July 29, 2020

From Grass to Glass – a new milk vending venture

CAFRE Dairy Adviser Zara Morrison trying out some of the milk sold directly from the Chestnutt Farm

William and Alison Chestnutt have seen a phenomenal demand for their milk as they launch a milk vending machine on their dairy farm. William, a member of the Coleraine Business Development Group, is a fourth generation dairy farmer and Alison has an extensive background in quality auditing and food safety within the food processing industry having worked with Moy Park, The Foyle Group and currently Dale Farm. The Chestnutt farm is situated on the main Ballymoney to Portrush road so is ideal for the passing tourists on route to the north coast.

Speaking to College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Dairy Development Adviser, Zara Morrison, William commented “while on a trip to Holland I had seen a milk vending machine in action and liked the idea.  The dairy press also reports a lot on the success of adding value to milk in this way across the water in mainland GB.  With Alison’s technical skills and my dairy cows it seemed like the perfect combination!”

William and Alison travelled to England to the main vending machine distributor and visited a number of farms who are already selling milk directly to the public.  The main selling point for them was the ability to move back to glass bottles, similar to the ones we all remember the milkman delivering to our doorsteps.  William stated that “single use plastic has been in the media over the last number of years for all the wrong reasons and we wanted to be able to offer our customers an alternative to the throw away plastic cartons.”

A pasteurisation room was constructed, which is located close to the milking parlour and allows the milk to be directly pumped from the cow to the pasteuriser.  The machine is capable of pasteurising 150 litres of milk at a time and a fresh batch is done daily.  It takes thirty minutes for the milk to reach the optimum temperature of 63.5°C, it is then held at this temperature for another thirty minutes to ensure all harmful bacteria is removed.  The milk then must be chilled to below 10°C, achieved through a separate cooling system.

The milk is transported on a trolley across the yard to the ‘Milk Hut’ which houses the two vending machines.  One machine dispenses one litre or 250ml of milk while the other allows people to buy reusable one litre or 250ml glass bottles.

William says that “pasteurising the milk ensures that it is safe for the public to drink but unlike shop bought milk, the milk we are selling is non homogenised giving it an extra creamy taste and perfect for making those frothy coffees. It also allows for the potential expansion into supplying local coffee shops.”

With a delay on the project due to Covid-19 ‘The Milk Hut’ was finally launched on 11th July.  There has been a huge demand which resulted in a sell-out situation on numerous days, and an average of 120 litres sold daily.  With the lifting of lockdown restrictions there has been an influx of tourists and approximately 60% of the customers to ‘The Milk Hut’ have been non locals.  It is hoped however that the local support will continue after the summer and the usual weekend spike in visitors will still provide an income during the winter months.  William says “chatting to many of our customers since opening it is evident that people want to know where their food is coming from and being able to buy it directly from the farm is a bonus.  There has been an enormous response to the glass bottles as people are wanting to move away from plastic waste.”  William continued “We decided to add 250ml size bottles, along with the option of adding a flavour to the milk, to give children their own ‘mini milk bottle’ to enjoy and promote milk within the younger generation as a good source of calcium and minerals.”

The Chestnutt family own 100 ha and rent a further 46 ha.  The herd of 250 cows is predominately Holstein but the change is being made to Pro-Cross breeding. During the last two breeding seasons all cows and heifers have been bred to Viking Red, and Montbeliarde with a view to creating a uniform 3-way crossbred cow.

CAFRE Benchmarking results for 2019/2020 show an annual yield of 8,800 litres at 4.00% Butterfat and 3.2% protein.  The herd has been fully housed for seven years. William commented “After the first year of the cows being fully housed on a silage based ration I made the decision that I wanted to reduce concentrate costs and focus more on milk from forage, so I purchased a zero grazer. This is now the 6th season that cows have been fed a full grass diet during the normal grazing season.  Meal feeding has been reduced from 3.5t of meal per cow per year down to the current figure of 2.8t.”  The herd calves from September to February. This year work has commenced on improving the grazing infrastructure on the farm to allow the low yielders to go to grass while the rest of the herd will continue to have the grass brought to them.

William uses Ice-Robotics technology for heat detection and to provide health, lameness and fertility alerts to ensure increased health and well-being within the herd.  It also allows him to monitor what impact a management change may have within the herd.

Zara Morrison concluded, “For most dairy farmers the route to maintain or improve profits is to focus on improving technical efficiency and reducing production costs. William is doing this by improving his grazing system to drive up milk from forage and by changing his breeding policy to target a more robust, healthier and more fertile cow. William is seeking to add value to his dairy business with an innovative diversification venture and I wish him every success”.

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