Kirkham’s Lancashire

The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.
The legend that is Graham Kirkham, in the maturing rooms.

‘What do you know?’ asked Graham Kirkham, on meeting me in the dairy.

‘Um – not much?’ I ventured. But I was about to learn a lot.

The really exciting thing about the Kirkhams, from my then perspective as a retailer and temporarily disadvantaged cheesemaker is that they farm only with their cheese in mind. They have no Dairycrest contract to fulfil, no minimum litres to achieve and therefore everything about how they farm has the goal of making amazing cheese.

Amazing cheese needs amazing milk but, specifically, it needs cheese-orientated milk. This means that it needs to have zero pathogens but viable lactic acid bacteria and good solids (fats and proteins). Graham’s cows are largely Friesian which would normally produce milk with about 3% fat. His cows manage 5% fat. For comparison that is Jersey milk levels.

They achieve this by specifically gearing the feed and breeding so that it suits the rhythms of the cheese. They stagger the calving all year round so that the milk is consistent in quality. End of lactation milk has different fats and proteins and tends also to have a higher bacterial load. Early lactation milk has a tendency for the fats to separate out more easily as well as also having a higher bacterial load. The more you can balance out these inconsistencies, the easier it is to make good cheese. The cows are fed silage all year round in addition to the pasture that they graze. In fact, last year (it was September 2015 when I visited), although they had free access to the outdoor pastures, the cows had been happier indoors where they have an airy barn with a back scratching brush roller. It had been monumentally rainy in Lancashire that summer. This meant they had eaten more silage than usual and the milk was more consistent.

Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.
Silage that the cows eat. The neatness, order and cleanliness of how it is stacked impressed me.

The grass, being open to the air, varies. Variety can come from moisture content one rainy day to the next drier day as well as having higher sugars at the beginning of the season and more fibre towards the end of the season. When cutting grass for the silage, the Kirkhams wait longer than the average dairy farm. If you’re farming for milk production, you want fresh young grass, high in sugars and plenty of moisture. It’s rocket fuel for volume production. But if you’re looking at the solid content of the milk rather than the number of litres you’re producing, you’ll cut your silage grass later in the season when it’s more fibrous. This helps the fat percentage in the milk and is probably one of the reasons that the Kirkhams are able to make a Friesian herd give Jersey quality milk.

A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.
A couple of the Kirkhams cows in their comfy shed, eating away.

The reason they go to all this trouble with the milk is evident when you look at the way they make cheese. In the interests of achieving the correct buttery crumbling texture and slow acid development, they use tiny amounts of starter. For a vat of 2,500 litres milk they use milliletres of starter where a quicker recipe would call for 25 litres of starter or 1% of the milk volume. As a result of their starter use, they have a slow acid development, which helps the curd develop a richer, more nuanced, complex and subtle flavour that will develop over time. They mix the curd from 2 days production together when it comes to moulding cheeses so this slow development is what allows them to do this without compromising the flavour of the final cheeses. It is the traditional way of making Lancashire, dating back to when cheese would have been made without starter or at least using the whey from the previous day’s make as starter if necessary. Those were days in which cows, being milked by largely by hand, had more lactic acid bacteria in their milk so the need for starter cultures was reduced.

The cheeses are made over 2 days. On the first day, the milk is pumped into the vat and starter is added. They use a liquid starter, which looks like a runny yoghurt and tastes pretty delicious. The rennet is added about 20 minutes later, giving the starter time to acclimatise to its new medium but not develop appreciable acidity. The set is intended to take about an hour and, as they are practised hands at this, it does. The curd is then cut to the size of a hazelnut or roughly a 1cm cube. It is stirred briefly before it’s allowed to settle. Greater stirring would increase the acid production and create a bright and dry crumbly curd, which isn’t the mellow buttery, feathery texture Graham is going for. After about an hour, the free whey is pitched off and the settled curd is ladled into the centre of the vat, where the pressure of each new ladle of curd helps the curd-mass squeeze out whey.

Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.
Beginnings of the process of transfering scoops of curd from the side of the vat to the centre. Beginnings of the draining process.

When there are empty channels at every edge of the vat, the curd is allowed to bow out under its own pressure and then using a knife, blocks of curd are cut and stacked onto the curd mass continuing the whey expulsion. Finally a channel of curd blocks is cut into the centre of the vat and from then they begin to handle the blocks of squashed curd onto a cloth lined draining table. During this process, the curd has changed from a soft and jelly-like texture to something more akin to chicken breast. Once in the draining table the curd is broken by hand into pieces that roughly equal a handful of curd and then left to drain for an hour with the cloth wrapped around them and light weights placed on top to ensure the whey doesn’t stop draining.

Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.
Breaking the curd by hand in the draining table.

The curd is broken again another 2 times during the afternoon with an hour’s wait in between each break. The time between curd breaks will then be used to combine a couple of days’ curd, mill it, salt it and pack it into moulds, which will form the final cheeses. It smells utterly delicious at this stage. In fact it’s one of the best jobs of the day, arm deep in curd that smells of lactic butter and, if you sneak a taste, tastes of salty, buttery gorgeousness.

Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.
Graham Kirkham prepares to mill curd from 2 days to pack into the moulds.

A mixture of blocks of curd from yesterday and the day before are put through the curd mill to bring them down in size. Salt is then added and mixed by hand before the curd with salt is milled a further 2 times and then when it’s a fine texture, is packed into moulds and put into the presses overnight. The presses are tightened slowly with Graham doing the final turn at about 9pm – you don’t want to press the curd too soon or it might actually make the surface too firm while the interior retains its moisture. This would lead to funky fermented flavours as trapped moisture and naturally occurring yeasts go crazy together at a cosy temperature of about 20C. It’s especially likely to occur if you try and mix curd from 2 days as one lot of curd has sat for an extra day at ambient temperatures and without any salt to slow down yeast and bacterial activity.  This makes the yeasts sound undesirable and as long as they are controlled and in balance they certainly are not.  They are part of the natural flora of the milk after all.  The key is balance and control thus it’s important to keep an eye on the drainage and pressing of the curd.  Why bother with 2 day curd if it’s so much more difficult? The 2 day curd is important because it creates a mellow, buttery, savoury and complex flavour and this is something that sets the Kirkhams apart from other Lancashire makers who have opted for the faster and moister way of making cheese.  On the face of it, it makes sense commercially to have a shorter working day and a fast maturing cheese but then by following the slower and more traditional route, the Kirkhams have a unique and delicious cheese that is highly sought after.  Its popularity and the satisfaction in tasting the cheese alone justifies the considerably greater workload that it requires but because it is something special, Graham can also charge a price that means despite the slower maturation, greater workload and indeed resulting wage bill, he can make a profit.  This is the way of artisan cheese.  If you listen to conventional business theory, it makes no sense and yet if you stick to your guns and make something really good, it makes money.  Goes to show the limitations of what we normally see as business sense.

If Graham made a ‘more efficient’ cheese, the curd would be too wet to keep for an extra day.  If he tried to then it would taste eggy, sulphurous and so the quicker and moister recipe tends to lend itself to a simple one day curd cheese. This is fine but one dimensional and lactic , whereas the addictive quality of Kirkhams is that it has so much more than that.  A few days in his dairy and I learned about milk production, cheesemaking and had a beautiful illustration of the shortcomings of the standard business model.

We live, We learn … About Lactics

The herd supplying Neal’s Yard Creamery (also a herd with some Montbeliard influence) lining up to be milked.

As prospective cheesemakers working with a milk supplier usually do, Rose and I have been sending off milk samples for microbiological testing for some months now.  While we’ve had generally good results regarding absence of pathogens, I was taken aback to discover that we also seemed to have an absence of lactic acid bacteria…or certainly we had a lot less then we wanted.

‘Most milk in the UK now is not good for cheese,’ pronounced Ivan Larcher at one of my SAF courses, ‘It is dead milk.’

‘A little damning, surely,’ I thought.

Lactic, if my dictionary is to be believed, means ‘relating to or obtained from milk’. It derives from the latin ‘lactis’ genitive form of the word ‘lac’ or milk.

Doesn’t milk just HAVE lactic acid bacteria in it?

Well, apparently not always and if it does, 1 day in a bulk tank and they are not very happy bugs.

One side of the milking parlour at Merrimoles Farm showing the stalls in which the cows stand, the pipework and the clusters below.
For any of my non cheese industry friends reading this post. First off, well done for making it this far into a pretty cheese-geek technical post and good luck with the rest of it. This, should you be wondering, is a cluster and it goes on the cows udders.

Our milking system is like most in the UK Dairy industry.  It has a series of clusters along parallel milk pipes.  Vacuum pumps pulsate to remove the milk from the cows udders and it is piped out of the parlour, through a filter, then a plate cooler and finally into the bulk tank where it’s held at 4C until the lorry comes from Dairycrest to collect it.   They come every 2 days and collect 4 milkings.

The Bulk Tank.

When we test, we take our samples from the outflow pipe of the bulk tank.  We also send off the milk filter from the last milking which the lab immerse in water and then test the rinsate.  We don’t know anyone else testing the milk filter so when we got our first set of results back and discovered literally millions of bacteria on it, we didn’t know whether this was normal, really bad or even really good.  We certainly knew that millions of the little critters looked pretty alarming on paper.

Our bulk tank milk samples seemed to show a happy grown of Pseudomonas (we don’t want happy Pseudomonas) and a rather less happy growth of Lactic acid bacteria.  The milk filter results seconded this.  In the autumn, we called Ivan back for advice and subsequently did a big clean through using peracetic acid.  Following that we have used a weaker peracetic acid solution for the final rinse of our pipework.

