Tag Archives: cows

Great Godminster! How they make their mouth-watering cheese

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We visited Godminster to find out more about what goes into making their award-winning brie and cheddar for our Riverford boxes.

Richard Hollingbery, owner of Godminster Farm in Bruton, Somerset, has a simple mantra – nature repays those who treat her kindly. They are one of a dwindling number of dairy farms that are also cheesemakers, and we think this direct connection makes their cheeses all the better.

Farm manager Pete Cheek and Richard have crossed their 230 head herd of British Friesians with Swedish Red, Norwegian Red and Hereford breeds, to produce animals that are well-suited to the largely pasture based organic system of dairy farming. This also means that male calves can be brought on as beef animals. Wildlife is encouraged all over the farm with wide field margins and carefully managed ponds and hedgerows, while homeopathy is used as part of the herd management.

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On the cheesemaking side of the business, Richard has perfected the recipe for Godminster cheddar over the last 10 years, creating an unusually creamy cheese. Brothers Steve and Malcolm Dyer, along with Ashley Reynold, are Godminster’s treasured brie.

They work closely with Pete, the farm manager, so that they can tweak their cheese making process as the cows’ diet changes through the year; a wet summer for example will produce different milk to a hot one. All of this impacts how the cheese is made, as everything from temperature to pH and fat levels can influence how it turns out, and it takes an expert eye to know how to manage it. The brie is made in small batches and the curds cut by hand, with the team using a traditional liquid brine along with herbs, garlic and black pepper to infuse different flavours into the cheese. The result is a fantastic, authentic brie range that is full of character. Definitely one of our favourites!

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Separating curds & whey, ready to pack into cheese mould.

The cheese is made a stone’s throw from where the cows roam, grazing on organic grass and clover.  Their milk is pasteurised before having rennet added to it and kept at 23C for a day and a night. When ready, the curd is cut by hand using a ‘harp,’ tipped into plastic moulds and flattened by hand.

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Packing curd into mould by hand

The whey is drained away.

The brie goes into a brining room for 24 hours, then a ripening room for 5 days – this is where the bloom (or what we’d call the skin) starts to form.

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The team at Godminster make 80 cheeses at a time, which are cut and turned before being hand-wrapped and ready for our boxes.

 

guy’s newsletter: bucking cows, smoke-belching old timers & happy field workers

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The muck is flying, the furrows are turning and every functioning tractor is hitched to something. Even the neglected and otherwise abandoned, smokebelching old timers get coaxed back to life to haul plants, seeds and crop covers to the fields.

With sun on their backs, our field workers once again consider themselves lucky; the hours are long as we struggle to catch up but everyone likes to see jobs done well. All of this is so much easier when the mud stops sticking to boots and wheels, and soil works easily into seedbeds that invite young plants to grow. Who wouldn’t be a farmer when the weather is with you.

In France we have finally planted the cabbage and kohl rabi (five weeks late), and are planting the last lettuce before moving on to courgettes, sweetcorn and turnips.Meanwhile in the polytunnels we are preparing to cut the second crop of lettuce before immediately replanting with peppers. A month ago with so little sunlight and fungal disease running rife I thought they were a write off; we lost a third but the survivors rallied remarkably as soon as the sun showed, and there will be a fair crop for your boxes over the next two weeks.

The signs are that it will be a long hungry gap after a warm, if wet, winter. Most of our leafy crops will finish early and a wet spring has delayed planting so there will be a shortage of green veg over the next two months. I can only lament the day last November when my sister’s cows broke through the fence to munch through our young spring greens. It has left a big hole in our plans, which the weather has conspired to make larger. Yesterday, after four months indoors and a diet of ten tons of silage each (broken only by the occasional grade out banana), our cows were happily bounding around the fields enjoying the taste of fresh grass. As the yard gates open even the older cows skip and buck their way up the lane. Any remaining sombre dignity is abandoned as they get to the field and cannot decide whether to eat or charge around, throwing double footed kicks high in the air. All being well you’ll be able to enjoy the spectacle too as we plan to film the turnout, and share the video on our website and Facebook page soon.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: zen pickers & marauding cows

Despite the deluge, everyone is happy enough apart from the chickens. If it is to rain for eight weeks with barely a pause, it might as well be now when the days are shortest and not much is happening in our fields. On the whole our standing crops are bearing up well and there is little to be gained from cultivating or planting before March.

