'We had to make it work, we had no other income'
It's 20 years since Fintan and Valerie Rice from Fethard in Co Tipperary took the unusual step of converting their dairy farm to organic production.
Back then organic was a very niche sector and consumer demand was almost non-existent.
"Looking back I converted the farm because I believed in the environmental benefits that organic farming delivered," explained Fintan, adding he never thought it would be commercially viable and was for the likes of Prince Charles.
"Once the decision was made I simply had to make it work as we had no other income."
For many years Fintan was milking year round to meet the demand for organic liquid milk.
"It was very long working hours with organic dairying particularly when they were inside on straw beds. I'd start at 6.30am and still be working at 7.30pm.
"Several things happened together. The family were starting to get older and we could see the light at the end of the tunnel as regards educating them. I got tired, I won't call it burn out but I had always had it in my head to go back to spring calving," said Fintan.
He began a new chapter in 2012 when, along with 10 other farmers, he helped establish the Little Milk Company.
"We did it to have more control over our produce and input over the price that we were getting for our milk. They now make a range of cheeses from the milk produced by the farmers in the group."
Cashel Blue Organic cheese, made using milk from the Rice herd, won a Coup de Coeur Award in France - a prestigious accolade in cheese-making circles.
"From day one, I felt we were onto a winner with this cheese as we had teamed up with the Grubb family who founded Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers. The fact that they are just over the hill here in Fethard makes it a fantastic local food story.
"We have combined top quality ingredients with excellent craftsmanship, this model of food production should be encouraged all over Ireland," said Fintan.
His herd are a cross breed of Jersey's, Friesians and Norwegian Reds. He uses a cross bred bull to keep the cross traits in the herd. His cows have a high EBI index of 163, placing them in the top tier.
Fintan now milks on average 60 cows, and four years ago changed to once a day (OAD) milking.
"At that time Sean Condon (also part of The Little Milk Company), was a big fan of once a day milking and I decided to give it a go.
"I changed at calving time with the option of going back to twice a day milking if it didn't work out, but it did and I honestly have not looked back since.
"The obvious benefits of it are reduced labour costs, I start milking at 6.30am but I can now finish my farming day at 5pm which is a great bonus to me, allowing me to do other things that I am interested in.
"Your parlour costs are lower as you use less electricity for milking and cooling, so overall your costs are significantly reduced."
Helped on the farm by his wife Valerie, the system is now more manageable for the pair.
The main benefit is increased proteins and solids in his milk since he changed to once a day milking. This is particularly important as the milk he is producing is being processed into cheese.
"With once a day milking you get less whey, less water in the milk so you get a better cheese per litre of milk. We get additional payment for solids so essentially, we are producing a higher value milk from lower operating costs.
"To some extent this does counteract the drop in volume of milk produced, and income related to that, but when you factor in your own time once a day milking does starts to add up, certainly for us here on this farm.
"The benefits to the cow are also important, they have less walking to the parlour, they produce less volume so therefore carry less weight so it does help with herd health. If you have the right cows it can work well," continued Fintan.
He said the Little Milk Company have tweaked their payment formula to reward solids more for the coming season. Fintan received well into the 40c territory for his milk last year. However, he said the premium isn't "huge" but if the price of conventional farming drops to the mid-to-low 20s then it is good.
Unusual among organic dairy farmers Fintan does not reseed pastures. The cows calve from March 1st and go straight to grass. "I close off ground on October 1 until March 1, and then operate a 28 day rotation. There is pressure on the first rotation which has to last seven/eight weeks.
"The cows are grass fed with access to hay or silage if required and a very small amount of meal. I operate a low cost system, the pastures have a range of native grasses and clover in them, and once I manage them well I can keep them reasonably productive," he said.
"The cows get around 80-100kg of meal in the springtime. Once they calve it is grass. We don't start calving until the end of February as grass is a month later here. Up to this year we got the feed from England but this year it is available in Ireland delivered in bulk in or about 500/t. It's expensive and that is why we don't feed tooo much of it."
There are also 75ac of forestry on the farm, a hardwood plantation which has been established over the past 12-18 years under the forestry scheme.
"I was interested in planting the trees to offset the carbon emissions generated on the farm and particularly to offset the methane from the cows. This is very much an integrated feature on the farm giving aesthetic, practical and economic value."
Fintan and Valerie have a son Louis, who is showing some interest in farming, and two daugthers Laura and Jennifer, and they feel that the model they are operating may be more attractive to future generations.
"I have been milking cows for many years now and to make a living out of 60 cows is certainly a challenge. That is why doing what we are doing as a company is so important.
"It gives us greater control over our milk and what we do at farm level as a result of that. There is a lot of work involved in it but also a financial gain and it is paying dividend to the farmers involved," adds Fintan.
The Little Milk Company are a group of 10 organic dairy farmers who have come together to sell artisan cheeses made from their own milk.
Based in Munster and Leinster, the idea originated from a discussion group back in 2008 and was driven forward by farmers Pat Mulrooney and John Liston.
The IOFGA members sold their first cheese in 2013 and have gone from strength to strength. Conor Mulhall general manager, is this week exhibiting their cheese range at Biofach the largest European organic trade show, taking place in Nuremburg, Germany.
"The market for organic cheese continues to grow and we see demand for quality products increasing. We currently pay 60c/l for winter milk and we continue to use more volume annually," says Conor.
Recently The Little Milk Company and Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers co-won a Coup de Coeur Award in France for their Cashel Blue Organic cheese.
"It means a lot to win an award like this in France as everywhere you go the French are famous for their cheese production," says Conor.
"It certainly opens doors for us and garners international attention in the cheese world."
Cashel Blue Organic is produced using milk from Fintan Rice's herd. The cheese is made by Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers who are 15km from Fintan's farm.
"Over the years we explored the idea of making an organic cheese however it never came to fruition, usually because our speciality markets were not interested in an organic cheese," says Sarah Furno from Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers.
"We knew Fintan as a local farmer with excellent husbandry skills and when an opportunity arose to work with his milk we jumped at it.
"We knew the milk would be great quality, and his once a day milking system combined with his unusual breed we felt it would make a wonderful cheese."
Cashel Blue Organic is made to the original Cashel Blue recipe which was created in 1984 by Sarah's parents, husband and wife Louis and Jane Grubb.
"People do recognise it as being different than the classic Cashel Blue, but this cheese certainly has its own place due to the characteristics and taste.
"We have presented it at speciality shows and people are really excited about it and we are happy to bring something new and unique to that sector. Why can't organic be linked with really good quality as well as sustainability," adds Sarah.
With yet another award winning cheese to add to their repertoire the Little Milk Company seem to be well on their way to achieving exactly what they set out to do.
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