To start off 2014 in the way we intended to continue, with some more testing.  This time, we were hopeful for better results and to be a bit flirty we were going to get Andrew the kindly milker to hand milk a couple of cows for us to see how they compared for lactic acid bacteria.  These cows were a black and white cow that looks more Friesian Holstein in appearance who goes by the name of 266 and a brown and white one that looks more Montbeliard in appearance with the name 258.  266 was docile and calm when milked.  258 was disconcerted not to be in her usual clusters and stamped about a bit. We could identify the test results later because Andrew got less milk from her before asking if he could give up.  The cows that were hand milked were only given a dry wipe to their teats before milking.  Normally when they are milked into the parlour, their teats are given a wash before the pumping starts.  It has reduced the total bacterial counts of the milk right down but rather unfortunately we think it may be washing off our lactic acid bacteria.

The bulk tank contained 3 milkings at this stage.  The fourth was about to take place as we tested and Dairycrest were due that night to collect.   The milk filter was from that morning’s milking.

The samples were posted, results duly came back and we emailed Paul Thomas for advice and guidance in their interpretation.



The bulk tank results were better than we’ve had at other points in the past in terms of Pseudomonas.  Before now we have had counts of 21,000 per ml of milk.  This time we had a count of 170 per ml.  However it did show us some staph aureus too which is less than ideal.  According to our lab (Microtech Wessex) we would hope to see around 80% of the total bacterial count being lactic acid bacteria and unfortunately still on this sample it is considerably less than that.  With a total count of 53,000 total bacteria per ml of milk, this would mean we’d like to see 42,400 of these to be lactic acid bacteria.  According to the test result there are 1,200.

The hand milked samples were very different one from the other.  No 266, the black & white cow’s sample was extremely low in everything.  Almost nothing grew on the lab plates according to the lab.  Its counts are 0 in everything except yeasts.  So it has no coliforms, pseudomonas or staph aureus but unfortunately no lactic acid bacteria either.  I imagine Dairycrest would love it.  For making cheese it isn’t ideal.

No 258, the brown and white cow’s counts however were about spot on what we want.  It had a total count of 8,800 total bacteria which isn’t huge.  However, according to our ideal 80% we would be hoping to see around 7,100 lactic acid bacteria and we have 7,040.  There are 10 yeasts which is good, no Pseudomonas, no Staph aureus.

The two cows results, while interesting and raising a few interesting ideas, thoughts and questions only really give us a snapshot of the milk of 2 animals.  Importantly, though, it does show us that we have got the right balance of lactic to everything else in some of the animals in our herd.  Interestingly, Paul suggested that according to some of the papers he has read, the animals that line up to be milked first, being in general the livelier and healthier animals of the herd, often have lower somatic cell counts (an indicator of health) and as a result often have higher amounts of lactic acid bacteria.  If, as we are planning to do, we take our milk from the animals that are milked first, not only will we be using the pipelines at their cleanest but we will also be getting milk that is better suited to our cheese.  In addition, we will be taking the milk away without it being cooled.  This makes sense from an energy standpoint – why cool it to heat it back up to 38C – but also allows the lactic acid bacteria to compete with the Pseudomonas.  Cooling the milk to 4C and then storing it at that temperature for 36 hours has stopped the small numbers of lactic acid bacteria growing and reproducing but at those temperatures, the Pseudomonas can still grow.  According to survival models Paul referenced we could probably knock that 1200 per ml down to 120 just due to the storage time at cold temperatures.

Milk Filter:

The Milk filter results have always looked rather alarming to us in terms of Pseudomonas.  But corresponding with Paul Thomas meant he helped us by analysing the results so that we can compare them more easily against our milk results.

The relevant results are (per filter):

  • 1,500,000 Pseudomonas
  • 10,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So – big numbers.  But, as Paul said, we have to interpret them based on the amount of milk that has gone through that filter.  The most recent milk report I have from the farm dates back to December but if levels are similar to those in December’s monthly report, we are looking at 120,530 litres of milk for the month.  This means a daily total of 3,888 litres.  Each milking there’s a new milk filter so while I expect there’s a difference in quantity between morning and evening, for the sake of mathematical ease, let’s say half of that quantity is applicable to our filter tests: 1944 litres.  1944 litres works out at 1,944,000 ml which has gone through the filter.

Assuming the filter removed 50% of our bacteria, this then suggests that before filtering the total quantity of milk (all 1,944,000ml of it), it contained:

  • 3,000,000 Pseudomonas.
  • 20,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 1.5 Pseudomonas and
  • 10 Enterobacteriaciae.

Which makes it all look rather a lot better.

Even if we assume the filter only removed 10% of our bacteria, this still suggests that the levels in the milk weren’t huge.  If that were the case, we’d be assuming pre filtration numbers of:

  • 15,000,000 Pseudomonas
  • 100,000,000 Enterobacteriaciae

So per ml of milk we have

  • 7.7 Pseudomonas
  • 51.2 Enterobacteriaciae

However this doesn’t take into account the fact that the filter had been in the parlour during the day and we didn’t have fully frozen ice packs in our insulated box.  The sample was 10C when it was tested and apparently we can knock at least a couple of zeros off our total counts on the filter based on the time it had rested at that temperature since milking and whilst being posted to the lab. All of a sudden, this makes our Pseudomonas and Enteros presence not alarming at all.



