Animal Welfare with Sarah Appleby of Hawkstone Abbey Farm (Appleby's Cheshire)

The Appleby family have been making Cheshire cheese at Hawkstone Abbey Farm, near Whitchurch in Shropshire, for three generations and are one of the last farms making a Cheshire using their own raw milk. Neal’s Yard Dairy has been working with the Appleby family for nearly 40 years, and we still visit the farm every month to select cheese. Sarah and her husband Paul are now the current stewards of the farm and have been making significant changes to their herd and the way they use the land. For further reading on the history of Cheshire and our relationship with the Applebys, find more resources at the bottom of the piece.

How important is the ability to graze outside for the welfare of the animals? 

Of huge importance, but not just for the cow. To have a healthy, happy and high welfare farm we have to also think about what we call our 'whole farm community'. This includes the land we farm and graze, the soil, grasses, hedgerows and ditches, our pollinators and wildlife. When a farm is grazed, the relationship with this 'whole farm community' we are stewarding is strong.  

When Paul and I took the reins here at the farm we were an indoor unit. This went against our farming and cheesemaking ethics. As we have changed to an outdoor grazing farm, we have been rewarded with healthier and happier cows, a biodiverse farmland, richer and more complex cheeses and a community of people on the farm that share the same joy in walking cows out to pasture and hearing the skylarks as we do.

Many grazing farms will be breeding for animals that are hardier and more suited to grazing, less susceptible to weather, often a smaller cow with good feet. Here at Abbey Farm we look for them to go out in March, weather permitting and come in to the barns in November. This summer season has been exceptionally difficult with the intense heat (the ideal temperature for cows is around 21 degrees Celsius) and we have been opening the barns for them to rest and feed in the cool during the day and letting them graze overnight. We are hoping that the trees we are planting grow quickly to offer shelter for them.  

Over the past 5 years we have been changing our cow genetics from a large Holstein Friesian to a much more compact cow by introducing Montebeliarde, British and Irish Friesians and Danish Reds. We are also looking at Aryshires. The cows in our herd now are very low input and we are not pushing them for yield, rather we want them to be fit, healthy and robust on a very simple system.

A focal point for many is the practice of removing calves from their mothers at a young age. What are your thoughts on this practice?  

There have been many studies on the best age to separate a cow and calf. The honest truth is they are all very different and we do our utmost to ensure cow and calf are fit and healthy. Some cows have a complete lack of maternal instinct and leave the calf to wander off, in which case it is much safer to put the calf in the nursery shed straight away and the cow back to her friends and routine (cows love routine.) The majority of cows are accepting that their calf will join the others (our calves are kept in groups of 4 and this friendship bond continues throughout their lifetime) and that they will join the herd again to graze out in the paddocks.

What happens to bull calves? Can we farm ethically and commercially without taking them into account?  

We are now using far more sexed semen[1] to ensure a great number of female calves for the herd. We then have some cows that are in calf to Wagyu that will be looked after here for two months before going to another local farmer. We then have a couple of Hereford bulls and their calves will be sold to another local farmer when they are a similar age. Each calf is of great importance and they are treated in exactly the same way. 

What is the average lifespan of your animals, and is it what you would expect and are happy with?  

With the genetics that we’re breeding with, the animal will have a longer lifespan, more lactations and more calves. This means that good husbandry is really important. We think having a block calving system[2] means that we’re more aware of their health, which is important for their well-being as well as for our milk production as we can’t get them back in calf easily unless they’re super healthy. We’re looking for cows to last for seven-plus lactations, so 10 years or more. Our cows are the centre of all the decisions we make on the farm, we want them to have long and happy lives here. 

Do you keep the animals after they have stopped being used for milking? If not, what happens to the animal once it is no longer working? 

Our old cows are sold to a local family business and from there they join the food chain. It is one of the hardest decisions to make. 

What metrics do you use when assessing animal welfare? 

A good stockperson will be intuitive, knowing their cows so well that any change in behaviour alerts them to a possible issue. Our cows are used to being handled in a kind and quiet manner, and we're believers in prevention rather than cure. This means constantly keeping ears and eyes open to ensure the cows are happy and healthy throughout their lactation. 

Have you considered any novel approaches to increasing the quality of life of your animals, and if so, what are they?  

We are always learning how to farm in a way where we all not only survive but thrive. We inherited a farm that had been used very intensively, so watching the cows now browse the hedgerows jam-packed with medicinal properties is so satisfying. We are planting herbal leys[3] and pollinator patches to increase the natural health of our farm. The silvopastures[4] we are planting incorporates trees such as willow, hornbeam and disease-resistant elm into the cows' diet which will be a natural first aid box for them. The black poplars we planted a couple of years ago will provide shelter from heat or rain in years to come.  

Do the cows’ udders become so heavy and full that they cause discomfort?  

Cows are very much creatures of habit and will instinctively know when it's time for milking. The cows in our herd are happy with coming into milk twice a day and some will stay on the rotary parlour[5] for longer as they have more milk to give. We are always checking that they have got clean, healthy teats and udders and have very few issues. If a cow does have a sore udder after calving we treat them with a homeopathic cooling gel. 

What efforts have you put in place to make the cows comfortable? 

The cows walk out to their paddocks along sleeper tracks that we brush to keep clear of stones that could bruise their hooves (we also have some old astro turf that they love sprinting down!). We provide plenty of grass and fresh water in their paddocks. In the winter the cows are housed in a big, airy shed with a back scratcher and plenty of space to walk around.  

We also have dedicated paddocks where the cows calve. These grow 'standing hay' which are long grasses and herbs that have gone to seed. This is ideal for the cow’s digestion as it's not too high in energy and provides plenty of roughage to keep the rumen healthy whilst they are in the last stages of pregnancy. Calving outside is something both Paul and I feel strongly about. It is far more natural for the cow to labour in a larger environment on grass, in a shady spot. We find that the majority of our cows calve without needing our intervention. They tend to calve at dawn: we go and check them around at midnight and there’s nothing there; then at half-past-four in the morning we have nine calves!  


Want to know more about Appleby’s Cheshire?

Watch our 2021 Farm Visit Film

Learn about the history of Cheshire cheese

And understand more about our relationship with Appleby’s Cheshire


[1]Sexed Semen is semen for artificial insemination that has been sorted into X and Y-bearing sperm. Using sexed semen means that around 90% of the offspring will be female.  

[2] Block Calving is a breeding system where cows are calved within a 12-week window in either spring or autumn rather than year-round 

[3] Herbal leys are a mixture of grasses, legumes and herbs, nutritionally varied, palatable, higher in protein, often with medicinal properties. 

[4]  Silvopastures is the practice of integrating trees, forage, and the grazing of animals in a mutually beneficial way. It is a form of agroforestry. 

[5] In a rotary milking parlour the cow stands on a circular raised platform, allowing the farmer to attach the milking machine from below and behind. The platform rotates very slowly, allowing cows to enter and exit the platform at two sections.