Rachel Yarrow and her partner Fraser Norton decided they wanted to become cheesemakers in 2014, after a chance reading of an article about a goats' cheese maker in an old 'Woman and Home' magazine found in a holiday house they stayed in. Rachel had been an English teacher, while Fraser had a career in project management. Both of them were seeking a new challenge. They participated in an initiative called Farm Step run by an environmental charity Earth Trust, where start-up farm businesses can apply for tenancies at affordable prices. By the end of 2016 their cheeses were being sold in our shops.
Unlike many of our other suppliers, you and Fraser are relatively new to farming. Has the reality of farming animals professionally been different than your expectations in any way?
We did lots of research and work experience before we got the goats but even so, the reality is a bit different than you imagine: it’s a bit like having children actually. Before this I’ve ever only had just a handful of animals. When you have 180 it’s a much bigger task to keep on top of knowing them all and how they are. Only one of them has to have something wrong with them every couple of months to have something happening all the time.
The main difference between farming professionally compared to my perception before we started out is that what really matters is whether your system and herd is working well rather than the individual animals. The big decisions you make about what to feed, what breeds or crosses to use, what housing/ routine you use, when you kid the goats and so on, can seem rather dry, but they are much, much more important to how well your herd does than anything else.
There’s a lot to do with legislation as well, which you must get right. Initially I hadn’t considered how sometimes following the letter of the law can go against what you think the best way to handle a situation might be. I’ve been thinking a lot about the abattoir issue; we don’t raise our goats for meat but we have cull goats from time to time. You can’t have them slaughtered on the farm because of legislation; that seems like it’s not in the interest of the animal’s welfare, because they find it stressful to travel. Because so many of the abattoirs have gone out of business, it can be quite a journey. Likewise, every animal has to have two ear tags; our goats have long ears and it’s quite easy to for them to be injured from having one ripped out. A pastern tag (a band that fits around the leg) is just as effective—but the law is that they have to have ear tags. It’s a minor thing, but the person who made the law wasn’t necessarily thinking about the way it would affect the animals.
What metrics do you use when assessing animal welfare?
As dairy goats are a minority species in the UK, there is a real lack of accredited high welfare standards that you can use. Because of this, we came up with our own set of standards based on a variety of sources such as RSPCA standards for other species, recommendations of the British Goat Society and the Soil Association standards. We combine metrics that look at inputs e.g. how much space they need to have in their housing, how much space at the feed trough, how many days they should spend grazing as a minimum and then - arguably more importantly - we also measure welfare outputs, which is looking at things like the goats' body condition score, their parasite loads, our rates of intervention at kidding, how clean the goats are, whether we see issues such as lameness and mastitis. Many of these measures are reviewed annually with our vet too so we can identify priorities for our Herd Health Plan for the year ahead and what progress we have made in the year just gone.
Have you considered any novel approaches to increasing the quality of life of your animals, and if so, what are they?
The main one that’s a bit unusual in goat dairying is getting them outdoors and grazing. It’s a work in progress but we have developed a system of getting them out to graze regularly in a way which works for us and while not perfect, does help us to avoid the major problems which put a lot of people off grazing their goats altogether.
I’m trying to intensify our efforts in that context this year. One challenge is that goats are naturally browsers rather than grazers. A traditional field of pasture isn’t necessarily what a goat naturally goes for, and it can be hard to meet their nutritional requirements well on pasture. A goat would like to have 60% of its feed as browse, whereas a cow would only want 10%, and much more grass. Hardiness as well is an issue: goats don’t have waterproof coats like sheep, and they’re susceptible to cold. Managing the worm burden is also tricky—the availability of wormers approved for dairy goats is an issue. It’s tricky to manage moving a large herd of goats in and out every day, and they are also prone to escape!
I started a distance learning masters at Aberystwyth University in autumn 2020 with the aim of improving my knowledge of how to manage dairy goats in an outdoor system. It is a very under-researched topic, particularly in the UK, but I have learnt a lot. It's really interesting to look at other systems from around the world and think about which parts we could apply here. I'm now doing my masters dissertation project (which may evolve into a PhD - watch this space!) on the topic of motivations and barriers to more outdoor grazing of goats in the UK.
We also rear our replacement kids with their mothers on natural milk until weaning age, which is unusual for the dairy industry where kids and calves are generally removed from their mothers at a few days old. This suits us well and we like the kids to be naturally reared though of course you get less milk from the mothers, so there is a knock-on effect in our costs. I do understand why the traditional dairy model is to remove kids and calves and I have seen many examples of where they are reared to excellent standards in high welfare conditions, so I don't think this is a straightforward question. But I would personally like to see more farmers explore this option.
Can you tell us about your experience with welfare certification?
The background here is that our landlord wants us as animal-owning tenants to be part of a welfare accreditation scheme, which I fully support: it’s useful to know that there’s some sort of evidence-based guidelines that are being followed. The RSPCA info for goats currently is for pet owners with just a few goats. There’s another standard called the Key Standard, the Red Tractor Equivalent. I wouldn’t like to say a goat would suffer on it, but it’s not ambitious and it allows zero-grazing systems. The space allowances are pretty small: 1.25 square meters per goat, which to be honest is half the British Goat Society recommendations. The head of agriculture at the RSPCA is interested in our request for a goat-specific standard; she thinks it could be an appendix to the sheep standard but there are some big differences. In the meantime, we’ve tried to assume that their standard would be a combination of the sheep and dairy cow standards and work as closely to that as possible.
It will be interesting to see where the liquid goat milk market goes with animal welfare. Their consumers are already making a choice to buy a specific milk, that’s often perceived as more ‘natural’, and it doesn’t seem to sit well with zero-grazing methods or not rearing on the kids. I think that industry could have a real image problem if that comes to the fore.
What happens to the male kids?
The traditional "kill them at birth" thing was not going to do it for me. We’ve always sent them to people to rear for meat; in the last year someone who works for farm parks has taken them to sell them on as pets or to others who are rearing for meat. I’m thinking about trying to do some of our own meat rearing, but I haven’t got there yet. There’s never been a shortage of demand. We have a spotty billy now, and so the spotty kids are popular as pets.
What is the average lifespan of your animals, and how does this compare with your target?
We’re aiming to get about 8-10 years of good milking and then retire them before they’re exhausted. Our herd size is such that we’re never going to be retiring more than 8-10 per year; we’re not looking to make money out of them at that point, so it hasn’t been a problem to find people who want a pair as pets. You do want to be careful that they’re not being passed to homes where they’re not being looked after.
I’m always willing to learn if other people have examples of good goat practices—it’s great to exchange ideas!