The reason the bulk milk samples have been high in Pseudomonas in the past is that they are able to grown at 4C whereas lactic acid bacteria aren’t.  If there aren’t that many lactic acid bacteria in the milk in the first place and even on our brown and white cow friend 258, there weren’t huge numbers then the bulk tank is the worst conditions for them to grow and the best conditions for something that is happier at cold temperatures to get a head start.  Lactic acid bacteria like a range of temperature around body temperature basically but can grow from 20C – 50C.  So the bulk tank is giving an advantage to the wrong bacteria for cheesemaking.  In other words it is entirely worth it to arrange for the pipework we are planning and have our cheesemaking milk taken off before it goes through the plate cooler, and not just because of the energy use considerations.

There is still the cluster wash and some of the pipework which remains a concern as it will reduce lactic acid bacteria and potentially if there is doubt about the cleanliness of the water, will add in pseudomonas and possibly listeria.  In order to investigate this, we need to do a further milk test or water test.  I don’t know if it’s at all possible for the cluster wash to be switched off ever?  I am imagining not but it’s worth asking.  For the cheesemaking, it’s all about balancing the lactic acid bacteria against the pathogens and spoilage bacteria and the better we preserve the lactic acid ones the less we worry about the others.

Staph aureus:

The test results on this occasion aren’t hugely helpful but they basically indicate that they are present in the bulk tank and passing through the milk filter.  Evidently they aren’t present on every cow as there were none on either hand milked cow.

Paul Thomas’s theory based on some studies he has read (but I’d have to ask him if you wanted to know which ones) is that the animals that line up to be milked first tend to be the more vigorous, healthier ones which will be less likely to have Staph. aureus infections even at a subclinical level.  The less healthy ones will lag behind.

This suggests that our idea of taking the first bit of milk that goes through the milkline is probably a good one from the point of view of getting milk that is better suited to our cheesemaking.  Interestingly the animals with lower somatic cell counts (according to Paul), also tend to be the ones with higher counts of lactic acid bacteria as well.  Again, I’d have to push him for which papers supported that theory but it seems to indicate again that we will get more suitable milk for the cheese if we take the first lot of milk rather than from later in the milking.  Which means I will be getting up bright and early to collect.

A possible thing we could investigate as well is to look into the mastitis records to see if there are any patterns.  Paul (again) has had previous experience where with his milk supplier’s animals each cow that developed mastitis got it on the same quarter for a whole 2 week period.  It turned out that there was a contaminated rubber on one of the clusters.

Lactic Acid Bacteria:

The hand milk results do show that on individual animals we have pretty much perfect milk provided we can then manage the process so that we can get hold of that.

There’s no scientific basis for this that I know of but it’s a commonly held opinion that Friesian Holsteins are not as good producers of lactic acid bacteria and other breeds like Montbeliard are better.  Interestingly our results showed the perfect milk from a brown and white cow that Andrew felt would have more influence of Montbeliard in her genetics.  I don’t know how true that is however and it’s something to try and find out more about.

By taking milk from the livelier, healthier first milkers and keeping that milk warm we’ll give the growth advantage to the lactic acid bacteria as well as the other organisms.  Conventional wisdom sounds a loud klaxon at this point and shouts

‘What about growth of pathogens??? Re-frigerate!! Re-frigerate!’

And were it in isolation with no lactic acid bacteria, they’d be right to be cautious.  But by keeping the milk warm we are giving our lactic acid bacteria an even chance to consume that lactose and reproduce.  Then, when we add our starter cultures into the mix as well it should mean that lactic acid bacteria as a proportion of the total bacteria as we start to make cheese, out competes any pathogens or spoilage organisms.

The hand milking results also reassure us that the milk when it hasn’t gone through the cluster wash system does have enough lactic acid bacteria in it to try the experiments of making our own starter cultures from the milk.  This has always been an aim of ours which we thought we would have to postpone for a year or so at best but now seems much more possible.  It is, however, a discussion for another day and will involve a lot of hand milking and some careful selecting of suitable cows.

So, at the end of a rather head-hurting few days of analysing, emailing and thinking very hard, it’s good news.  We can try out making starter – hooray!! Obviously we won’t be using it unless it passes micro testing but for a while it didn’t look like we’d be able to even try.

It’s also a new list of questions to research.  Do the brown and while more Montbeliard looking cows like 258 give us better milk for our cheese?  Do the black and white cows have less lactic acid bacteria?  Does it all relate to their Somatic cell count levels?  Does the cluster wash still remove too many lactic acid bacteria and can there be an alternative?  If we can hand milk cows to make our own starter, does that matter?  And so on and so on.  Then there’s an off the wall ideas that Paul suggested too.  There are some studies in humans indicating that before giving birth, the nipple duct microflora is influenced by apparently deliberate movement of bacteria from the gut to the mammary gland by dendritic cells.  Perhaps this happens in all mammals and may account for the transfer of lactic acid bacteria into the baby’s and calf’s stomach with colostrum?

