Yeo Valley has been blazing new trails in the dairy industry for decades. From a humble smallholding in the 1960s, it has since grown into the UK’s Nº1 organic dairy brand. A brand that chooses to do business in a way that is better for people and the planet. And they do this by protecting and preserving generations of small family dairy farms, tirelessly working to develop a sustainable way of farming that is beyond organic, and making sure that all their animals have a good healthy life.
It’s a business that is shaped by dedicated people with a passion for doing the right thing in everything they do, and Garth Clark is one of those dedicated people. He is the Managing Director of Holt Farm, the Family Farm of Yeo Valley, and the most inspiring, straight-talking farmer we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. We had a chat with Garth and found out why Organic Farming used to scare him, the overview of Yeo Valley’s annual farm cycle, and what Yeo Valley is doing towards becoming energy self-sufficient…
ABOUT BEING A FARMER
Tell us about your background – how long you’ve been a farmer, where have you previously worked, your role at Holt Farm…
I have been living and working on farms for as long as I can remember. My father (and hero) and I were inseparable as I grew up. I even remember climbing out of my bedroom window and down over the porch late one night to sit with Dad on the combine after Mum had reprimanded me for something.
Both my parents imparted such a work ethic and enthusiasm for everything I undertake that in hindsight there is very little I could have failed at. I was never a high achiever at school and only started to succeed at any level in academia once I began studying agriculture at Hadlow College. Finding what your passion in life is and being able to make it a career has to be everybody’s dream.
I spent my formative years being inspired by my parents and then being fortunate enough to work for some of the most amazing Farm Managers and Land Owners up and down the country (SE Kent to Central Scotland). They all encouraged me to ask “why” and question everything, it was perhaps this that led me into Organics? Each and every one of them encouraged me to constantly step out of my comfort zone.
Changing my career direction and acknowledging Organic Farming as a career opportunity actually scared me, it would require me to farm with such precision, attention to detail and develop high-intensity management systems yet I would need to embrace so many of the traditional farming values that my father held true.
What do you love about your work? What does a typical year involve?
It is the diversity of my role that makes my working day so varied, we have departments that cover Conservation and Environmental work, Organic Gardens, Property (both Residential, Commercial and Serviced Offices) and a Hospitality / conference facility at YVHQ. Although I have to carry out all the statutory duties expected of an MD we are still fundamentally a Dairy Farming business and operate a predominantly autumn/winter calving pattern, so that’s probably a good place to start the overview of our annual farm cycle.
The cow needs unlimited access to good quality feed when she calves, since the next few months will be the period of highest milk production, so she calves indoors and can then rest, feeding on a carefully formulated mixed ration of grass and arable silages and cereals harvested over the summer months. She’ll stay indoors throughout the winter, as will the young stock as soon as conditions outside become too cold and wet.
As temperatures drop and daylight reduces, the grass stops growing and fields tend to become wet so we bring the rest of the herd indoors into purpose-built winter quarters. They are divided into groups according to stage of lactation and have free access to their feed and clean water twenty-four hours a day, sleeping in cubicles on mattresses. The winter quarters are designed to provide plenty of fresh air whilst protecting the cows from the winter elements.
The cows are milked twice a day – at 5.00am and 4.30pm – which continues throughout the cow’s milking cycle of about 305 days.
As the days begin to lengthen at the end of winter, the farm team is back in the fields preparing for the oncoming spring. The field work in February and March consists of re-balancing the nutrients and the structure in the soil through soil-slitting and the addition of natural manure, gypsum and kieserite as required. Straw that is regularly cleaned out of the winter quarters is turned into compost in windrows and utilised on the arable fields. Organic systems don’t permit the addition of artificial fertilisers so we have to capture all the nutrients that we can and return them to the soil and this is why running a mixed farm, with a ready supply of farmyard manure, is so important.
As the soil warms up and the grass begins to grow again, the cows will go out to graze. This is typically in March or April, though up on the Mendips the Yoxter herd will usually be turned out about two to three weeks later than the Holt herd in the valley below.
The cows are gradually introduced back to the outside grazing, during the day at first and then throughout the night as well. The return to fresh grass keeps up milk production at a time when the autumn calvers would normally see their milk output begin to tail off so the autumn calving cycle fits well with the grass cycle. Grass is a valuable feed and is approximately half the cost of making it into silage.
We use electric fences to limit where the cows can roam so that they feed at the optimum grass height and graze the field efficiently. They graze the pastures closest to the dairy unit so that we minimise the distance that they have to walk back for milking; the fields further away will be cut for grass silage.
