Producing top-quality milk from traditional herds grazed on plant-rich pastures, a new breed of small-scale dairy is offering a refreshing alternative to intensive farming.

It’s six o’clock on a cool spring morning and sparkling light plays on the walls of Chris Knowles’s milking parlour.  The golden-coated Jersey in front of him has produced just more than 13-litres – a fairly low yield by today’s standards, but this Cornish dairy farmer still has a smile on his face.  He’s part of a quiet revolution, going against the tide of the past decade, which has seen the number of dairy farms almost halve because most farmers aren’t paid enough for their milk to cover production costs.

Dairy cows lying down

Meanwhile, a new hyper-intensive method of dairy farming looms in the form of super dairies.  One proposed in Lincolnshire, although recently scrapped due to environmental problems with the site, would have housed more than 4,000 cows.  Others are sure to follow.  As in most intensive dairy farms, the animals would be pushed to their limit of milk production.  And instead of grazing on pasture, these animals would be fed on bought-in forage and cereals and kept largely indoors.  Cows need to calve every year in order to produce continuously high yields of milk and there is still a question mark over what would happen the male calves – the demand for veal in Britain remains low and raising them for beef is often is often uneconomic, despite several schemes to encourage it.  Bigger is the only way to survive, argue the farmers behind these mega-dairies.  Not necessarily so, says Chris and fellow small-scale farmers, who instead favour quality over quantity, and are returning to traditional methods to produce a top drop of milk that fetches a premium.

Shortly after milking, ignoring the bracing sea breeze on his 550 acres near St Ives, Chris’s 300 cows are devouring the clover-rich pasture – the key to his success.  Thanks to an abundance of good-quality grass at Trink Farm, Chris was able to turn away from bought-in feeds and producing calves all year round to satisfy the demand of the dairies.  The inspiration for his approach came from a desire to take the grind out of milking and spend time with his wife Rachel and 3 daughters.  He dramatically altered the farming system inherited from his parents, including changing the breed of cow from the large, bony, near-ubiquitous black-and-white Holstein to the traditional smaller, hardier British Friesian and Jersey breeds.  “Grazing pasture is what these girls do best and what we’ve done in effect is to get them to do the work for us,” Chris says.  “Instead of taking the feeds indoors to them, they get the grass themselves.”  As the grass-growing season comes to an end in the autumn, so, too, does the lactation period of the cows.

“At this point they can enjoy an almost two-month break from milking.  The cycle then begins again in spring when the cows have their calves.”

The system brings its own duties, however.  Once a week, Chris can be found measuring the height of his grass with an electronic device that enables him to gauge how fast it is growing:  “It contains everything the cows need, but it has to be nurtured and encouraged to flourish – and that means moving the herd to new pastures after milking every milking, so the fields have a chance to recover, and leading them along special tracks so they don’t damage prime grass.”  Cows reared in this way may produce less milk, but it commands a premium price by our dairy co-operative because of its high quality.

This ‘less is more’ approach is gaining momentum.  A growing number of people are seeking out milk that has gone straight from cow to bottle, with no processing or interference, and with the cream firmly at the top.

Words by Catherine Hughes, This article was first published in Country Living in April 2011