My passion is food and farming, which is how a person who doesn’t come from a farming background ended up starting Free Range Dairy Network with fellow Director Neil Darwent.
To me, food and farming touches on every part of life. How we survive, how the planet survives, animal welfare, our culture, social justice and access to good quality food, our health, who controls the production of food – the list goes on.
Over the next 12 months I want to speak with others who are also interested in these issues and can bring a different perspective to dairy and food in the UK.
This month as it’s #Februdairy I’m chatting with Liz Godsells, dairy farmer and Master Cheesemaker.
Thank you, Liz, for taking time out to chat with me and discuss some of the issues I’m sure people are asking themselves about dairy farming. Not just this month but dairy farming has been in the news a lot recently. It seems to be taking a real bashing in the media, being blamed for climate change, ill health, you name it I’m sure farmers and cows have somehow been blamed for it!
So, let’s take the opportunity to hear from an actual dairy farmer, one that runs a pasture based dairy system, which is very different from a large intensive dairy farm, about what’s so great about dairy farming.
Liz sometimes there can be so much misinformation circulated about dairy farming. #Februdairy must be a great opportunity to put the record straight? What do you think are the most misleading things you hear about dairy?
#Febudairy is a great opportunity to show off the wonderful world of dairy farming, with dedicated and skilled people working around the clock to deliver one of nature’s greatest foods – MILK.
I think there is a lot of goodwill out there for farmers, but the media and social media seem to write about farms that are nothing like ours and this leads to the misinformation that somehow all dairy farms are the same.
British Dairy farmers are some of the best in the world. People might not know it, but grassland is our Rain Forest. It’s just upside down, with 90% of their biomass below ground in the roots. It absorbs carbon and we look after it, our cows eat it and they also help look after it, and from it we produce a great tasting milk.
We had an Open Day on our farm last summer (2019). We were gob smacked by how many people came, even with very little promotion. We had calves and cows and pigs. Our vet came along and painted (with washable safe paint) the cow’s different stomachs so people could see how a cow digests grass. She lost her voice by the end of the day as so many people wanted to talk to her. We didn’t have one negative comment all day.
Most Dairy Farmers have a vocation to look after animals and toil the soil. We’re doing our best to feed the nation. It’s quite upsetting some of the accusations made on social media about us from people who I feel are misinformed. We care deeply for our cows; we care for them the very best way we can because we want happy cows and happy people looking after them.
I think one of the misconceptions young people and others have, which is why they switch from cow’s milk to a plant based milk, is that the cows are mistreated and lead miserable lives. Tell me about the cows and calves on your farm.
The day starts at 4.30am for the person on milking duty. On arriving at the farm, first thing is to check if any cow has calved. Our cows calve all year round. The milking parlour will be set up ready for the cows to come in for milking. They always come into the parlour in the same order, with the bossier ones up front.
The cows will be milked and will have some extra feed afterwards, Victoria is a Friesian, after she’s been milked, she manages to open the door to office and find the bucket with the feed in it.
All our cows have very different personalities. They have a name, either because of their dam (the mother line) or they remind us of someone, or they did something memorable or if they were poorly.
If we have a poorly cow, you get very close to them when you’re nursing them and really see their character and you have a special bond with them after that. We get very attached to our cows and calves; they’re all our friends.
Here’s a small selection of some of our cows, there’s Hellie, named after one of the ladies who helps make our cheese. She is a Gloucester Cross, 12 years old, with a largish udder but very good milker and doing very well for an old girl. She has some daughters in the herd.
Jean is a Jersey Cross, everybody loves Jean. She is coming up for retirement but going to stay on the farm. She has some daughters in the herd.
Liz is a beautiful red cow and as a heifer quite stunning and is named after me and Andrea, a Normandie, takes things at her own pace and won’t be rushed.
As it’s wintertime, while the cows are being milked, we clean the barn for them, feed the baby calves and put in clean straw. It’s a busy day finishing with a late night check on the cows around 10pm, especially the ones due to give birth. Then bed for all of us.
After cow turn out in springtime, a typical day for the cows is to be out on pasture, sleeping, resting, eating the grass, only coming in for milking. Once the milking is done, they’re back out on pasture again.
How people can think British cows are mistreated, I don’t know. Our cows are housed during winter but as soon as it’s springtime, and the cows tell us it’s springtime by mooing to be let out, we open the gate and out they go. Running and skipping, sniffing the air, excited to graze the green stuff. Under the Pasture Promise they are out for a minimum of 180 days and nights, 18 hours a day for spring, summer and autumn (weather permitting!)