In mid-May, the first cut of grass silage will be taken at Holt Farm, Yoxter usually is about three weeks later. The grass is cut and left to wilt in the field to achieve a dry matter content of between 25 and 30%; this might take 24 hours as it’s terribly dependant on the weather. The wilted grass is then collected with a forage harvester, loaded into the silage pits, rolled to compress it and remove excess air and is finally sealed under an air-tight plastic film. The process will be repeated twice more over the summer and the silage becomes one of three vital home-grown winter feed commodities for the cows.
As summer progresses, July and early August sees the first of the arable crops being harvested. Some of it is ‘whole-cropped’ now, so that the straw and the corn is cut together before it is too dry, and ensiled just like the grass. This crop will have higher energy from starch, but lower protein content than the grass silage. Grass silage forms the basis for the rations, however sugar content is dependent on the sun, and that is why cereals are usually necessary to provide energy.
Towards the end of August the remaining arable crops will be harvested.
The combine harvester separates the grain from the straw. The grain will be stored as the third element of Holt Farms’ home-grown animal feed, whilst the straw can be used for both bedding and feed. When the animals return to their winter quarters, the grass silage, whole crop silage and cereals will be mixed to a strict recipe that will deliver the levels of energy and protein that the cows need to thrive. We are almost self-sufficient for feed on the farm, with only a small quantity of bought-in, specially-formulated organic feed used for supplementary feeding in the milking parlour.
Throughout the summer, whilst all this harvesting work is going on in the grass and arable fields, the cows are out grazing with their twice-daily milking regime continuing. The autumn calvers will reach the end of their 305 day lactation in July and will then dry off, staying out on the permanent pastures to rest before coming back indoors in to the straw yard to prepare for their next calving. It’s a very important phase of the cow’s lifecycle, so they will be given a specially formulated pre-calving food ration to minimise the risk of milk fever and other calving complications.
As summer draws to a close, the cycle is about to begin again with the new season’s calving. In the arable fields, the soil will be prepared and reseeded for the next year, with careful crop rotations to fix nitrogen back into it to replenish the nutrients that were used up. If the opportunity arises we establish a cover crop/green manure for the winter, grown to improve the soil and benefit subsequent crops. Once grown, they are usually incorporated into the soil shortly before sowing the next cash crop.
There is a wide variety of green manures to choose from including clovers, medicks, mustards and grasses. Legumes (such as clover) are very popular as they fix nitrogen. However other species offer benefits such as improved soil structure and weed suppression.
ABOUT HOLT FARM
Tell us a bit about Holt Farm – location, size, history, different sites etc…
In 1961 Roger and Mary were very fortunate to be in the position to be able to look for a farm of their own fairly early in married life. Farms don’t come up for sale that often and they spent about six months travelling around Somerset and Devon looking for something suitable. Roger’s family had farmed in the area for generations and they both came from the West Country and wanted to stay local! It was a rare opportunity to be able to search for a farm that really suited.
They finally found Holt Farm in Blagdon, Roger quickly recognised its potential – it had really good land, with deep soil and high rainfall making it ideal for growing grass. It was a very traditional farm, the standard model for its day, with thirty-five cows, a few sheep and some acres of wheat. Roger was very ambitious and didn’t want to settle for just thirty-five cows and he quickly decided that the land, which had a tendency to be wet, didn’t really suit sheep. So the sheep went and they started to increase the number of dairy cows.
In 1970 the neighbouring 40 acre farm, Lag Farm, became available and so they borrowed again and bought it. The cottage meant that they could employ and house a herdsman and increase the size of the dairy herd again. They were up to about 150 cows on 200 acres. Later on, bought Merecombe Farm across the road, selling the farmhouse to pay for the land. This added another 90 acres but the land needed reclaiming and eventually added a milking parlour and milked most of the herd in the summer.
The conversion of some of the Lag Farm buildings into a small yogurt dairy in 1972 soon added new impetus to increase the dairy herd to keep up with growing demand for milk for the new Yeo Valley yogurts. They rented more land locally for the young-stock; it was the kind of dairy farm intensification that was happening widely at that time and, at its peak, the farm had around 500 cows. They built new sheds and a new milking parlour as soon as we could afford them, so that the animals had the best facilities.
After Roger’s death in 1990 Mary took on responsibility for the farm and wanted to follow his plan to develop his vision, which meant finding additional land to be able to grow our own arable crops. They took the decision to buy a farm up on the Mendip Hills, a few miles from Holt Farm. Yoxter Farm brought new and different challenges – 800 feet up on the Mendip plateau the soil is thinner, the rainfall heavier and the winters are noticeably harsher, but the land is free-draining so we were able to grow more cereal crops.
