Farm Of The Week: Dairy holds no fear for double winner

Geoff Spence, Thomas Clarke, 7 week old William Spence and Chris Spence
Geoff Spence, Thomas Clarke, 7 week old William Spence and Chris Spence
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Geoff Spence has unfaltering belief in the value of milk. Ben Barnett visits his growing operations in Brompton village.

North Yorkshire farmer Geoff Spence is passionate about milk and is keen to impress its qualities upon the public.

“Milk is one of the highest sources of antioxidants you can get. That’s why I look 21,” he quips.

“We take part in Open Farm Sunday, something we started doing two years ago with Asda, and we have people coming to the farm to see the production process who have no concept of how it’s done and no idea of the different qualities of the fat content of blue, green and red top milk.

“If you tested milk against energy drinks, it comes top overall as a natural source of energy. Milk is good for beating dehydration.

“Milk is one of the most underrated products on the shelves because it’s plain white in a bottle. If people were educated about its qualities, they would pay more for it. What else can you buy two litres of for £1? A bottle of water can be dearer.

“When people pick up a bottle of milk off the shelf for £1, the amount of effort and attention to detail of getting it there is profound.”

An award-winner, Geoff, actual age 51, lifted the highly prestigious Gold Cup four years ago, a trophy handed over once a year by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers in recognition of outstanding efficiency in commercial milk production.

He produces the white stuff from a herd of 530 cows at Lowfields Farm in the village of Brompton near Northallerton and sells it to global dairy company Arla Foods on contract with Asda. Geoff is confident the industry has a bright future, despite squeezes on prices paid to producers which led to protests outside dairies last year.

Where once producers had the comfort of a guaranteed minimum price from the Milk Marketing Board, the government agency which effectively relinquished its responsibilities in 1994, co-operatives of farmers are now offering greater stability, says Geoff.

“Milk Link (one of the original co-operatives to form after the Milk Marketing Board ended) was very successful and it amalgamated with Arla last year.

“We are now looking at joining Arla Food amba in January 2014 to become part of one of the world’s biggest co-operatives of dairy farmers. It should return more investment back to producers.”

When the going was tough in 1999, Geoff had the perfect excuse to exit the industry. The farm buildings were dated and required a huge investment, but he took the plunge and hasn’t looked back since.

“In 1999, I could have walked away but we replaced the buildings. Then in 2000, the milk price crashed by 10p a litre and if it wasn’t for the support of my family and friends I wouldn’t have got through it but I don’t regret making the investment. I’ve met lots of interesting people and through the success we’ve had, and it’s given me a platform to fight for my industry.”

In 2007 he won the Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year title. Lowfields is the only farm to have won both this award and the Gold Cup.

The farm has expanded massively under Geoff’s leadership, after taking over the running of the business from his father Thomas, who is now 83.

“My father Thomas came here in 1957 with 25 Friesian cows. It was a mixed farm with poultry and sheep.

“In the ’80s we went just dairy and introduced Holsteins. The herd is now 90 per cent Holstein.

“The Friesians aren’t known for giving a lot of milk so we put Holsteins on them to get more milking but we wanted to try and keep a good sized cow.

“Thirty per cent of the Friesians are home bred so we were able to bring our home-breeding through the herd and have managed to keep an average-sized dairy cow that’s functional and long lasting.”

The herd is kept indoors all year round in a free stall cow barn fitted with automated brushes for grooming.

Geoff says: “Because the cows are inside we want them as comfortable as possible. I find it easy to manage because we can control the environment. The barn has an insulated roof to keep the heat in when it’s cold and a ventilation system for when it warms up.

“When it was wet last year the grass was too wet for cows to eat, it affects their energy and milk yield, and with the heat stress this summer, they were happy inside the shed.

“A cow’s optimum temperature is about six degrees Celcius. When they get to 18 to 20 degrees they get heat stress and this summer it got to 29 degrees.”

Geoff has stepped up his milk operations with the help of a staff of seven, and since March his herd has been milked three times a day – at 4am, noon and 8pm. He says the change has increased yields by 12 per cent so that the herd is now averaging 11,600 kg a day.

“What drives me is to have strong cows that last a long time and achieve 100 tonnes of milk in their lifetime,” says Geoff.

“I want them to have a comfortable life in top quality facilities and any money we can get back from milk we put back into the farm for the welfare of the cows.

“We give our cows 100 per cent. We look after them.

“It’s our hobby as well as our life and it’s seven days a week.

“What we are striving for is a return on our product so we can continue to invest. A lot of dairy farmers’ facilities are 50 to 60 years old. A supermarket wouldn’t sell food from a 50 to 60 year-old store.”

As for the future, he hopes his son Christopher will eventually succeed him in running the business – maybe leaving him with more time to spend with his wife of 30 years, Linda.

“We are growing, modernising and expanding so that we can manage with a good team of staff which will give us flexibility for other things,” Geoff says.

“I’ve milked cows for 35 years.

“A lot of dairy farmers are brought in to the industry by their fathers and I wouldn’t be doing anything else.”