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Saturday 10 December 2016

A new era for independent cheese sector

The abolition of the EU's milk quotas is creating new opportunities for cheese-makers

Ken Whelan

Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30

Tom Burgess from Tullow, Co Carlow has increased his herd from 100 to 132 cows and is using about 25pc of the milk for his Coolattin 'raw milk' cheddar cheese product
Tom Burgess from Tullow, Co Carlow has increased his herd from 100 to 132 cows and is using about 25pc of the milk for his Coolattin 'raw milk' cheddar cheese product

THE abolition of the EU milk quotas has sparked a significant round of investment among Ireland's flourishing independent cheese producers.

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Many of the cheese makers are expanding their dairy herd with plans to up their level of production to try and break into larger markets.

Dozens of producers within the sector have been making inroads into the cheese market over the past decade, with many expanding the reach of their products from the traditional farmers' markets and independent cheese mongers into the mainstream multiples.

Many are also making inroads in the export markets in Europe, the United States and the Middle East with the help of Bord Bia.

Specialty cheeses like Cashel Blue, Wicklow Baun Coolattin Cheddar, Knockanore and Milleens Cheese are becoming well-known names on the supermarket shelves, with the independent and farmhouse sector currently producing 8pc of the specialty cheeses here in Ireland.

The sector has an export turnover in excess of €5m according to Bord Bia.

Many of the smaller producers began their cheese enterprises as a means of adding value to the milk they were producing on their home farms during the quota era and remained expansion shy because of the restrictive EU milk production rules.

However, with a free market in milk now the norm they are planning significant expansion.

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John Hempenstall, the founder of Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese, is in the process of nearly doubling his Holstein-Friesian herd, and extending his dairy and cheese factory facilities.

The company, located in the heart of his farm just outside Arklow, is set to double its cheese production to 70t and expand its Holstein-Friesian herd from 60 to 90 cows.

"I always intended to expand once milk quotas were gone and we have added new dairy facilities at the farm to cater for this.

"We're on a 120ac farm and we could expand it even further depending on how the cheese business develops," he said.

"We are doing well at the moment. Of course the milk price is bad but it is always going to be up and down from here on out but we are developing new markets for our bries and cheddar," he told the Farming Independent.

"We won the best soft cheese at the Bath show last week which was very important," he said.

"We are currently looking at market opportunities in Boston and New York and the Middle East with the help of Bord Bia. We have started to increase the herd and we will make a decision shortly on introducing a crossbreed to strengthen the milk solids for the cheese making. We are thinking of introducing Montbeliarde," he added.

His plan is to exploit the current opportunities by increasing the home herd size and milk production and, if necessary, to draw up agreements with neighbouring dairy farmers to supply any extra milk requirement.

Across the county border, outside Tullow in Co Carlow, Tom Burgess, who runs the Coolattin cheese making enterprise, has also increased his herd of Jersey crosses from just over 100 to 132 because of the new market conditions. He may grow the herd to 150 within the next year or so

Tom produces seven tonnes of the cheddar from his own milk at the farm and the cheese has a growing reputation among consumers.

It is mainly sold through independent cheese mongers like Sheridan's in Dublin, the Pig's Back in Cork and Cambridge's but is making its presence felt on the shelves in the multiple chains.

Tom uses about 25pc of the milk from his herd for his unique 'raw milk' cheddar cheese with the rest of the milk sold under contract to Strathroy.

He feels this breakdown between the cheese and co-op gives him the commercial elbow room to expand to meet future market demands.

Only the farm's summer milk is used to produce the Coolattin brand.

"Demand for Coolattin is good at the moment and I hope to move the production up from seven tonnes to ten tonnes soon," he said.

Similar herd expansion plans are underway at Cashel Blue in Co Tipperary - one of the bigger producers in the independent cheese sector.

Sarah Furno explained the farmhouse cheesemaker is in the process of increasing the size of the its Holstein-Friesian herd from 127 to 150 in the short-term with further expansion on the horizon.

Grazing land

Cashel Blue, which employs 20 people and produces 300t of product annually on the 200ac home farm, face a different quota problem in that there is a dearth of rentable grazing land in the locality.

"We are located only five miles from the Coolmore horse breeding operation so there is very little land available for rent.

"On the other hand I suppose we are fortunate because what land is available is being rented by dairy farmers," Sarah said.

She said they were aiming to increase production by around 25pc annually. Around 55pc of cheese sales are for the home market, with the rest for export.

Over in Thurles, Co Tipperary, where the Cooleeney Farm cheese brand is produced by the Maher family from a 200 Holstein herd expansion is always on the agenda, according to Brenda Maher.

Some 250t to 300t of the cheese is produced annually and the market breaks down evenly between exports and home sales.

Brenda explained the main issue within the sector at the moment, like many areas, is "price pressures".

"We have lots of plans to expand though they are not specific to the lifting of milk quotas by the EU," she added.

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