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We wanted to be better rather than bigger

The Reynolds family has a farm in Kent, United Kingdom. The switch to the VikingRed has set their profits, their cheese and their lifestyle on to an upward path.

Everything Steve and Karen Reynolds have achieved on their farm near Staplehurst in Kent has been built on their own efforts. This has not only given the couple a sharp focus on their farm’s profitability but also ensured they don’t lose sight of attaining the lifestyle they set out to achieve. Their recent decision to bring some VikingRed bloodlines into their herd was made with an eye on both financial and lifestyle objectives. Now they say they will follow this through until the whole herd is fully VikingRed which they are confident will equip it to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.

With two sons, Frank (23) and Archie (18), having recently joined the business, all family members are agreed on maintaining the farm at a manageable size. A 100-head milking herd and a thriving artisan cheese business is said to be more than enough to give them the lifestyle they desire and avoid the need to employ extra help.

But the route to this position was not in the normal convention for ­neither Steve nor Karen had the good fortune to inherit a farm.

However, Steve says: “There was only ever one thing I was going to do, having developed an interest when helping out on my uncle’s Somerset farm.

“So, when I left school, I had two options – either to go to agricultural college or get a job, so I could earn enough money to buy my own farm.”

He opted for the latter, starting as a tea boy on the London Stock Exchange in the late 1970s and working his way up to become a futures trader, which he continued for 13 years.

By 1990 he was ready to invest in a business and bought Iden Manor Farm, comprising 96 acres and a house. But the business got off to a faltering start with a spike in the cost of milk quota and interest rates rising to 15%.

“I worked for a further few years to help get the business established and – after a period with suckler cows – it wasn’t until 1995 that we eventually went milking,” he says.

A new start

The purchase of 50 Holsteins from herds such as Davlea and Hazelden was the start of the process and by the early-2000s, the couple had increased numbers to 140 milkers, and were producing 11,000 litres at 3.6% fat and 3.1% protein. A land purchase in 2003 increased the size of the farm by 100 acres but like other producers, the business was suffering the extreme drop in milk price which beset the industry at that time.

“We could have continued increasing cow numbers but what’s the point in producing milk for the sake of it,” says Steve.

Instead, the couple preferred to secure their milk price and their future market so looked into the option of making cheese.

A three-day course at Reaseheath College was undertaken by Steve in 2007 and when the couple established Kingcott Dairy and started making cheese two years later this formed the basis of their knowledge. »

Some £40,000 of investment equipped them for the process and – with advice from other farmer/cheese-makers – the couple were set to go.

“The hard bit is finding the right recipe and making it consistent, and we eventually came up with Kentish Blue,” says Karen.

The cheese was distributed through local wholesalers, mostly to delis and farm shops across London and Kent.

Since Frank joined the farm in 2015, he has added to the product line by developing his own soft cheese and named it Kingcott Blue.

Like his parents, he says he saw no point in increasing cow numbers but preferred to invest in developing the cheeses which ‘guarantees the price’.

Passion for genetics

With Archie now also on board with a keen interest in genetics, the family began to address concerns they’d developed around the Holstein breed.

“The Holsteins weren’t really suited to cheese-making and we wanted more butterfat and protein to improve the cheese-yield and taste,” says Frank.

“We weighed up the pros and cons of a few different breeds but dismissed the Friesian, Ayrshire and Guernsey, largely for their limited gene pool,” says Steve. »

After a dalliance with Brown Swiss, which proved ‘too hard-headed, kicked the clusters and bullied other cows’, the family turned their thoughts to the VikingRed.

“We could see the massive amount of research that had gone into their health and milk quality and we sourced the first batch in 2016,” says Frank.

“They were smaller, stockier and more powerful than the Holstein but the immediate bonus was the overall jump in milk quality and cheese yield, which was noticeable from the first day, despite having only 21 in the herd,” says Steve.

Frank made his own trip to Denmark the following year and purchased 15 in-calf heifers while Archie visited Sweden in 2018, adding a further 10. This year 18 more have been added, taking the current total to 63 in the now 100-head herd.

“We see a jump in constituents every time a group comes in,” says Steve, quoting the herd’s current 305-day yield at 8,200 litres at 5.0% fat and 3.8% protein.

“They are so much more suited to cheese-making than the Holstein and if I were on a contract with Arla I would definitely consider this breed,” he says. “Anyone who has Holsteins yielding 3.9% fat and 3.1% protein with this sort of contract would earn a lot more if they cut down their yield and increased constituents.”

“We have learnt so much about the VikingRed programme through our visits, especially about the hidden effects of inbreeding,” adds Frank. “Because of the structure of VikingGenetics itself, which is owned by farmers and has most of the market in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, there are strict limits on the use of bulls which helps control inbreeding.

“Health has also been a key focus, perhaps because of the cost in these countries to call out a vet,” he adds. “And maintenance costs are also low compared with larger breeds.”

The family say this has all been reflected in their own herd where fertility, feet and legs and calving have all improved and costs of vet and med have steadily declined.

“The culling rate has gone right down too; in fact it’s a job to find a red animal to cull,” says Steve. This now hovers around 15%, whereas before it was closer to 25%.

Archie now takes charge of breeding decisions and says all reds are bred to VikingRed bulls.

“We’re looking for positive milk of a high quality, with well-attached udders and well-placed teats on a powerful, deep-bodied cow,” he says. He names Harvard and Dalton as two good constituent bulls whose daughters are now in the herd and has added VR Tokyo to those he is now using.

Carbon footprint in focus

Milk from forage has also seen a substantial jump from around 2,400 litres with the Holstein to almost 4,000 litres today. This has been assisted by a change of system to one which is largely based on grass and grass silage with concentrates in the parlour.

“We are moving away from a diet feeder as that requires a tractor and a machine,” says Steve. “We don’t think high input herds are the future – as farmers we have to adapt and reduce our carbon footprint.

“We have seen the Holstein cow come and I think we will see it go,” he adds. “And consumers want to see a more natural system rather than cows on a knife-edge.”

Today the farm produces around 800,000 litres a year of which 270,000 litres are used for cheese-making and the balance sold to Pensworth Dairy at a premium of roughly 3p/litre, reflecting the milk quality.

Karen says: “We also make more cheese than in the past as cheese yield has gone up by roughly 15% using the same volume of milk since we switched breed.”

Steve confirms the VikingReds are fulfilling the family’s objectives of an easier and happier way of life.

“The cows are tougher and look after themselves; they are better grazers in any weather and undoubtedly our profits have gone up,” he says.

“This year, we have bred all our Holstein heifers to Angus and when they’ve calved we plan to sell them and put the money we make into buying more VikingRed.”

Read more about VikingRed

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