Dairy Diaries: Sinodun Hill

Pictured are our cheese buyer Bronwen and retail managers Amy and Lydia enjoying the company of three Norton and Yarrow kids. 

This year we are celebrating our 40th birthday here at Neal’s Yard Dairy. As part of our celebrations, we are of course celebrating the eclectic group of wonderful cheesemakers and farmers we work with. On reflecting on the past 40 years, we feel so privileged to be part of such an engaged and dedicated community.  Our Dairy Diaries blog series brings you a snapshot of what’s happening at some of the farms we work with.

This month’s cheesemaker blog comes from Rachel Yarrow, who makes Sinodun Hill and Brightwell Ash with her partner Fraser Norton in Oxfordshire on a farm they lease through the Earth Trust’s Farm Step programme. 

Babies all round

At Norton and Yarrow Cheese, we have been really enjoying watching winter turn to spring and our thoughts have been very much on pregnancy and birth. Over 40 of our goats kidded between start of March and end of April, and another 33 are due to kid in July. Meanwhile, Fraser and I have just had our second baby together who was due in the middle of May (luckily coinciding with a brief window where no kids are being born!) and as I write this our baby is now overdue….

Babies in the barn

Kidding is an exciting and lovely but also quite intense time on the farm. I love seeing the tiny newborn kids and watching how quickly they grow.  It is also really exciting to see the milk volumes rise and the bulk tank looking fuller and fuller each day. We are somewhat unusual in the dairy industry in that our standard way of raising the kids is to keep them with their mothers until weaning. You do get less milk that way of course, but on balance we feel it is less stressful for all involved and a better start in life for the kids. The kids quickly form ‘gangs’ with other kids of a similar age, and go around together, looking for mischief and sleeping in piles rather like kittens. You never know when the next kid is going to be born when you are in a ‘kidding time’. On the busiest few days when you have 8 or 9 goats kidding in the space of a few hours, it can all get a bit manic. You find yourself trying to make sure no one goes unnoticed in a corner or goes off with the wrong kids (which they do try…!).

Most births are very straightforward, and we only intervene in perhaps 1 in 10, when there is a difficult presentation usually or an unusually large kid. The goats tend to kid in daylight hours which does make life a bit easier. They also often seem to pick days when the weather is nicer, which I suppose makes sense! They seem to prefer to give birth to their kids unobserved, so as much as possible we leave them to it until the kids arrive. Some of them, especially first-time kidders, can start off as very indifferent mothers. They might deliver a kid and then promptly walk off to sit and munch hay with their friends, completely ignoring the kid sitting bleating on the straw. I guess I can empathise! They usually come around to the idea with some persuasion, and after the first time are much more likely to mother their kids well.

Our baby

Watching so many births does put my own pregnancy into perspective. The matter-of-fact attitude that the goats take to the whole process is quite inspiring. Unlike our goats, who get 2 months ‘off’ before their due date to ensure they are in the best condition possible for kidding and early lactation, I have carried on working. Lots of elements of cheesemaking are quite compatible with late pregnancy – moulding cheeses, ladling curd, wrapping and packing cheese to send out. Others though are less so, particularly all the bending down and lifting. It is also advisable to stay away from kidding goats when you are a pregnant human, so I haven’t been doing much on the goat side of the business, which I miss a lot and am looking forward to getting back to. In the meantime, I’m having an admin blitz and doing exciting things like getting my head round our new accounting software, which the geeky part of me quite enjoys.

Meanwhile, we are also working on scaling up production of our new cheese, Brightwell Ash, which we now produce alongside our more established cheese Sinodun Hill (both named after landmarks local to the farm). We had been developing this cheese on the back burner since late 2016, making a few trial batches here and there when time allowed, but started in earnest early this year. There are always interesting challenges as you make larger batches of cheese, such as when you accidentally make more than you have bought the moulds for or discover that the number of moulds you have won’t actually fit on the draining table. It is an interesting intellectual puzzle to work through this kind of problem though and very rewarding when you get nice feedback from customers. 

**Update, since writing, baby Dorothea has arrived safe and well. Rachel dropped us a line to say "Just like a goat, I managed to choose a lovely day for her to be born and the timing was perfect as Fraser had just finished packing the Neal's Yard Dairy cheeses for collection the next day when it all kicked off! She was born two hours later. We came home on Monday and so far all going well".