Farm of the Week: The fifth-generation dairy farmers who have taken back control of their 'raw' milk sales

History is repeating on a fifth-generation dairy farm in West Yorkshire where Joe Swainson and his wife Kate have taken the farm back to bottling milk and selling direct to the public.

The family sell a range of produce including eggs and honey

The lion’s share of milk produced from their 120 Holstein milking cows at Red Lodge Farm in Kirkhamgate, near Wakefield, is sold to Yew Tree Dairies in Skelmersdale, but it is their move into retailing raw milk that Joe said is proving increasingly popular.

“We’ve gone back to our roots. We used to bottle milk and sell it on the doorstep for many years until people switched to buying from supermarkets.

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“Two years ago we took the decision to start bottling and selling raw milk as we had been asked by quite a few local people.”

The Swainsons sell 'raw' unpasteurised milk themselves

Joe and Kate now sell 2,500 litres of raw milk a week. It may only appear to be a drop in the milky ocean in terms of their cows’ output but it has proved a welcome new income.

Joe said they have now expanded their sales to free-range eggs and honey from the farm and also supply produce from other local suppliers.

“We like the contact with the public. When you talk and listen people tell you what they want to buy rather than us having to wonder what will work.

“On the first Saturday we bottled, I towed our cattle trailer on the back of our pick-up to the top of our lane and opened a hatch like you see on burger vans and people came.

Joe with his milking herd

“Kate had done a bit of advertising on Facebook and had put more information about the healthiness of raw milk. We are also members of the Raw Milk Producers Association.

“We sold 200 litres in four hours that afternoon and I just thought we’d arrived. It was a great feeling. In three months we were selling 600 litres.”

Kate said the natural, unprocessed quality of the milk is in demand.

“Our customers are sold on it because the milk has not been through other processes.

“It’s a big selling point for the British Asian and Eastern European communities who understand the health benefits over pasteurised milk.”

Such has been the success of bottled raw milk from Red Lodge Farm that the couple now sell three days a week from their timber lodge within their farm gate, as well as having also returned to delivering milk.

Joe said it has been driven by customer demand.

“Customers asked whether we could open another day because some couldn’t hold enough in their fridge, so we began opening on a Tuesday and then Covid brought about our opening on a Friday as well as Saturday, as we were getting so busy.

“We deliver to Wakefield, Dewsbury and Bradford areas on a Saturday and Leeds on a Sunday, going as far as Shipley and Shadwell, but we also get a number of customers who make an effort to travel quite a way because they want raw milk.”

Joe farms in partnership with his father John who still gets involved, feeding the calves morning and night with Joe’s mum, Gill.

The raw milk move is just one of several major developments at their wholly owned 140-acre Red Lodge Farm in the past seven years.

New dairy cow buildings and robotic milking machines have taken the place of tired and outdated systems and Joe said he’s moving the herd towards a totally new breed of dairy cow.

“We put up two new cubicle sheds and then added two Fullwood Merlin milking robots four years ago. It took me two years getting used to them. When we first put them in cows loved them a bit too much and it caused its own toll as they went to 12,000 litres a year.

“I’d never seen cows fall to bits as quickly. It was too much for them, so we altered one or two things and brought them back to a sustainable level of around 8,000 litres. We don’t push them.

“We’re in the process of changing over to Fleckvieh dual purpose cows. The Holsteins have just got to the stage where you can’t get that weight into them and I thought a dual purpose cow might open up more avenues from a meat point of view.”

It is early days just yet as the cows that have all been put to Fleckvieh AI start calving in July and it will take two years before Joe has any Fleckvieh milkers but he said he’s impressed with what he has seen elsewhere.

“We had a look at purebred Fleckviehs that had been brought in from Europe and saw just how brilliant they are.

“They give great fat and protein and that is what our dairy wants for their customers.”

Kate has expanded her hen numbers due to the raw milk business and she said the farm’s retail operation is continuing to grow.

“Immediately customers started coming we were asked if we did eggs. We had our own hens so we put out a few and sold out. We now have around 50 and our customers have started coming earlier to make sure they get them.

“We then had a beekeeper approach us. He sent us a jar of his honey and asked whether we’d be interested in selling it at the lodge. We now have four hives on the farm.”

Bread and ice cream have followed with a customer supplying bread from his sourdough micro bakery and an ice cream van stood alongside the lodge. Kate said it all works well.

“The produce we have available all provides further reasons for people to come and we are also supporting other local businesses.”

Joe and Kate have a daughter, Jess, 16, who is looking forward to studying agriculture at Askham Bryan College in September and a son, Jacob, 13, who Joe said has a gift for being with animals.

“Jacob is a natural. He can go up to animals we can’t and they just accept him. The raw milk sales have given us all a lift. You can see how you can make things work and add value to what we do.”