Say cheese to dairy survival as farmers battle lower milk prices

The Davenport Family at Cote Hill Farm
The Davenport Family at Cote Hill Farm

A Market Rasen dairy farmer may have the solution for others in the industry battling lower milk prices.

With dairy prices falling and expected to drop further due to the abolition of milk quotas, fears are growing for the remaining dairy farms left in business.

Milk prices are at their lowest since 2007, with some farmers receiving as little as 16p a litre, though the major supermarkets typically pay 32p a litre.

The National Farmers Union warns that over the next 10 years, the number of dairy farms nationally could halve to fewer than 5,000.

However, Cote Hill Farm in Osgodby, which started making cheese 10 years ago, said shifting to such dairy products has been a lifeline for its business.

Nationally, three fifth’s of Britain’s milk output is sold as milk, with a quarter going into cheese and 15 per cent going for cream and yoghurt.

Cote Hill Farm produces 500,000 litres of milk a year, a third of which is used for cheese, but it provides two-thirds of farm revenue.

Farmer Michael Davenport told the Rasen Mail that the farm started making cheese 10 years ago this month, with its first Cote Hill Blue.

“Milk prices were down then. We were a small dairy herd. To stay in the business we had to get big and that was something we did not want to do,” he said.

“We had a herd of 70-80 and to carry on we thought we would add value to our milk rather than be dictated to by the milk buyers.”

Michael was busy milking his cows, while wife Mary was a primary schoolteacher in Market Rasen.

“She thought she would like a change and make cheese so she took up full-time cheesemaking,” he continued.

And just to confirm the family nature of the business, son Joe joined Cote Hill Farm in 2011 as a cheesemaker and son Ross joined this month.

Ross does “a bit of everything” but as he is “good at figures,” he also helps out “on the business side.”

Over the years, Cote Hill Farm has earned national acclaim, winning many awards.

Michael believes his cheeses are special because he doesn’t pasteurise the milk.

“It’s from one herd of cows. It’s raw milk. The cheese is handmade. It keeps its identity. This contributes to our unique flavour cheeses,” he said.

The cheese is not sold to the supermarkets, other than to the Lincolnshire Co-op. Instead, the cheese is sold through wholesalers who supply independent delis.

“It goes all over the country. We send cheese up to Scotland and down to Sussex. We have exported to Holland and Sweden.”

The Davenports plan to keep the business as it is, making some 16 tonnes of cheese a year, saying much beyond 18 tonnes will need extra investment.

However, while cheese has been the lifeline of the farm, does Michael recommend making cheese to other dairy farmers?

“It’s completely different to farming. You have to learn a new set of skills. It’s not just making it, it’s selling it, engaging with customers. When we started 10 years ago, a few dairy farmers did it but now they concentrate on milk. It’s not an easy option but it can be rewarding if you stick with it,” Michael added.