The new land allowed them to split the dairy herd into two, with a second, purpose-built, dairy unit for 180 cows at Yoxter and a young-stock unit nearby. We could now reduce the cow numbers at Holt Farm to 240 and, with further blocks of arable land, start to move the whole farm to a more balanced, mixed-farming system. The new acreage meant they could implement more traditional grass leys and arable crop rotations and allowed us to begin the logical journey towards organic conversion, beginning with beef and sheep at Merecombe Farm in 2000. At the same time the previously rather neglected Mendip farmland opened up a huge need to rebuild dry-stone walls, lay hedges and plant trees and we formed a small conservation team that has been pretty busy ever since. Subsequently, further land on the Mendips has been purchased and we are now farming 1250 acres in total.
The origins of the Yeo Valley dairy company lie in Holt Farm’s 150 acres on the edge of Blagdon Lake in the Yeo Valley. The timeline below charts the key stages of both companies and gives snippets of information that many people have never been aware of:
• Continued expansion of the yogurt dairy; first bulk incubation tanks installed
• Roger becomes Chairman
• Farm is 350 acres (all in the Yeo Valley)
• The yogurt business employs 135 people turning over £15m
• Mary Mead takes over the running of the farm
• Purchase of Yoxter Farm
• Purchase of Priddy Hill Farm and Beech Farm
• The Yeo Valley Organic Company Ltd is formed
• Purchase of Merecombe Farmhouse
• Coombe Farm start making organic fruit conserve for Yeo Valley
• Management of Heathfield operations taken on by Yeo Valley Organic Company Ltd.
• Organic conversion at Merecombe Farm begins
• Yeo Valley Organic Company Ltd. win Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development
• Ubley Warren Farm is purchased
• Opening of Isleport 3 and further expansion of Blagdon
• Yeo Valley Farms (Production) Ltd. gains Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development (second time)
• Visit to Blagdon Dairy by HM the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh (second time)
• Duke of Gloucester opens Wills Barn
• First Yeo Valley television advertising campaign; the rapping farmers (October)
• Yeo Valley bought the milk business from Coombe Farm and took a lease out on the factory (July)
• Yeo Valley teams up with advertising agency Big Fish
• Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development is won for the third time
Why did the Mead family choose to farm organically? Explain some of the organic and conservation practices.
The decision to convert the farm to an organic system was really just a logical progression to make us more self-sufficient and, of course, the success of the Yeo Valley Organic products meant that there was a demand for organic milk.
We worked hard to improve the soil structure across the farms, finding ways to avoid soil compaction using soil slitting equipment, applying gypsum on the heavy land in the valley, and kieserite on the Mendip plateau. We have the soils tested in order to monitor their status.
The use of traditional crop rotations, the sowing of red and white clover and grass leys and the conservation of natural nutrients through manure and compost spreading are vital to an organic system; the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides is prohibited. We have been really pleased to see how well the land and the animals have reacted to the change to a more natural way of farming.
Holt Farm’s Carbon Footprint?
Holt Farms is looking closely at its carbon footprint and ways in which we can reduce it. In 2009 we installed a biomass boiler at Yeo Valley HQ. The boiler uses miscanthus, sometimes known as elephant grass, grown on our farms to heat the offices throughout the winter months. The miscanthus grass is cut and the chippings are stored in a purpose built barn at Ubley Warren Farm. The grass is not compacted when it is stored, enabling it to dry out. The grass is cut at as low a moisture as possible and is then reduced to 11% moisture so that it burns efficiently.
Early 2014 saw the completion of our biggest energy project yet; our 2 acre Holt Farm Dairy roof was replaced and 1 acre of solar PV panels retro fitted to the South facing elevations. These cells will provide us with an environmentally-friendly, sustainable and carbon neutral form of energy, in addition to significantly reducing our reliance on imported electricity. The energy generated is to be used directly by us here at Holt Farms Limited and we can officially claim that we now create more electricity than we use!
One of our objectives in 2015 was to ensure that none of the waste that is generated at YVHQ would go to landfill, it was quite a challenge but we have officially managed to segregate our waste streams (paper, glass, food, cardboard etc.) in such a way that all our waste is now recycled.
ABOUT THE COWS
Since the beginning, Holt Farm has always remained loyal to the British Friesians, can you explain why?
Back in the early 1960s when we started farming, the British Friesian was becoming the predominant breed. Roger’s family had changed from Dairy Shorthorns to Ayrshires, but Roger had seen the potential in the British Friesian. So we began to build a pedigree British Friesian herd, initially buying animals from good local herds.
We have remained completely loyal to the British Friesian even when many farmers turned to the North American Holstein in the seventies and eighties. Whilst the Holstein promised higher milk yields, there are endemic issues of fertility, lameness and longevity within the breed, which are now becoming increasingly obvious. The British Friesian may not give such high yields in comparison, but she produces excellent milk quality, will calve more regularly, has good feed efficiency, and her male calves have high value for beef. Our cows will average about 7,500 litres a year and will live much longer. Many farmers are now re-discovering the financial advantages of the breed.
