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We test out ‘sleep cure’ lullaby milk

We're all going to have to work harder during these recessionary times and that includes the cows at Ardrahan Farm. Due to the unprecedented success of the farm's Lullaby Milk, the 120-strong herd is now milked before daybreak two to three times a week.

The cows are milked in the dark -- at 2am during the summer and 4.30am during the winter -- when the levels of their sleep-regulating hormone melatonin are higher. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in milk, but four times as much of it is produced if the cows are milked during specific points in their sleep cycles.

Ardrahan is situated in the tranquil village of Kanturk in north-west Cork. The charming matriarch, Mary Burns, and her son, Gerald, gave me a tour of the family-run farm when I paid them a visit.

After the cows are milked, the milk is then piped through a plate cooler, pasteurised, cooled and bottled -- at which point Gerald and his colleague head back to the leaba for a hard-earned 40 winks.

Because it is a farmhouse-produced milk, it reaches the shop shelf much sooner than ordinary milk. It seems to leave the shelves just as quickly.

After a recent slot on RTE's Ear to the Ground, many supermarkets reported that the product had completely sold out. Ardrahan now receive 50/60 emails a day and 30/40 phonecalls from customers asking where they can buy it.

"Many of our customers had tried everything to get a good night's sleep," Gerald explains. "Initially they had reservations about the product -- they didn't believe it would work -- but they were converted. Some of them have said that they have even stopped taking sleeping tablets."

Lullaby Milk was the brainchild of Gerald's late father, Eugene. He stumbled across the research of Finnish professor Maija Valtonen, who studied the effects of melatonin-rich milk and sleep disorders.

After Eugene passed on, his son took a sample of the herd's pre-daybreak milk and sent it to a university in California to be tested. In the meantime, friends and family became the guinea pigs.

"The first customer was my godmother," he says.

The next challenge was persuading Valtonen to pay them a visit. "At the start, she wouldn't help us because there were three people in France and two in Britain who claimed that they had founded the product. We never argued the fact that we found out about it through her research."

Valtonen finally visited the farm in 2007 and granted them the first licence to produce melatonin-rich milk in Ireland.

Ardrahan was already a local success story before they started producing the innovative milk. The company was founded by Mary and Eugene in the 1970s when they were unable to source the foods they wanted to eat. They began producing yoghurt, cheese and sour cream. From these humble beginnings the company has become an international brand. The award-winning Ardrahan cheese is now sold all over Ireland, the UK, Europe and the US.

Lullaby Milk was launched in 2005, but Gerald accredits the Speciality Food Production Diploma at UCC, headed up by Dr Angela Sheehan, for taking it to the next level.

"They thought it was a brilliant product." Though the milk was already stocked in shops, the tutors helped him sharpen the branding and promotion of the product.

Needless to say, the product's claims have also attracted cynicism, but the Burns insist that their product is backed by solid scientific evidence.

"We have five published studies, so anyone who wants to argue with it is more than welcome to come and read them."

Asked how other locals have responded, Gerald quips "general p**s-taking, to be honest. The local pub jokes that they might get a tap of it in. Only, he won't make much profit because people will be falling asleep!"

Lullaby Milk is available from Dunnes Stores and SuperValu, priced at €1.99. Gerald recommends that it is taken 45 minutes before bedtime. Don't take it with cocoa or coffee, as the caffeine will counteract the melatonin. The sleep-inducing benefits of the milk can take five to six nights before it works