Who knew milk could be this complicated and this fascinating?  Just as well I never wanted a quiet life.

Response to a Vegan

My friend Louisa recently wrote this post following her conversation with a vegan friend.  Her conversation made her think about farming, particularly influenced, as she was at the time, by her pregnancy.  She asked me for my point of view as someone in the dairy profession.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been faced with vegetarian or vegan ideas telling me that dairy is bad, cruel and inhumane.  A vegan has chosen to eschew all animal products so as not to set themselves above another living animal or use it for food.  That is their choice.  I on the other hand believe in being an omnivore as evolution has developed me.  In that context, I should point out, I am not against eating vegetables. Nor am I against eating meals that solely consist of vegetables or grains on a regular basis.  I agree with it.  But I maintain the choice not to.  To convince others to follow the vegan way, dairy farming can be presented as cruel and inhumane.  This is not the reality I know.
The scale of dairy farming that I am connected with is not large scale.  The biggest herd I am aware of is about 450 cows.  In many cases it is considerably less.  To put this in context, there are super farms most commonly in the USA although they exist also in Europe, that contain thousands of cows.  Sometimes tens of thousands.  This is not a world I know. In the smaller scale industry, the herdsman or farmer recognises their cows by their face as you do with pets.  The relationship between people and animals is different of course, but there is affection there in bucket loads.  The farmer, the cows, the milkers, the cheesemakers are a team producing milk and cheese.  The cows work hard, no doubt about it.  They do have to have a calf each season in order to produce milk.  In return they are given the best care the farmer can give.  Are they kept in captivity and forcibly raped each year as Louisa’s friend suggested? No.
Partly this is because the majority of people are basically kind and care about other living animals (human or otherwise).  Farmers are not an exception to this rule.  In fact if you choose to make a living by working with animals, chances are you are a more caring or compassionate person because confronted face to face with another living being, you cannot help but respond with affection or some degree of emotion. At the very least, you feel a responsibility for them.  As a social species it’s in our genetic make-up.  Partly, this is also because contrary to most people’s expectations, it actually makes financial sense as well as emotional sense.  Animals are expensive to buy, rear and look after.  Profits in milk and even cheese production are not very big.  Know anyone who made their fortune from cheese?  Me neither.  You can’t afford for them to be ill, unhappy or badly treated.  It literally doesn’t add up.
However I think it’s worth taking each issue presented in Louisa’s account separately and giving each a response.
Keeping animals indoors is a more common practice in large scale farming.  I can see how this could be argued as keeping animals in captivity.  However every size of farm is subject to welfare standards and inspected by veterinary officers in the UK to ensure the cows aren’t distressed.   I am not here to answer for large scale farming because it’s not a world I know.  For the record, I am not sure that I agree with keeping animals indoors when nature actually intended them to live in the open.  This actually extends to humans too who in the main are too sedentary and live indoors now much more than is healthy.  However if there’s a decent regulatory system checking that the animals are healthy and looked after, as there is in the UK, I don’t rationally see why it can’t work.
The farms I know and have worked with over 16 years at Neal’s Yard Dairy and more recently as I work more directly as a cheesemaker, keep their animals out in the fields as long as the weather allows.  This means, in the UK, that they are kept outside eating fresh grass from the end of March to the end of October and longer if possible.  During the winter, they are moved into sheds and bedded down on straw that is changed and refreshed several times a day in order to keep them in clean and comfortable surroundings.  It’s in nobody’s interest for the cows either to be up to their udders in churned up mud outside, or for them to be standing in their own shit inside.  That way lies illness and very unhappy animals.
It’s not just an act of basic compassion either.  For the cows to produce milk and work as hard as they do, they need the best possible living conditions.  A distressed or sick animal can’t produce good milk and vets and medicines are very expensive.  Finally, cows cost thousands of pounds each.  If you have either bought in a herd or spent years breeding it up, the very last thing you want is for them to be ill-treated and sick.  The economics and the ethics both go hand in hand on this one.
Cow(or Bull) Rape
Louisa’s friend suggested that artificially inseminating a cow in order to get her pregnant is rape.  Furthermore, she stated that in order to collect semen, bulls are encouraged to penetrate another castrated bull all day until enough semen is collected.  It doesn’t quite work like that in my experience.
Cows aren’t always inseminated.  Some people do keep a bull for the job.  It is, however, done in the majority of cases.  It isn’t a dignified process as the semen has to be administered to the animal by the vet using a slim rod that delivers the semen past the cervix.  I have never heard anyone refer to the process as rape as was suggested or the equipment used as a rape pack.  The only term I’ve ever heard used is AI.  Which is what humans have too.
Cows are not inseminated before they are hormonally ready, which they indicate by mounting each other in the field.  They also are inseminated in familiar and stress free environments.  A stressed animal is less likely to conceive.  Given the cost of the semen and the vet’s time, it’s not in the farmers’ economic interest to upset their animals.  Again ethics and economics work to the same end point.
The suggestion that semen is collected by raping a castrated bull did make my eyes open wide and needed a little research.  I have now read many procedures on semen collection (never thought I’d be doing that on a train to London!) and I believe what Louisa’s friend alluded to is a misunderstanding or possibly misinformation of what’s called ‘the artificial vagina method’.  The bull ejaculates into a rubber sheath and cup structure with a hose attached to it.  This may be put on another cow or a dummy covered in cowskin.  The semen is collected from the end of the hose and this is then diluted. Each ejaculation therefore provides numerous samples.  The point being the bull can only keep going for so long.  If the semen is diluted, he doesn’t need to go at it all day.  The participating cow, if a cow is used, is not actually penetrated although I suspect if you watch the youtube videos on the subject (yes there are videos of it and no I didn’t research that far on the train) it won’t look all that pretty.  Animal sex is not human sex and shouldn’t be judged as if it was.  As to how often a live animal is used when a more easily manipulated dummy could be used, I can’t say.  I know what I’d be using if I were in the semen collection business.
