When it comes to farming – it’s hard to find someone who loves happy cows as much as Tom Foot. Tom has spent his whole life on farms, and that made him the perfect person to become a true innovator in the dairy farming industry. His 800 cows really are raised & milked in the open air, and they even get to go on a Christmas holiday every year… This week we chat about animal management, welfare and sustainability – as well the difference in intensive, indoor, robot milking and being in the open air.
00:00:00 Marks introduction
00:02:33 Meeting Tom Ford, setting the scene in Little Bredy, Dorset
00:03:32 Tom’s 40 fields & the space that his cows occupy
00:04:49 What got Tom into farming? Being brought up on a farm
- 00:07:56 “Most traditional dairy farms you pour concrete. You have your cows in the sheds – it’s a very capital hungry project to start. So we’ve started at a fraction of the cost by having these milking barns outside in the field that we move every day.”
00:08:53 What’s the traditional approach to Dairy farming?
- 00:10:02 “We’ve been industry driven by the consumer and government policies to but cows inside and intensification. But that was fine, probably until the early 90s.”
- 00:11:23 “I don’t like to be compared to any other farming system. We don’t produce milk in the winter months.”
00:12:19 What does Tom do? How does Open Air Dairy work?
- 00:12:58 “The production we’d be getting out of our cows is about 4,300 litres a year which is obviously mainly from grass. Grass gives a lot of flavour to milk.”
00:14:01 Cow breeds and how they make a difference
- 00:14:20 “These little cows are like a little Land Rover; they’re designed for all conditions. Not particularly quick, but very robust. You know – a cow that’s inside being milked three times a day is a bit more of a Ferrari. Very high performer. You can’t put that cow that’s used to being in a barn, outside on a field.”
00:15:34 Milking in the fields, rather than indoors
- 00:16:22 “So they’re eating while lying down, then they get up and get milked which is about a ten-minute process and then they’re back eating grass again in the field.”
00:17:09 The pecking order of cows, how the cows manage themselves
- 00:17:54 “Their motivation to get milked – they know once they’ve got milked, they’ll get even more fresh grass.”
- 00:19:17 How does the management of cows compare to more traditional methods?
- 00:21:03 “If you imagine queuing up for a ski lift – you’d get a few people that would push in and be a bit rude and other people who would say ‘oh no, you go in front of me.’ So they’re just sort of the same as us really.”
00:21:29 How Tom has ‘fallen in love’ with the system Open Air Dairy use for milking
- 00:22:26 “We’ve now got these cows that are super relaxed, the productions gone up because of that situation. The quality is second to none.”
00:24:27 Has Tom been surprised by the possibilities in dairy farming?
00:25:20 The road for Tom & Open Air Dairy hasn’t always been easy…
- 00:26:24 Buying cows, before land!!
- 00:28:29 “I was asking anyone with a bit of free grazing what we could do to make that plan of having 300 cows ready to milk in 2012 – which was the goal.”
00:29:41 Talking New Zealand – and where the inspiration for Open Air Dairy’s process came from
00:31:08 The challenges of finding the equipment to milk outdoors
- 00:32:48 “From what we learnt over that first year in 2012 of having to do it – I then designed a new milking parlour. I knew that these parlours would only milk 12 cows at a time, so then we designed another one that would milk 20 cows at a time.”
00:34:37 Why are all the cows sat and laid down? Bellys full of grass & feeling relaxed
- 00:36:23 “If a cow is standing up and eating or laying down and chewing their cud you know you’re doing a good job. If they’re all heaped up in the corner of the field, then somethings upsetting them and they’re not making milk.”
00:37:05 Money and the change in consumer attitudes – animal welfare & sustainability
- 00:39:42 “I think all of us as farmers – you’re trying to do the best for the environment really. No one wants to lose their soil because then your productivity goes down.”
00:40:38 Supermarkets & milk – is this situation getting better or worse?
- 00:41:29 “As English farmers/British farmers have a higher cost of production than most other people because of the restrictions put on us, the traceability… It’s probably more expensive to produce milk our way than in an intensive barn.”
00:42:40 Brexit & farming – worries around free trade
- 00:44:03 “I think 90% of consumers would be buying the cheapest food that’s on the shelf. And that’s the worry about the industry.”
00:45:34 Looking at the consumer – what’s Tom’s sales pitch to them?
- 00:46:33 “If you have the time, just research into what you’re doing. If you’ve got an idle five minutes, and think well actually… I might just Google the standards of the milk I bought today or where my crisps come from, or a chocolate bar or whatever – and are you comfortable with what you bought?”
00:48:42 The cost of Open Air Dairy’s farming
00:50:58 The quality of working life & how it compares to other dairy farming… The importance of having time to live life
- 00:53:00 “In a previous business, if you were milking there wasn’t time for anything else in the day, you couldn’t go out and socialise in the evening because you knew you had to be up at 4 o’clock in the morning. You’re then trying to sleep in the middle of the day which is when the kids come home from school.”
00:54:50 The period of time when Tom can’t milk – between December & March waiting for calves to be born – the cows are on holiday!
- 00:56:25 “In those three months, all the cows go off farm and they eat root crops and any extra grass we grow in the summer, we make hay out of. So they’ll eat hay and turnips over the winter and basically have three months off.”
00:58:42 Should more people be farming in this way? Does Tom think it will?
01:00:45 The complexity of farming – Tom’s appreciation of diversification
01:02:08 Other Open Air Dairy products, what’s to come and where can you get them?
- 01:02:59 “I took 15,000 litres to make a batch of cheese today which will do probably two tonnes of cheese. Which is good, but I think we can probably produce on this farm sort of about 420 – 450 tonnes of cheese.”
01:04:22 Outsourcing cheese makers, would Open Dairy ever consider making it themselves?
01:05:28 Did you know cows like their ears & chins being scratched?
01:06:16 Good & bad advice from Tom about getting into the industry
- 01:08:06 [Talking about the bank] “They supported us, but what we’ve done is we’ve set good business plans out, we’ve under promised and over achieved… And that has given them confidence.”
01:10:00 What did the industry look like 100 years ago? Is Tom excited about getting others involved in the changing industry?
- 01:10:39 “This has been a learning experience for eight years and it’s amazing how much we have learnt and you don’t credit yourself with learning… We’ve offered now, with the two parlours we’ve made, consultancy. A farmer told me yesterday ‘as long as your 50 miles away from home, you’re a consultant.”
01:14:16 How do you find out more about Open Air Dairy & grab some of their cheese?
01:16:29 Final thoughts & Marks sign off
Looking to learn more about Open Air Dairy, Tom Foot and how his family live out in the Open Air? Listen to the full episode here, or check out their website and social media channels below: