‘Jewel in the Irish Sea’ supplies dairy products all over the world, while maintaining the highest standards of grass-fed nutrition, animal welfare and sustainability
Described as the jewel in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is 50km long and 21km wide, encompassing 145,280ac.
Home to 30 dairy farms, the island produces 25 million litres of milk per year from its over 3,000-strong cow herd.
With the Isle of Man being the first entire country to be designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the island’s dairy industry is heavily centred around a low-input grass-based system.
The industry is dominated by Isle of Man Creamery in the island’s capital, Douglas; it is a fully integrated site which employs 89 full-time staff.
“We estimate that the creamery directly creates 350 jobs for the local economy,” says managing director Findlay Macleod. “We have a 80-90pc market share of all milk consumed here on the island.”
Originating from Ayrshire in Scotland, Findlay grew up in the countryside surrounded by dairy farmers. After studying economics and marketing at university, he soon moved in to the dairy industry, moving to the Isle of Man to take up the helm at the creamery in 2000.
After 22 years in the position, he details some of the changes which has made the island’s milk more sustainable.
“Around 20 years ago we had 90 dairy farmers on the island, producing in the region of 33m litres of milk per year. As efficiency improved, smaller producers dropped off for an easier life in beef and sheep production,” he says.
“We have 30 farmers supplying us now and this number has remained very steady in recent years.
“We incentivise our farmers to produce milk all year round. We have a ratio of four to three for summer to winter milk, so our supply curve is fairly flat, which is perfect for managing our processing capacity. When I first arrived here the ratio was two to one.
“It’s great that none of our farmers turn off the tap at any time of the year now. We introduced this policy in the early 2000s and gave our farmers a two-year lead-in time.
“We are lucky to have a very forward-thinking board who can see these decisions from a business perspective.”
The board of Isle of Man Creamery is made up of five farmers and two non-executive directors.
The island’s milk never travels more than 29km from farm to creamery, and none of the farms are more than 8km from the sea. Herd sizes range from 40 to 600 cows.
Around 6.5m litres are sold as liquid milk; 18m litres is used to produce 2,000t of cheese, of which all but 250t is shipped overseas to mainland Britain, Ireland, the Middle East, Australia, USA and Malta, among others.
Cheese-making has been taking place on the Isle of Man for hundreds of years, with techniques passed down through generations.
Cheese is small-batch-produced, with some aspects still hand-crafted to a unique artisan product. The creamery also produces 280t of butter per year.
“At the height of the pandemic in 2020, when the island’s residents were encouraged to keep their contacts at a minimum, we gained an additional 2,500 customers for our milk delivery service,” Findlay says.
“This was a jump from 6,000 to 8,500 within the space of seven weeks. We have retained the vast majority of those new customers now as restrictions dwindle.”
The creamery stopped using plastic containers and now all milk is sold in Tetra Pac — plant-based, sugar-cane-derived cartons. One truckload of Tetra Pac cartons has replaced the need for nine truckloads of plastic. Milk is supplied to retailers in 0.5L, 1L and 1.75L cartons.
The Isle of Man Creamery also runs a ‘grass-fed scheme’ for its farmers and includes a number of standards which they have to meet.
This includes a commitment that the island’s herd has access to pasture for more than 200 days per year. In practice, cows are spending an average of 214 days per year at grass.
The grass content of the cow’s diet must be more than 70pc across the whole year and greater than 80pc from April to September.
All the island’s dairy farms must conform to the Red Tractor Dairy Farm Assurance Scheme, to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare.
The scheme is managed by the Isle of Man Government Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture, which holds the right to approve the use of the scheme’s grass-fed logo based on conformance to the standards set.
An audit of each farmer’s participation in the scheme is carried out annually by independent auditor SAI Global.
The Isle of Man’s standards sit well above comparable schemes in the UK, where required grazing days is 180 and the requirement for fresh or preserved grass to be 50pc of the cow’s annual diet.
“With fertiliser particularly expensive to import onto the island, our farmers are innovative in how they grow grass,” Findlay says.
“With 3,000 cows producing a total of 25m litres of milk per year, it’s easy to see we run a low-input, grass centred model here.”
Kayleigh Coole runs Ballamodha Mooar Farm on the Isle of Man, along with her parents Dougie and Belinda.
Located five minutes outside of Ballasalla, a quiet little village still serviced by a daily steam commuter train, the farm keeps 180 cows made up of a mix of breeds including British Friesian, Norwegian Red, Danish Red, Jersey and Dairy Shorthorn.
Dougie and Belinda took tenancy of the farm in 1986, and at the time there was no infrastructure for milking cows.
Although they began from scratch, the couple both came from dairy farming families who began supplying the Isle of Man Creamery in its beginnings in 1934.
“We started out with a few sheep while we worked on building the infrastructure for our dairy enterprise. We bought 15 bulling heifers and grew from there,” Dougie says.
“It took 15 years to develop the yard. We haven’t spent a lot of money doing so — a lot of the work we carried out on our own.
“We have the farm for our lifetime. If we want to end the tenancy we have to pay to leave, and if the owners want the farm back they are required to pay us for the improvements in infrastructure which we have made.”
Kayleigh, a fourth generation farmer, studied agri-marketing at Harper Adams University in England and following graduation spent a year on dairy farms in New Zealand.
“The farm on North Island was a high-input 300-Holstein-cow herd. This was the first time I experienced seasonal milking where cows were dried off and we had time to go enjoy the beach,” Kayleigh says.
“The South Island farm was more typical of the overall New Zealand dairy industry with a low-input 1,200 cow herd.
“Then I came back to the home farm to work full-time. It took a trip to the other side of the world for me to realise what I had at home, and I thought it better to start putting my energy into our home enterprise instead.
“In 2015, Dad and I went to Denmark and bought 30 Danish Reds. We had 140 cows in total at the time so when I returned we had the extra labour unit to expand.”
Dougie adds: “Previous to Kayleigh coming home we weren’t sure which way to proceed with the farm. It’s very hard to know what to do when there isn’t a clear successor.”
Kayleigh’s sister Sarah did a degree in Agribusiness at Newcastle University and now works with Greencore in London.
“We’ve been very lucky to have open-minded parents who have allowed us the freedom to travel and explore other career opportunities,” Kayleigh says.
Today, the Cooles own 120ac and rent 270ac and with their tenancy included they have access to 500ac in total. They employ two additional members of staff.
The cows produce 7,000L of milk per year on average, while consuming 1t of concentrates. The farm grows 100ac of spring barley to help keep meal bills low.
“Milk price on the island currently stands at 33p/l. We’ll be looking for a price increase this month with the higher level of costs we’re incurring,” Dougie says.
All paddocks on the farm receive an average of 180 units of nitrogen per acre between chemical application and slurry.
“Our nitrogen application is dependent on existing grass supply, weather and staff availability. We buy around 100t of fertiliser per year,” Dougie continues.
“We also spread a lot of lime, to keep pH levels right. The farm’s average pH is 6.5.
“New land we bought in the last 12 months requires a lot of reseeding.”
Interestingly, the farm takes regular delivery of shells from local fisheries for use in shores and field drains as an alternative to gravel.
The farm also has 1,600 Lohmann Brown hens, selling their ‘Coole Girls Eggs’ to shops and bakeries.