The Fate of the Calves
After they have been born, the calves stay with their mother for an allotted period of time.  They need to suckle to get the colostrum which will provide them with valuable antibodies as well as rich nourishment.  After the colostrum is finished, they are bottle fed with a formula or with surplus milk.  It depends on the farmer themselves as to which they chose.  Each cow gives on average 20 litres milk a day so depending on how much is needed for processing there may also be milk for the calves.  In the Auvergne in France, particularly with herds whose milk supplies the manufacture of Salers, calves are left on their mothers until they no longer need to suckle.  The animals are milked out in the mountain pasture.  The calves have one teat, the herdsmen milk from the other 3.
Female calves are reared separately to the milking herd until they are old enough to have their first calf.  Comparing this to a child being ripped from its mother’s breast however is loading the emotional balance.  Animals are not humans.  They shouldn’t be treated like humans.  They should be treated well, don’t get me wrong, but they should be treated appropriately.  A cow is a cow, a dog is a dog etc.  Their mentality, emotions and sense of moral structure is not ours.  My dog sees nothing wrong with dry humping his bedding in front of large groups of people or trying to have sex with other dogs on a walk.  If I did that, I’d be locked up and quite rightly so.  Translated into the mother and offspring bond however, it seems generally proven in mammals that there is a basic bond between mother and young regardless of species.  The length and strength of this is commensurate with how much the young need their mother’s protection.  Humans babies can’t cope by themselves.  They are even unable to support the weight of their own heads at first and the maternal bond is a very strong one out of necessity.  Calves are able to stand up minutes after birth.  They grow to full size and sexual maturity considerably quicker than we do.  Consequently the maternal bond between cow and calf diminishes earlier.
The fate of male calves is another issue and not palatable for vegetarians or vegans.  Male calves are superfluous to dairy production.  AI can give a higher rate of heifers because it is possible to use sexed semen, which while not 100% accurate does give a higher probability of female calves being born.  However, the dilemma of the boy calves remains.  It is a source of distress to many dairy farmers that there isn’t more of a use for them in the UK.
In the 1980s, a campaign against veal crates has tarred all veal with the same brush in the eyes of the public be it white veal (milk fed, very young animals, potentially restrained to prevent movement and toughening of muscle tissue) or rose veal (6 month old animals, appropriately fed and allowed room to move about).   Most people in the UK react to the idea of eating veal with horror and the unfortunate knock on effect of this has been to make things worse for the male calves, not better.  If reared for veal, it is true they don’t have a long life.  They get 6 months or possibly a little more which is not a great deal less than lamb or pork.  If they can’t be reared for veal, they have to be killed at about a day old.  This is heart-breaking for the farmer who in many cases has been up all night with the cow to help her deliver the calf safely but farms are businesses and not charity.  One argument faced with this unpleasant fact, says, avoid all dairy.  As an omnivore, I say eat veal.
Cast out at 7 years old with their throats slit
On a small scale farm, this is very unlikely to happen to the dairy herd.  Cows are a huge investment.  Not only that, but, as the farmer, you are intensely aware that they are a living animal to which you have a responsibility.  Again the economics and the ethics go hand in hand.  You want the cow to have a long life.  This means good health and happy animals.  I know farms where the cows are into their 14thor 15th lactations which puts them at 16 or 17 years old at least.  I don’t know offhand of somewhere where the cows are still going at 21, apparently their natural lifespan in the wild, but whether that is down to breeding or the act of being milked & therefore the number of pregnancies, I do not know.  There is also a difference in the lifespan between pedigree dogs and mongrels.  Dairy cows are pedigree animals.  As to the ethics of breeding pedigree animals, that is most definitely another argument for another day.
There comes a point when cows are no longer productive and I’m afraid no farmer is wealthy enough to keep them all on as pets.  When the day comes however, they aren’t carted off packed into crates.  There are UK laws governing how many animals you can transport and how much space they need which mean that they actually travel better than most tube going London commuters.  When they are killed it is quickly and humanely done.
Do we have the right to farm?
I believe we are omnivores.  We were born with the ability to derive nutrition from plant and animal sources and have developed the mental capacity to farm animals and cultivate crops.  Does that give us a right to farm as such?  No.  We are privileged and it is down to each and every one of us to remember how lucky we are.
To my mind, farming is a service that is provided for those of us who buy and consume.  The animals and the farmers play an equally important part.  As a consumer, I, in turn, play my part.  I choose to buy from farms I know, where the systems are sustainable and the animals well-treated.  If in doubt or indeed in a large shop or supermarket, I look out for organic or RSPCA approved labelling as providing a certain standard.  If it’s a smaller shop then I ask the shopkeeper.
One area on which Louisa’s vegan friend and I might agree is that you should think long and hard about what you eat and where your food is coming from.  After that, we differ entirely.  I am evolutionarily adapted to be able to eat meat and dairy as well as plants.  I am lucky to be born into this position and I don’t see shopping as a casual act.  Where I spend my money reinforces this privilege, and my food choices have consequences.  Our position in the food chain should not be abused.
A Dairy Shorthorn Cow and new born calf on Holker Farm whose herd currently contains 8 cows.