As you wash the last traces of our fields from your leeks, spare a thought for our pickers. It has been mercifully warm, but eight hours in a windswept field with ten pounds of mud clinging to each boot and the rain trickling down your neck day after day would break most mortals. I have never been down a mine or on a deep-sea trawler, but I reckon they are the only professions that could compete with winter veg picking for harshness of conditions. Most people just can’t take it, but there seems to be something in the makeup of a small minority that can shrug off such hardship; those who stick with it tend to be a pretty Zen bunch; perhaps they rise to a higher level of consciousness, who knows.

With the winter half gone we are taking stock, in the barns and the fields, and recalculating whether we will make it to spring. Spuds and onions are fine, right on plan but carrots will be short (they never really recovered from a dry summer and were more affected by carrot root fly than planned). In the fields the mild weather has brought leeks, kale, cabbages and cauliflower ahead of schedule; great for now but leading to potential shortages in March and April. The situation is not helped by a marauding herd of cows that broke into our spring greens one weekend. Not believing their luck they chomped through half a million or so before being detected, leaving a sizeable hole in our plans for your kitchens. We are hoping for a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli to fill the gap. Depending on temperatures we will pick the fields every five to ten days until the spears become too small for viable picking. My guess is that this year, with greens in short supply, we will be scouring the fields that would normally have been turned over to the sheep.

guy’s newsletter: bruised, but still here

The first of the big winter gales has blown through, leaving us a little tattered but still standing. One older, single-span polytunnel was ripped open, but it was overdue for re-skinning anyway. Meanwhile our newer, terrifyingly light gauge (but better engineered) multi-span tunnels survived with only minor damage. Outside, the gale has brought our borlotti bean harvest to a premature end after the crop was left beaten into the mud. 

Even the most determined picker would struggle to maintain quality, but we’ve been sufficiently encouraged by their flavour and your response to try again next year, both in Devon and further south on our French farm. Perpetual spinach and chard were another casualty however. They are happy in the autumn conditions and would grow on until the first hard frost, but their delicate leaves don’t mix with gales. Sorting through the damage makes harvesting slow, demoralising and economically dubious at best.

There are ways of minimising storm damage however. Compared to our farms in other parts of the country, here in Devon we are blessed with high hedges, relatively small fields and plenty of trees, affording good shelter for our crops. Given my time again, and without the compromise of rotating our fields with the dairy herd, I would definitely plant even more windbreaks; the combined impact of a reduced cropping area and added shading would be countered many times over by the additional protection they would bring.

To add to the calamity last week, our normally well-behaved heifers broke through an electric fence and munched their way across most of our spring greens. My sister Louise blames the introduction of three bulls for pursuing (or enticing) her fair, well-trained maidens into such unruly behaviour. Some of the plants may grow back where the growing point was spared, but it will be a late, uneven and much diminished crop.

All is by no means lost; these are minor hiccups in what is and continues to be a great growing year. Indeed, a greater concern is veg growing too big, particularly cabbage and radicchio, but on reflection (and certainly compared to our farming woes this time last year), that’s a good problem to have.

Guy Watson

Bovine delight

The cows were turned out yesterday. It was a gloriously warm, bright spring morning and after four months inside eating silage they were certainly happy to taste fresh grass again and feel the turf under their feet. As the yard gates opened, they briefly hesitated as if in disbelief, then charged off in all directions, bucking and butting their way around the field before settling down to that wonderful spring grass.

The weather charts suggest it will be raining when you read this, but today we are planting onions and potatoes with the sun on our backs. Another team is busy picking up the last of the potatoes we were unable to harvest in the autumn. The winter deluge beat the structure out of last year’s fine seed bed; by the time it was dry enough to venture onto, the surface had formed a crust which defied all modern harvesting machinery, forcing us to bend over and pick them up by hand. Twenty five years ago we harvested them all like that and I wouldn’t want to go back.

After two or three crops of vegetables our fields get tired and it is time to rest them from cultivating and harvesting and to put back what we have taken out. We build fertility and structure with three or four years of grass and clover which are grazed, cut and conserved as silage, or sometimes mulched to feed the soil. This week we have been busy sowing triticale (a hardy vigorous cross between rye and wheat) as a nurse crop. In early April, when the triticale has established, we will broadcast the grass and clover seeds and very lightly scratch the surface with a tine harrow to cover the seed and allow germination. The grass and clover does well in the partial shade under the triticale until the whole crop is taken as silage in July to feed the cows next winter. With the shade and competition removed, the perennial grass and clover take over, fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, building fertility and feeding the cows and the soil until we plough it down to grow vegetables again.

