Mary Quicke has a mantra that sums up successful dairy farming: “Make the cows do the work.” For her and farm manager Adam Reeves, at the 1,500-acre J Quicke and Partners family farm, north of Exeter, that means “make the cows eat grass, make their own beds and spread their own slurry, with minimal use of either people or machines.”
It is a system that Mary and Adam are determined to expand. They are well on the way transforming the farm from a traditional dairy operation, where all the cows went into sheds in winter, to one where the vast majority stay outdoors all year round and eat mainly grass and other fodder crops, grazing pasture on a rotational basis to allow the ground to recover.
If ever there was a winter to test such a system on the Quicke’s relatively heavy soil, in the valley of the river Creedy, it is surely this one. December and January 2013-14 have been close to the wettest on record. Although it has been relatively mild, with the grass continuing to grow, keeping cows outside all winter in rain and wind took a leap of faith, even though it has been successfully adopted elsewhere.
And for Mary and Adam, it has worked. “The group of heifers we have had out all winter are growing better than ever,” said Mary “They are getting a hairier coat and sometimes when I go up and look at them they can be a bit muddy but overall, they are happier.”
The cows on the Quicke’s farm – 462 milkers at the moment – are there to produce just one thing; fantastic quality milk, most of which goes to make traditional, cloth-wrapped Cheddar Cheese. Quicke’s Traditional is one of only four cloth-wrapped Cheddars still made anywhere in the world. The others, Keen’s, Montgomery and Westcombe, are all in Somerset.
Mary, a huge enthusiast for Westcountry farming, food production and proper management of the countryside, has come to the conclusion that there are only two genuinely effective ways to operate a dairy farm – either high input and high yield, with the cows indoors all year round, or the complete opposite with cows grazing outdoors right through the seasons where the costs are lower but the yields are smaller.
The problem for most British dairy farmers, she believes, is that they sit somewhere in the middle, working very hard but not getting the benefits of either really high yields or significantly lower inputs. “I am really passionate about the system we have moved to,” said Mary. “It doesn’t only mean happy cows, it means happy farmers too.” Adam went on: “The work involved in putting cows indoors in the winter and keeping them there is significant and costly. Moving them around from field to field only needs one man and a quad bike. We were concentrating on the high yield system in the 80s and 90s but it was taking its toll.”
Mary admits that one of the biggest hurdles many family farmers face in deciding to move to a low input, wintering out system, is accepting their buildings, usually put up at some cost, will not be used for their original purpose. She is already looking ahead towards converting their own buildings, perhaps to form a Devon “food hub” in the future. This winter they have been used as a sick bay for the occasional cow that needs to be indoors. But where in previous winters the whole herd has been housed, this year only six have needed a roof over their heads.
Mary and Adam freely admit yields have fallen – “a lot”. Even ten years ago they were averaging 8,000 litres per cow per year on the old system. “These days that would be nine, ten, 11, even 12,000 litres a year if we were still on a high input system,” said Adam. Instead the Quicke’s farm is getting between 5,000 and 6,000 litres per cow per year.
They are, however, seriously considering extending the herd – currently made up of New Zealand Friesians, Swedish Reds and Montbeliardes – adding 100 milkers and establishing a new milking parlour on land on the other side of the A377 from the farm. They are lucky to have the land to do it, but Mary points out that the acreage required is roughly the same, whatever system you use. “High input systems need about an acre a cow and low input systems need an acre a cow, it is just in the high input system the acre is needed to produce silage and on low input it is needed to graze the cow on grass.”
In a year Quicke’s use around 1.8 million litres of milk to make their own cheese and the flavour of that cheese, multi-award winning all over the world, is determined by the special fats in the milk, the quality of the grass and other forage and the manufacturing and maturing process. Any excess milk produced over what they need for their own cheese goes to the North Tawton dairy, where it is also made into cheese for the mass market.
Quicke’s has an enviable reputation for cheese, and not just in Britain. One quarter of the company’s output – and all the cheese is made and stored on the farm – is exported to the United States. Mary is a frequent visitor to the US, marketing the cheese. She also judges US cheese competitions and says hand-made American cheeses can now rival some of the best in the world – but there is still a big market for traditional Cheddar in the US, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Her approach to farming is certainly not sentimental or old-fashioned, despite the traditional nature of the product she has perfected, but it is firmly rooted in the landscape.
She said: “When people buy a cheese they are helping to fund the landscape where it was created and the farming system used. There is a really direct contact.”