Enter the cows

On returning from Piedmont just under a month ago, I checked Facebook to see a post from Nicola about 2 new additions at Holker Farm.  While this could have been puppies, pigs or donkeys, I was fairly certain that it was the much anticipated Shorthorns.  I was right.

One of the ladies, in the barn, with a curious sheep to the left

My first day back in the dairy was the first morning milking and they yielded us probably about 30 litres milk.  Since then they have settled happily in to their once a day milking regime and I’d say in the last week we’re getting nearer to 60 litres.  Nicola has been taking advice on their feed, switched the cake they get in the evening to a better quality and more nutritious one and given them a mineral lick all of which have contributed to them producing more milk but also milk with what seems like good solids.  Otherwise their diet is largely hay based and not particularly intensive.  They came in looking a little thin shortly after giving birth but are gaining condition and seem to be doing well on their once a day milking regime.  Not too taxing and yet yielding us plenty of milk and having now worked out a more regular size, we’re making roughly 10 cheeses weighing about 500g (probably) per day.

When I first started at Holker, Martin talked about how particular sheeps milk is and how once you get used to it, you’ll look at cows milk thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this milk’.  It has to be said I wasn’t entirely prepared for just how different the 2 milks would be.  The difference is (and was) perhaps heightened because the sheeps milk is end of lactation milk so the solids are huge – 8% fat and over 6% protein on one recent test.  The cows milk is early lactation and just naturally has much lower solids anyway than sheeps milk.  The first obvious difference however is the colour.  Cows milk is more yellow but at the same time more translucent, sheeps milk bright white and just standing until the end of the milking, there is a thin layer of yellow cream on top of the vat containing the cows milk.  The colour difference remains throughout the make as well, the whey is clearer and more yellow when cutting the cows milk, the sheeps milk whey, while a yellow colour is slightly thicker and whiter.

Cows milk curd after cutting
Sheeps milk curd after cutting 

The texture is very different too.  In fact it was tricky working out when to cut the cows curd in the first couple of days because the set is much more delicate.  After a couple of days we felt it was going to naturally need more rennet than the sheeps milk and have managed to achieve a firmer set as a result.  However when looking for the ‘clean break’ when determining when to cut the curd, the set of the cows milk when it breaks cleanly is a lot more jelly-like than that of the sheeps milk which is dense and robust.

Drainage is hugely different too.  Whereas the St James needs regular cloth pulling and done pretty forcefully at that, the cows milk cheese (current working name Feallan from the Old English for Fall i.e. Autumn) needs cloth pulling largely much more gently and rather than forcing moisture out, you’re just trying your damndest to keep up with the natural drainage of the curd.  Where St James needs to sit overnight in its cloths with a follower on, by about 3pm Feallan has been turned once in its cloths and ready to be turned again and taken out of the cloths.  In future we’ll get followers to be put onto the Feallan too but for now, they just drain without pressure overnight which leads to slightly less reliable shapes but the drainage seems to happen ok.

Early batches of Feallan and St James on Day 2 in the hastening room before salting.

As for maturing, well we have a couple of batches that we tried binding in spruce cambian (the leather textured layer below the bark that is used to bind Vacherin) which Martin set off into the Holker Estate to cut off trees in their timber stores.  More recent batches have been left to mature without and when we can compare and contrast the matured cheeses, we’ll get an idea of which tastes best.  Currently though, they are being washed a couple of times a week until they are roughly 2 weeks old by which time they have a reasonably convincing covering of B. linens and then they are being wrapped to continue maturing in paper.  Next Tuesday, Bronwen and David from Neal’s Yard Dairy will come and visit the farm and we will get a chance to try some of the older cheeses with them.  The cheeses will be about 5 weeks old by then and some of the oldest have a nice breakdown already.  It will be very interesting to hear what they think.