When you think of an image of a dairy farmer, me included, it’s normally a man, possibly leaning on a gate chewing straw. What made you want to become a dairy farmer and what would your advice be to other women interested in dairy farming?
I have always lived on a farm. My father started the Dairy Herd in 1960. I remember being asked by a family friend when I was 10, what did I want to be when I grew up? A farmer, I said. That’s all I have ever wanted to do. I love cows, I understand them, I can talk to them.
I do a bit of cow whispering! As a child I had a pet calf which I named Dougall, it was the 60s’ and I named all the calves after the Magic Roundabout. Dougall, was a very good friend. Many a summer night I would go and sit against her and share her warmth and chat about things. She was a great listener. It’s bringing a tear to my eye just writing this. I knew from then on all I wanted to do was care for cows and look after them.
The expectation was I would work on the family farm but then marry and tend to a family. I went to Aberystwyth to do a degree in Agriculture and I was lucky enough to meet a modern thinking man, my husband Bryan, who was more than happy to cook and look after our children so I could follow my dream to be a Dairy Farmer!
Dairy farming is a vocation. It’s a tough and physical life, even with all the machinery and technology. The most important thing is the relationship between cows and the farmer and getting the balance right for both. I now have a daughter who has joined us on the farm. She is a natural with cows and I hope there is a profitable future ahead for her.
Women most definitely have a place in the Dairy world. Lady farmers are not so rare but it’s still mostly men in farming. Despite that we have four lady farmers in our two neighbouring villages, all of whom have a great reputation. If you want to be a farmer you can do it, it’s hard work but worth it, especially with a good partner beside you!
Farming, I think incorrectly, is currently being blamed for all the issues around climate change. Yes, there will be a carbon footprint attached to dairy farming, but industrial dairy farm is very different from a pasture based farm. What measures are you taking on your farm to develop sustainable milk production and safeguard the environment?
We, as dairy farmers are being blamed for methane production and other greenhouse gases. But we all need to look at our own impact on the planet first. Cars, planes, heating, single use plastic, food waste, excessive clothing all contribute, but many choose to ignore all of that, as it’s easier to blame the cows.
Methane is broken down in the atmosphere over a ten year period and is recycled back into growing green plant material that our cows eat. Cow numbers are decreasing so methane production is a flat line, unlike carbon, which takes a hundred years to degrade and production of that is greatly increasing.
We have a wonderful answer – grass fields- our version of a rainforest and one of the best sponges for carbon sequestration, along with miles of hedge rows and trees. Instead of getting rid of dairy farms like ours, we should be supporting them.
I strongly believe cows should eat grass and be allowed the freedom to graze the fields and express their natural behaviour. That’s why we’re part of Free Range Dairy Network and promise to graze our cows for 180 days and nights each year. This way we utilise our natural resource of grass and turn it into nutritious milk. What a great way to produce food!
We add good bacteria to dirty water that is a combination of cow muck and rain that falls on our farmyard, to make the nutrients more readily available to the grass when applied. This is stored on the farm and spread on fields to feed the grass in the spring. We also have solar panels that generate electricity, which we use to heat water for washing down the parlour after milking.
We love our hedge rows. We look after them because they provide food and shelter for birds, insects, wildlife and also look so beautiful in the autumn. We love our trees for the same reasons as well as the shade they provide for our cows in the summer. But most of all, we love the grass that feeds our cows.
Everything we do for the cows and the land is to run the best farm we can, and protecting nature is part of our commitment to the countryside.
You not only milk cows on your farm, you make cheese too. How did that come about and what do you enjoy most about selling your own product direct to customers?
I am a self-confessed ‘cheeseaholic’. I need cheese daily; I’d say yes to any cheese, but to be able to eat my cheese, cheese I’ve made is the best feeling.
We’ve been making cheese since 2001. The milk price was down to 16 pence per litre and no dairy farmer was making any profit, so we decided to try cheese to add value to the milk we were producing. We make traditional Double Gloucester cheese as well as a range of others from Singing Granny, Village Gossip and Cockadilly Chilli – a hot and spicy cheese.
Cheese is amazing and 20 years later we’re still here making Godsells Cheese. It’s made here on the farm from our cow’s milk and we have a “Cheese Team”. I’m a Master Cheesemaker and love talking about cheese (and our cows) and I’m very proud of our cheese and the awards we’ve won.
I love being a Dairy Farmer and I love my cows; I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.