removed from their mothers within hours of birth. Since October 2016 we have left our calves with their mothers to suckle naturally. This sounds like a fairly simple change but it’s actually a radical departure from traditional dairy farming and it’s a decision we’ve made for both animal welfare and environmental reasons.

The major change is of course that by keeping the calves with the cows there is less milk for us.  There have been other challenges too – basically we’ve had to rethink every aspect of our farm, and we’ve needed to build a new dairy to accommodate the calves.  The key to this is looking at the farm as an integrated food system.  The loss in milk volume should be compensated for by the bull calves being ready much sooner, and the reduction in feed inputs means the farm can sustain more animals on our pasture.  It’s a deliberate de-intensification – finding a different balance point at which the whole system can work.

There are clear emotional, behavioural and possible health impacts arising from farming in this way and this is something we are keen to investigate.  Sadly we have been unable to secure funding for any proper academic study of the system, despite many attempts over the past few years, but for the time being that probably gives us a lot more freedom to evolve a successful system.

What has been the reaction, both from the public and the farming industry, to your experiments?

The reaction from the public has been almost universally supportive, though the lack of knowledge of what our modern food systems look like can be disappointing – ‘Doesn’t every dairy do it this way?’

The reaction from most farmers has ranged from scepticism to hostility, mainly because, if we can demonstrate that this method can work, there is a fear that there will be pressure applied by the public and their suppliers for every dairy to do this.

The scientists are interested at an academic level but unless we can source funding they don’t have the resources to carry out any definitive study of the system, and the funding bodies we’ve approached want to see some sort of technological output at the end of any funded project that can be shown to generate jobs and growth.  Similar amounts of food production with better animal welfare while using fewer antibiotics just doesn’t seem to be enough to get mainstream funders interested!

What have been the successes, and failures?

We are having to work with the instinct of the cow to retain as much of her milk as possible for her calf. In the early weeks she has loads of milk and the calf is drinking maybe just half, but by month four, the calf can drink just about all of it. It is then a compromise between our need for milk and the calf’s need for the sustenance of its mother. By month five the calf is sufficiently developed and comfortable with its peers for the separation to be fairly stress-free, it can still see and communicate with its mother, but not suckle.

The udder health of the cows has been noticeably improved; even though it was never bad on our farm our use of antibiotic to treat mastitis over the past 9 months, in particular, has fallen by more than half (already 90% less than the industry average).  This was the opposite of predictions by our vets that the once-a-day milking could result in an increase in mastitis.

Another obvious plus has been the growth rate of the calves – about double that of the same calves when we used to rear them away from their mothers with milk in buckets.

You’ve also been improving the biodiversity of the farm, actively planting native trees and setting aside land for wildlife.  How has this impacted life on the farm, both wild and farmed?

Over the past 20 years we have set aside 10% of the farm to high biodiversity areas – planting 35,000 mixed, broad-leaf woodland species and creating ponds. The ponds are fish-free to encourage insect larvae.

It’s particularly noticeable at this time of year – early summer – these areas are just gorgeous and teeming with wildlife.  The RSPB did a survey a couple of years ago but their focus lies in farmland birds and woodland birds seem to be of little concern.   You need to have a baseline against which to measure progress and as for some kind of national/regional bench-mark, there has been little guidance.

I am a farmer, not a conservationist, and am guided by the science which in the area of biodiversity appears to be pretty vague.  What I do know is that it looks right and feels right. What one senior environmental scientist eventually ventured was that if we compared our woodlands to a modern, single-species grassland with all the associated fertilisers and chemical sprays, we’d be safe to assume a 50-fold increase in biodiversity in and on that land.

How has the introduction of your small anaerobic digester affected your energy use?  Does it meet all your needs?  And how has it affected energy bills?

The anaerobic digester is a fundamental part of the closed loop food system we are trying to develop. It can turn a fairly toxic, environmentally damaging and smelly waste product – raw liquid slurry – into an environmentally benign, almost smell-free, nutrient enhanced fertiliser while producing electricity and hot water. It does actually work and every farm with slurry should have one, but they don’t and I’ve often wondered why.