One of the projects we’d hoped to attempt before my arrival was that with another person in the dairy we might get a chance to play around at making a cows milk cheese.  Martin has done this in the past with a cheese called Jewnywood (a St James recipe with cows milk basically) that was made using Friesian milk from a farm nearby with a small herd.  Unfortunately they are tied into a contract to supply liquid milk and can’t sell just the odd kit to a cheesemaker.  There are other farms in the area of course but ideally Martin hasn’t wanted to use Friesian-Holstein milk as it tends not to have the solids that you need for cheesemaking as crossing with Holsteins ups the milk production but also produces a more watery milk.  The ideal breed for this area is Dairy Shorthorns which were once ubiquitous and in the 18th century, I believe, Holker Estate had a renowned pedigree Shorthorn herd.  The farm opposite Holker Hall is still called Shorthorn Farm today.Currently the sheeps milk is decreasing.  We are half way through the season and the sheep that lambed early are beginning to dry up.  In August, the tups will go in with the ewes that are ready to get in lamb again and we’ll be looking to the next season already.  Time flies huh?  But from having had about 120 litres a day at the peak of the season we’re now down to about 80-90 and from making 17 or 18 cheeses to a batch we’re now at 11.  As the milk decreases, we’ve been thinking further about the whole idea of making a cows milk cheese and extending the season so that Martin & Nicola are selling cheese through the winter.  About 4 weeks ago when the Neal’s Yard Dairy crew visited, we floated the idea over our evening meal together to gage reaction.  The idea we proposed was to buy in local milk and make a soft washed rind cheese.  The idea had a mixed reception.  Bronwen and David who urge caution and not running before you can walk, were interested in the idea if the cheese was good but also conscious that buying in milk requires a level of testing and therefore expense that we don’t currently have because the sheep are milked by Nicola and the milk is super fresh when it’s used.  There’s a quantity issue too – there is a minimum amount you can buy milk in and Martin suggested that’s around 500 litres so it would need a bigger vat.  The evening ended, Martin talked a bit further to me after we left the NYD crew about the practicalities of buying in milk and how we might adapt our equipment to cope with it and then we parted ways.

The following day was my day off and by Thursday a newer idea had planted in the brain of Mr Gott.  Cows.  This seems like a rather radical idea when you first hear it but actually makes more sense at the end of the day than buying in milk.  They are already set up to milk animals and a milking parlour is not so hard to adapt.  They don’t need to buy more than 6 cows in order to have enough milk to be making the equivalent of peak sheeps milk season over the winter and these cows can be bought from a breeder, already in milk a couple at a time.  And finally, if it does all go wrong, the cows can be sold at pretty close to the amount for which they were bought while a new vat will depreciate and also could be difficult to shift too.

Of course the other bonus of buying the animals is that we can make cheese from Shorthorn milk too.  Why Shorthorn?  Because the older breeds of cow are better suited to the older ways of using milk – ie cheese.  Modern dairy farming assumes that the farmer wants to sell liquid milk and the more he (or she) can sell, the more he (or she) can earn.   So cows are bred to produce higher quantities of milk but at a cost.  There are higher incidences of fertility problems both getting in calf and delivering the calves and in birth deformities as well.  They are often taller but lean and rangy needing large quantities of food and in concentrated form in order to keep up with their milk production.  They can go lame a lot more easily.  In other words they are bred to be very specialised for the purpose of giving large quantities of milk.  For a farm like Martin & Nicola’s however they need a smaller animal that requires less veterinary attention and certainly less intensive feeding as their animals are largely pasture fed.  They also don’t need a lot of milk but do need milk with good solid content.  Again the older breeds score highest here too because the cows giving large volumes don’t give the highest fat and protein contents per litre so while the amount of milk is greater, the yield in terms of cheese doesn’t increase in the same ratio as production.

So Nicola and I went to the Great Yorkshire Show on Wednesday to look at livestock and see the sort of cows they’re likely to be buying.  Important for Nicola in particular as she’ll be doing the lion’s share of the milking and purely practically speaking, she can’t be milking a big animal.  I was largely along for a day out and out of curiosity and the chance to say hello to a few people I know there.  Meanwhile after having made the day’s cheese, Martin headed off to Kendal to a local Shorthorn breeder and found that there were cows available from August to November and that they could buy the smaller, plumper, docile and lower yielding animals they want.  On Saturday, they ordered the new milking parlour equipment to be able to milk 2 cows at a time through the parlour.  There’s no going back now!

Shorthorn at the Great Yorkshire Show
Somewhat blurry photo of a nice manageable sized Shorthorn.  The disadvantage of taking photos at speed.