From the farm gate- a visit to Holden Farm Dairy
Continuing our celebration of Cheshire Month, here Bronwen Percival, our buyer, offers insight into the history of the Cheshire recipe.
Holden Farm Dairy is home to a small dairy herd of around sixty milking Ayrshires on three hundred acres of organic pasture in the Welsh Cambrian mountains. All of their milk becomes Hafod – a traditionally clothbound, handmade cheese made to a pre-industrial cheddar recipe and aged for at least a year. Owned and managed by Patrick and Becky Holden, it is Wales’ oldest certified organic dairy farm.
Holden Farm Dairy is host to a very unique smell – quite unlike any other dairy farm I have visited. Even after morning milking, when the herd has passed through the parlour and the yard is thick with muck, the smell is clean, aromatic, dare I say, fragrant.
“Everyone comments on that”, says herdsman, Nick Millard. “It’s the cows’ feed, and that starts with the soil”. Indeed the farming system at Holden Farm Dairy is almost entirely based around the farm’s home grown forage. That’s not to say the herd spends all year outdoors on pasture, however. The western side of the British Isles is wet, and in West Wales it’s very wet indeed. And while the south west may experience warmer summers and more sunshine than say Lancashire or Cumbria, the ground is still too sodden to graze cattle in the winter months.
Yet even during those off-months when pasture is rested and the cows indoors, the Holden herd maintains its grass ration. This is ‘preserved’ forage – cut earlier in the spring/summer, partially dried, fermented and stored in bale. Like filling a larder with jams and preserves after a summer glut of soft fruits. Off the cuff, Nick can tell me the name of the field to which each bale belongs and the precise moment it was cut.
At the time of my most recent visit in February 2017 the milking herd was indoors feeding on two different bales – and it quickly became clear which they preferred. They jostled to get at the well-dried, mixed herbal ley silage – a veritable pick ‘n’ mix of seventeen different grasses and legumes from well-managed, semi-wild pasture. No chemical intervention, no nitrogen fertiliser, no pesticides – sweet, floral, malty, intensely aromatic haylage. The poorly dried silage, however, cut from more recently acquired wetland soils went largely ignored – boozy, acidic, heady and wild.
Similarly, during the summer months when the herd is turned out and the cows are out on clover rich, nitrogen-fixing pastures, their ‘strip grazing’ is carefully managed by mobile electric fencing. Where the use of nitrogen fertiliser is prohibited, the pasture’s natural growth cycle must be respected – and so moving the herd to new pasture twice a day, every day not only provides the herd with new forage but also reboots the pasture’s natural growth, sending it into a new cycle of productivity after grazing. This is ‘mob grazing’ – an effective way to manage the land and the herd in holistic, symbiotic harmony.
Whether the cows are housed indoors – and their herd managed – or continuously moved out on pasture, the point here is that each season, each field, each bale and therefore each day’s feed has its own unique ‘flavour’. As a consequence that ‘flavour’ may subtly influence the character of that day’s milking. Thus, before the milk even arrives in the cheese vat, certain choices have been made that will affect the kind of cheese that that day’s batch of Hafod may ultimately become.
On an even more fundamental level, the herd’s own breeding and genetics will influence milk composition – its texture, its fats and proteins. The decision to establish a herd of Ayrshire cows was made after Patrick and Becky converted the farm over to dairy from organic carrot production in the early 2000s. Ayrshires are a hardy breed, well adjusted to the farm’s hillside aspect and, of course, West Wales’ changeable climate. Yet they give good volumes of rich milk – a happy balance of yield, hardiness and quality. The more recent introduction of other rare breeds including Welsh Blacks, Simmentals, Herefords and Shorthorns has bred further diversity into the herd and greater complexity into its milk yield.
It’s no coincidence that many of these old rare breeds were once considered dual purpose livestock by less specialised, domestic, smallholding-style farming systems – valued as much for their meat as for their milk yield. And yet, since the nineteenth century, as farming has become more specialised and more intensive, the market has driven down prices and increased production capacity. In this conventional model of greater efficiency, cows now perform one role or the other – meat or milk. Big cows, big yields, intensively bred, intensively fed.
My next post will take a look at Hafod cheese, as well as some of the unexpected byproducts of its production, including meat.