Ours is an experimental, single-stage, 25kW micro-digester that a small AD company in Shropshire designed to our spec 10 years ago, and which we largely built ourselves with their guidance. We sourced the kit and maintain it ourselves.  We built our digester for just over £200,000. It can generate about 56MWhr electricity over the year – 75% of which goes into the grid for which we are paid 4p per kWhr – and oodles of hot water. It’s fairly low tech but it works.

Can you tell us more about your visitor centre?

Our visitor centre evolved alongside our ice cream making. It took us a few years to realise that there was a large untapped market on our doorstep – families on holiday – that was crying out for a farm-based attraction to take the kids to. We got around 6,000 visitors in our first year (1994) and over the next 7 years as we added bits and pieces to the attraction this grew and grew. We then invested in expanding the facilities – a proper car park, garden, ice-cream parlour, tea-room, kids’ fun activity areas, nature trails and cycle tracks through the woodlands.  It educates as well as entertains, and we provide farm tours and visits for school children alongside great family outdoor fun.

You produce your own ice creams and cheeses, reintroducing cheese making after a 40 year gap when you were a milk-only farm.  Why did you decide to go back to cheese after so long?

Twenty-five years ago farm-made ice-cream was a growth sector and allowed a farm to greatly add value. We were, and still are, determined to use only ingredients that are natural, and this made our ice-cream extremely tasty, but also expensive to produce. As a result it has meant that our ice cream business has rarely been profitable.

During the recent recession we found that luxury and organic products took the brunt of the hit. Our remoteness from cities also meant that we were never considered to be ‘local’ which became the new ‘ethical’ post recession. We lost most of the markets we’d opened across the country and became largely pushed back into the very seasonal tourist market in Dumfries and Galloway. Basically the retail system became a block.

We needed a product that connected us directly to our customers, by-passing the conventional routes to market. In the meantime, along had come internet marketing and next-day delivery at a low price. We began experimenting with different cheese types 4 years ago and could make up to 4,000 kg a year in our ice-cream dairy, most of which we sold through our farm shop.

We won several awards at international cheese competitions which gave us the confidence to start converting a semi-derelict barn on the farm to a dedicated cheese dairy – which we hope to complete later this year. This will allow us to turn all the milk we produce on the farm, not used for ice-cream, into cheese.

What plans do you have for 2018?

During this year we want to raise awareness of our approach to dairy farming and to increase the production of cheese on our farm. We strongly believe there’s a market for ethical dairy produce so we will be spending a good chunk of this year telling people about what we’re doing here and why.

Do you hope that your systems will be taken up by the wider dairy industry?

I would like to think that at the end of three years (we’re 18 months in) a farmer could come and look at our farming system and say, ‘Yes, we could do that.’

How do you think the coming political changes will affect what you do?

It seems fairly clear to me that our government are preparing our industry for a post-Brexit scenario where we are competing directly with low-cost food exporting countries and with substantially reduced public support. Cheap food is a vote winner.

Any remaining public support will be targeted at ‘public goods’ delivery, although how that might be achieved remains a mystery.

There will be GM, hormone fed and chlorine washed food unlabelled on the retail shelf. The only way to avoid them will be by people buying organic or by direct sourcing online. That will be our market.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

Over recent years Wilma and I have learned more about how commercial food systems are impacting negatively on animal welfare, the environment, farm working conditions and the rural economy. Society is fed the line that this is essential for the delivery of adequate amounts of safe, affordable food, but we have begun to question this dogma.

Our practical experience of ecological farming systems has convinced us that this is a false premise, perpetuated by vested interests right across the industry.

If we can demonstrate that there is an alternative narrative – to our customers, interested farmers, media opinion formers and, not least, ourselves – then we have done what we can to help those who are battling to change the direction of our unsustainable food juggernaut. We are trying to revolutionise the dairy industry by showing that a different approach is possible and viable.  That is our motivation. That is why we do what we do.


For more about the Finlays’ farm, click here.

Find them on Twitter here.