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A journey of a thousand miles…

Margaret Finlay - 31 January 2013

Dairy cattle at Rainton farmHere at Rainton Farm, home of Cream o’ Galloway ice-cream in south west Scotland, we’re adopting an entirely new method of dairy farming. I’ll be blogging about some of the experiences we’ve had (and continue to have!) on our family farm. The driving force behind these changes is my father, David Finlay; and when I use the terms ‘our’ and ‘we’ etc., I do feel entirely disingenuous as he has been the energy, the determination and the inspiration behind the development of the farm these past 25 years.

Firstly, a little background. Our mixed (dairy, beef and sheep) farm is 850 acres and converted to organic production in 1999. We had also started producing ice cream in 1994 and opened our farm to the public with the provision of a visitor centre, adventure playground, café and nature trails. It became increasingly clear to us that the UK agricultural industry faces many challenges which will only increase in potential threat in future years.

For example, global economics have seen livestock feed prices increase year on year well beyond the rate of general inflation. Emerging exotic diseases such as bluetongue and Schmallenberg virus continue to take their toll. Public perception of certain farming practices exert pressure on farmers who are increasingly being squeezed by supermarkets to produce more for less which often results in compromised welfare and disillusioned consumers. Climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation are growing threats which scientific consensus indicates will increasingly influence agricultural practices in the developed and developing world. In the UK, some agricultural advisors recommend intensification; others suggest techno-fixes as the way forward. We are hoping to demonstrate that, in fact, there is another way...

Put simply, our plan is to minimise reliance on external inputs whilst optimising health, welfare and productivity. This involves some radical rethinking of what is considered economically sensible in conventional farming circles. Calves, normally removed from their mothers within hours of birth (and on some more intensive dairy farms the male calves are often killed at birth as they have no market value), will now be left with their mothers until natural weaning occurs at eight or nine months of age. Furthermore, the cows will only be milked once a day, rather than the traditional two or three times a day. 

Cows will also receive less commercial concentrate feeds and calves will require less concentrate feed later in life, yet with the growth advantages of suckling, will be ready for market much earlier. Considerable investment has been made in improving the quality of available grassland, which again will support a reduction in external feed inputs. We are using a three way cross of the robust British Holstein, the Swedish Red and the beefy Montbelliarde breeds.

Slurry will be processed in the new on-farm anaerobic digester (AD), and the methane collected will generate hot water and electricity for the farm. The treated slurry or 'digestate' is much less toxic to soil fauna and environmental pollution, especially runoff into water ways, is much reduced.

Theoretically, we can increase total food output (enhanced food security) while simultaneously reducing use of purchased cereals and proteins, and generating energy from system waste. In contrast, industrial dairy farms producing 10,000 litres of milk per cow, feed 4kg dry matter concentrates to produce 1kg of milk solids, resulting in a net loss to the food system. Which doesn’t seem sustainable at all.

So where are we in our journey today? Well, the cattle are in their new, extremely roomy winter housing, they have adapted quickly to the new ‘tandem’ milking parlour and the first 36 cattle have calved and are housed with their calves 24 hours a day. The AD is in the final stages of construction and will hopefully be up and running in the next couple of months.

There will be another 70 cattle calving in the spring – they’re currently in the process of ‘drying off’ as their bodies divert energies into growing baby calves rather than producing milk. That, coupled with the fact the freshly calved cows are suckling their calves, gives rise to the first major impact of the new system; the drop in milk volume in the bulk tank! Of course, this was expected and budgeted for, but is one of the factors that will have to be monitored closely in the next 6 months or so. It will probably take a couple of years before the economic viability of such a system is realised.

We’re also gathering data for a small research project being undertaken by the Organic Research Centre in conjunction with the Sustainable Organic and Low-Input Dairying (SOLID) project. Growth rates, milk production, milk quality, cow health, and behaviour of the cows and calves are being assessed. We’re also trying to encourage other institutions and organisations to get involved – the more reliable and convincing the data we collect and analyse, the more credible our contribution to the debate about the future of farming will be.

I hope I’ve given you a rough idea of what we’re doing here at the farm, and what we hope to achieve. As you can see, it’s very much a work in progress at the moment, and we’re just feeling our way one day at a time. I’ll be updating the blog regularly with more details and specifics of the system, and would be keen to hear any and all questions, opinions or experiences of similar endeavours.

Margaret grew up on her family's 850 acre mixed organic farm, home of Cream o' Galloway ice cream, in south west Scotland. Having graduated from Glasgow Vet School in 2007, she now divides her time between working as a small animal vet and helping out on the family farm. The latest project at the farm is a revolutionary new low-input dairy system.

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Ali Ambridge
14 March 2013 17:59


Margaret Finlay
02 February 2013 21:01

Thanks for your comments. Rebecca, the paragraph mentioning total food output wasn't a reference to the individual output of the farm - as you might imagine, our gross outputs will actually decrease in the new system! I realise the wording I used doesn't necessarily make that clear - this subject will require a whole new blog entry I suspect!. We will rely much less on external inputs such as concentrate feeds. By utilising our natural grazing resources and not pushing the cows to produce the maximum amount of milk possible, we will be able to minimise the amount of grain each cow needs to produce one litre of milk. In addition we will be 'finishing' our beef animals earlier, on milk and grass primarily, our dairy cows will live for many years more than the national average, reducing the need to feed up replacement animals (these normally need 2 years of feeding before they start to produce anything at all to put back in to the food supply). Coupled with poly-tunnels heated by the biogas produced by the slurry powered anaerobic digester, you have fruit and vegetables produced from the system's 'waste'. Sounds marvellous in theory, doesn't it :) Intensive systems produce more milk overall, but the quantity of grain based feed they use to achieve this means that they are actually generating a loss in terms of food available for human consumption! The animal feed industry in the UK has an annual turnover of nearly 4 BILLION pounds, so don't expect them to be applauding our efforts anytime soon!

Sally Morgan
01 February 2013 13:43

Interesting blog about a forward-thinking dairy farm, hope other dairy farmers, conventional and organic take note and join in the researchproject

Rebecca W.
01 February 2013 13:13

Can the blogger please explain how total food out put can be increased? How many litres of milk can your cows produce? That is a very interesting mix of breed of dairy cow. I always enjoy your ice-cream, it is nice to hear the genetics behind it! Thanks, Rebecca

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