Guy Watson

Healthy cows + good milk

cow - riverford organic milkIn 1951 my father, a keen new Church of England tenant farmer, unloaded 36 Ayrshire cows at Staverton station here in Devon and walked them a mile up the road to Riverford Farm. This was the start of the enterprise which has been the backbone of our farm for sixty years. Initially we used traditional standings, milking into a bucket, before transferring it to churns for delivery to Dawes’ Dairy in Totnes. From there most of it went to London on the train. From Ayrshires my father slowly bred up to the higher yielding, but still stocky and robust British Friesians. We never went to those leggy, hat rack Holsteins: the ultimate milk machines that have become ubiquitous in the developed world.

Holsteins are very effective at turning grains and soya (normally grown using oil-dependent fertiliser and pesticides, often overseas) into milk, making them ideal for the intensive ‘feed lot’ system, where the cow never leaves the yard. They have been so highly bred that they often milk themselves to death, producing up to 80 litres a day before being culled, typically for lameness, infertility or mastitis at around 5-6 years old. Holstein bull calves will not fatten on grass so are usually raised on grain in feed lots, exported for veal production, or shot at birth.

We have moved in the opposite direction; since going organic in the late ‘80s we have crossed those Friesians back to robust traditional breeds like Montbéliarde, Dairy Shorthorn and Normande. They spend 75% of the year outside and eat 90% grass and clover, either fresh or as silage and hay. Our cows produce modest amounts of milk but spend twice as long in the herd as many Holsteins, with far fewer occurrences of mastitis. Meanwhile the stocky bull calves can be brought on as grass-fed beef cattle, or to produce rose veal.

Essentially, our organic milk is as close to those first pints my father produced in the ‘50s as it’s possible to get today. It also begs the question: can the milk that comes from feed lot cows fed a largely unnatural diet, in an intensive, artificial environment, milk that is so processed that it gets a shelf life of up to three weeks (unlike our modest five days), really be called fresh milk?

Guy Watson

The white stuff

My father never got on with sheep (“always looking for a new way to die”), so every morning and evening he milked 30 Ayrshire cows on our farm. In the 60 years since, the rule of farming has been to get bigger or get out, so my brother and sister now milk 250 cows at Riverford. When the local dairy stopped bottling organic milk, Oliver and Louise partnered up with some of the old dairy staff to pasteurise and carton the milk on the farm and to make yoghurt, cream and more recently, butter. I now have 250 words to convince you to buy the stuff. Here goes:

1.It tastes great. Maybe that’s because it is fresher; we go for a seven day shelf life compared to big dairies’ 14. Maybe it is that the cows have a more natural diet of forage (grass, clover etc.), not grain and soya. You can taste a cow’s diet in the milk, as we discovered recently when the cows ate waste apple pulp during cider making season. Not everyone liked it.

2.It’s better for you. Cows that eat more forage have substantially higher levels of Omega 3 in their milk. Most milk is homogenised to break up fat globules to nano-sized particles and stop them from separating out. There is some evidence that these can be absorbed into the blood directly across the gut wall, with potential health implications. We don’t homogenise, leaving you to decide if you want to give the milk a shake or not.

3.It is better for the cows. Our cows suffer less mastitis, less lameness, less infertility and live for much longer. Some super-intensive herds get fewer than two lactations per cow; the average is perhaps three or four. We get five.

4.It’s better for the environment. Our pastures get no synthetic fertilisers or sprays and are seldom ploughed, resulting in more biodiversity, lower use of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide being sequestrated in soil organic matter.

5.You know where it comes from. The milk is all from our cows, 200 yards from the dairy and delivered straight to your doorstep, without being transported unnecessarily or mixed with milk from hundreds of different farms.

Guy Watson

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The Riverford dairy

Riverford cowsWe took a trip to the Riverford Dairy, a couple of miles from our farm in Devon. The dairy, owned by Oliver Watson, Guy’s brother, has just 8 staff members and 250 cows, but supplies us with a lot of organic milk, yoghurt, cream and butter.

Riverford cows are a mixed breed of European hill farm herds. Each cow produces around 18 litres of milk per day and lives for 6-8 years (higher yield cows live 2-3 years). They live outside for 9 months and stay in a barn over winter.

In the barn, the cows have their own stalls so they can sleep without being in the way of the rest of the herd, but they are free to walk around. They are fed silage (fermented grass), vegetables, fruit and cow cakes (made from maize, barley, wheat and pulses).

Milking happens daily between 4:00-5:30pm and takes 2-3 minutes per cow. Milk from the Riverford dairy is pasteurised to kill off bacteria but isn’t homogenised, so before opening one of our cartons, give it a good shake.

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