Simon Jones and his brother Tim run Ulceby Grange farm in Lincolnshire where they make Lincolnshire Poacher - a hybrid of a traditional cheddar and a hard mountain cheese. Though the farm has been in the family since 1917, they didn't start making cheese until the 1990s, when a young Simon returned from agricultural college. Their cheesemaking business has now grown to include a cheese-turning robot- affectionately known as Florence the Machine - who helps mature the many wheels of Poacher in their storeroom.
What metrics do you use when assessing animal welfare?
Animal welfare is stockmanship, and this is something you gain over time and with experience. It’s knowing your stock well and being intimately involved and in touch with your animals daily. In the last 35 years, I have got to the point where it’s possible to spot an animal in the early stages of a health issue and when that happens quick diagnosis and treatment is crucial. If we have problems, we are guided by our vet. One of the recent problems we have had has been IBR, which is a common type of pneumonia virus, so we have started a vaccination scheme for that.
How important is the ability to graze outside for the welfare of the animals?
For me personally, if my animals couldn’t graze outside I wouldn’t be a dairy farmer. I think it’s sad that cows- whose natural habitat is pasture- can’t go outside. They are large outdoor animals and they give us such beautiful milk. They love grazing and the sense of freedom the outside brings. You can feel the joy when you first let them out in the spring, seeing them skip and jump!
When do you send them indoors?
It depends on ground conditions. Obviously there has to be grass for them to eat! Last year, we had to bring the cows in at the beginning of October because it was so wet, and then we let them out again once it dried up a bit. Normally we’ll have some dry cows out up until the end of November.
All of our cows are out in the day and in at night towards the end of the season. You don’t want to upset their routine if you can, as this can affect their diet, which inevitably affects the quality of the milk by changing the fats and proteins in it.
The way we bed our cows in winter is on loose wheat or barley straw so they are very comfortable. We are fortunate to be surrounded by large arable farms who supply the 2000 tons of straw we use annually.
A focal point for welfare activists is the practice of removing young animals from their mothers at a young age. What are your thoughts on this practice?
We used to remove the calves at four days old but now we remove them sooner at 12-24 hours. This is because it is more traumatic for both if a bond is created. If you have a small dairy unit with fewer cows, you could run a system of keeping the calf on for six months – as they do in the Auvergne in France. It depends on your farming system and what works holistically. There is a system of having nurse cows that we have considered but it can be more labour-intensive encouraging cows to suckle a strange calf, as well as having to have another building to house the extra cows. A typical problem when suckling calves on cows is that you can experience cross-sucking, where the calves become used to sucking an udder and end up sucking their fellow calves, which can turn into a lifetime habit. Ultimately, the most important thing to me is that we have healthy calves.
What is the average lifespan of your animals?
We’ve always bred for longevity and conformation. I would say the average lifespan of the animals is around four lactations [approximately seven years]. We have also bred several hundred-ton cows [cows who have given more than 100,000L of milk during their productive lifespan] who have lived trouble-free to 16 or 17 years old.
What happens to the animals after they have stopped being used for milking?
My cows are not dual-purpose animals [bred to have a value both for milk and meat]. Ex-dairy cows are called drape cows, and there’s a specific market for them. I take mine to the closest possible abattoir. Depending on how fit they are, they go on a lorry or I take them. If I’ve got one that is lame, or with a trapped nerve, I’m going to take her myself for extra care. Without our cows, we have nothing. We need to honour and respect them at every stage of their lives. Cows are selfless, beautiful, and bountiful animals, and we need to have enormous gratitude towards them.
Can you drink raw milk from a cow suffering with mastitis? Do any of your herd suffer from this? If so, what steps are in place to avoid or reduce such occurrences?
We certainly get some mastitis, but I wouldn’t ever drink milk from a cow with it. If there were two things a dairy farmer could wish away, they would be mastitis and pneumonia. Mastitis is common to every dairy farm to a greater or lesser extent and we do everything we can to avoid it. Our parlour hygiene is key: we have the milking machine routinely serviced and a good milking routine to avoid any contamination. Another thing we do to prevent mastitis is to clip the cows’ tail hairs using a special machine which helps keeps the tail clean.
Diet is very important as well. You can walk on a farm and tell instantly what the general health of the herd is like. You can see it in their fertility, in the shine on their coat, if they’re cudding [ruminating]. I do believe in the organic principle of healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals. It’s in everybody’s interest to look after your land and your cows. Our land has benefited so much from having our grass in rotation with arable crops over the last 60 years. It’s noticeable after all the rain how well our fields drain due to the increased organic matter in the soil. It’s been a huge plus in sustaining soil structure and aerobics.