Our Lakemead pedigree herd is a ‘closed herd’ – we haven’t bought animals in to the farm for over twenty years. Instead we breed the replacements that we need from our best cows (the top two-thirds of our herd), using artificial insemination from carefully-selected pedigree British Friesian bulls. The detailed records of the pedigree system allow us to select the best characteristics and avoid any inbreeding so we have developed a very healthy, productive and well-balanced animal.
Tell us a bit about the life of a cow at Yeo Valley – organic diet, welfare…
As well as imposing strict controls on how we manage the land, organic regulations also address the issue of animal welfare as a central element of the system we operate.
Good animal welfare is of paramount importance to us – it starts with good nutrition and is delivered by best practice. The skills of the herd managers are absolutely vital and it’s a very demanding job with unsocial hours and exposure to sometimes very unpleasant weather conditions.
The herd managers will look after all aspects of the cows’ welfare, starting with the food they eat; they will send samples of our winter feed off for laboratory analysis so that they can create a mixed feed that will deliver the levels of energy, protein and minerals required. They will monitor the cows’ individual body condition; with an attention to detail that will identify any potential issues before they become problems. We do vaccinate the cows against certain diseases such as Lungworm and Blackleg, based on our past experience and the vet’s advice. Organic systems aim to minimise the stress on the animals by providing more space to roam, with limits to how many cows there can be per acre; the routine use of veterinary drugs such as antibiotics is not permitted so we employ some homeopathic remedies.
The young heifers will have their first calves at just over two years of age and the aim is to calve every year though, in reality, it is slightly longer.
The top two-thirds of the cows (in terms of balanced performance) are artificially-inseminated from selected pedigree British Friesian bloodlines. A beef bull (either Hereford or Aberdeen Angus) is used on the remainder of the herd. As a result, we will get four kinds of calves and all are very valuable to us:
• British Friesian Heifer Calves will replace the older cows that leave the herd at the end of their productive lives (typically at eight years old but they can be up to fourteen.)
• Most of the British Friesian Bull Calves are sold on to other farmers to be reared for beef, with a very select few retained as breeding bulls for sale to other farms or to AI companies
• Beef-Cross Bull Calves will either be retained, or sold on to be reared for beef.
• These native breeds make excellent suckler cows so the beef-cross heifer calves are sold to farmers who rear beef in the traditional manner.
The calves are reared at a young stock unit on the farm where its manager is totally dedicated to the full-time task of looking after them. After consuming the vital colostrum from its mother’s milk in the first few hours of its birth, the calf will move on to a mixture of milk and natural organic yogurt and, once it is feeding well, it will join other calves in a social group. As the calves develop, they will move into bigger groups and be reared to either join the dairy herd or to go for beef.
All animals receive a unique numbered ear tag at birth and the pure British Friesian calves will be registered with the breed society (Holstein UK, which registers all pedigree black and white cattle) and named after the dam (the mother) with a numerical suffix. Each animal has a pedigree certificate recording its ancestry, and twice a year the breed society will send an assessor to classify every calved heifer.
This allows the sire (the bull) to be given an estimated prediction of the type traits of its offspring; for example, details of mammary (teat length and position) allowing breeders to predict the sort of animals he will sire in the future.
Official milk records are also gathered for every pedigree cow so her milk yield, its average butterfat and protein content and cell-count results are added to the mine of information on the pedigree herd; it’s this detail that allows farmers to select breeding animals objectively for the best results for their herds.
The Lakemead herd is now widely recognised for its quality and the breeding bulls that have been reared from it have become highly valued. Our bulls have been sold to AI companies in Britain and Ireland and the semen is now exported to many countries around the world.
The cows are milked twice each day, with milking starting at 5.00am and 4.30pm. Each cow wears a collar which has an electronic transponder on it. This allows a computer system to automatically recognise each cow as she enters the milking parlour, release a set quantity of food to her which is directly related to her milk output and record how much milk she gives. The computer records for each cow allow the herd manager to monitor her progress and her daily milk yield trend can help identify early signs of illness although good stockmanship is irreplaceable.
The herdsman will clean the cows’ teats before placing the milking cluster on to begin the milking; the vacuum system gently takes the milk through a flow meter and into a holding vessel. The Holt Farm parlour takes twenty cows at a time with one herdsman working from a central pit to look after them all.
Once the cow has completed milking, the cluster will automatically be removed and the cows will disperse into their indoor feeding area. They are fed a carefully formulated food ration to give them a balanced ration according to each cow’s yield and stage of lactation. They are kept from their cubicles for about 20 minutes after milking to allow the teats to reseal before the cow can lie down; this reduces the chance of infections such as mastitis.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT GARTH CLARK & YEO VALLEY
Photos by Neil White