Last week I had a fantastic trip over to Somerleyton in Suffolk to visit the extraordinary 'Calf at Foot Dairy'. I have been following this idyllic micro dairy on Instagram for a while now and I was so excited when the owner, Fiona Provan, said I could pop over and write a blog. The ethos behind the 'Calf at Foot Dairy' is based upon the well-being of the cows, being calf-friendly and cow-kind which is summed up by their strap line; 'You can taste the kindness'. I was absolutely fascinated to see their day in action as they do everything from start to finish here, from milking the cows in the morning to bottling up the raw milk ready for customers in the afternoon!
'Calf at Foot Dairy' was started in 2012 by the very passionate and inspiring Fiona Proven, who now has her 'Dairy Angels', Zoe and Amy running day to day life on the farm. As well as her 'Dairy Angels' Fiona has a constant string of volunteers and work experience students who share the same passion for cow welfare, the environment and for raw milk!
As the 'label' says 'Calf at Foot Dairy', this micro dairy is unlike the stereo typical 'mega dairy' as all the cows get to keep their calves, with Zoe and Amy only taking half of the cows milk once a day, in the morning, leaving the rest of the milk for the calf. Watching the milking was so interesting for me, seeing each cow jump up to their name. They are milked one by one to make sure extreme cleanliness is kept at all times. Then they are let straight back out into the yard and reunited with their calves, they have no anxiety about leaving their calves as they know they will be there waiting for them. Having beef cattle myself, we always keep our calves on our cows so I understand the strong bond a cow builds with her calf. It really was so special to see the attention they give their calves on their return and then one by one all the calves take their turn for breakfast off their Mum.
A cow grooming her calf after being milked in the micro parlour.
The cows relaxing in the sun after being milked, in the afternoon they are then walked down to graze on the marshes.
One cow sheltering from the morning sun.
When did you first come up with the idea of the ‘Calf at Foot Dairy’?
It was something I’ve always wanted to do, but The Calf at Foot Dairy seed germinated in 2009
What breed of cow do you use for your milk production, and what made you choose this particular breed?
The herd is mostly made up of Jersey cows, but we have crossed a few Red Polls in for robustness, helping to cut down on inputs. I chose the Jersey breed because my father recommended them when I bought my first house cow for my young family. The reason being, Jersey cows are quiet and small but with a big personality. They are easy to handle, very affectionate, easy calving and they weren’t so high yielding then and the milk is delicious and very creamy.
How many milking cows do you have?
We have around 18 milking cows but are only milking 14 a day due to some cows nursing their calves exclusively. We do not take milk if the calf needs it.
As well as pure Jersey cows, Fiona also has a hand full of Jersey x Red Poll cows to just 'beef' them out a little bit.
What does the average day consist of on your farm?
In the warmer months we gather the cows from the marsh at sunrise (too flipping early), then it’s up the lane ready for milking. The cows are milked just once a day and one at a time, coming into the parlour when their name is called. After milking, the parlour is washed down and the milking machine is cleansed by mid-morning. All the milk is bottled and cooled, the washing up is done and the bottling shed is cleaned down. We muck out all the sheds and yards/lounging areas and straw/bed up with pitch forks and barrow. At around lunchtime we pack up the milk into delivery boxes ready for the collection driver/courier in the afternoon. Sometime in the afternoon/ when the cows decide they are ready, we walk them back down to their grazing marshes for the night. We return to the yard to finish off any mucking out, filling feeders, checking water troughs etc for the morning. The self-service customer fridges are restocked. Office work has to be squeezed in and around the farming chores taking up about 4hrs per day.
During the winter months the cows stay on the yard and the extra work is more mucking out and more feeders need filling (hay/haylage)
The idea behind your whole business is the health, happiness and welfare of the cows; how does your milk yields compare to ‘normal’ dairy farming?
Yield is not a priority to us so we don’t compare (but much less if we did, we probably get a third of the milk in comparison)
Each cow is milked one by one in the micro parlour, with each cow being thoroughly cleaned and the surrounding area to make sure that everything is as clean as possible which is extremely important when you are supplying raw milk! This is Zoe one of the 'Dairy Angels' in action.
Why do you feel it is so important for the cows to keep their calves until weaning?
To make a cow have a calf to produce milk exclusively for us is going against nature and is one of the most extreme forms of animal exploitation. This is the whole essence of why I started the dairy; if you look on the website you will see the reasons.
A cow feeding and grooming her calf after being milked in the micro dairy.
You sell your raw milk directly from the farm, which is the lowest food miles possible! Do you have any other outlets for your raw milk?
Yes, as well as our 24/7 self-service farm gate shop, we also have an online national delivery service. So we can send milk all over the UK for next day delivery!
Here is Amy, one of the 'Dairy Angels' seperating the mornings fresh milk, making milk and cream.
Once seperated the milk and cream is bottled up, left to cool and then sold from the farm or sent off by a next day courier all over the UK.
There aren't many shops you can go to where you can see the product being created, customers are in fact encouraged to come and buy straight from the farm. I witnessed one customer purchasing milk early in the morning whilst Zoe was milking. You don't get a better shopping experience than that!
What obstacles have you come up along the way with your business?
Being told it’s a ridiculous idea to keep the calves with the cows.
Misogyny, finding money/land/farm, bad landlords, no locals doing things differently so advice and understanding is hard to come by as it’s all conventional thinking.
Where do you plan to take your business next?
To use more regenerative holistic farming methods. As well as cutting down on inputs and plastic use.
Jersey steers enjoying the sunshine, these are finished off on grass and sold at the small farm shop for beef.
You are a first generation farmer; do you have any advice to someone looking to get into farming that is not from a farming background?
To make sure you are 100% committed because you will fail if you have any other hopes/dreams/aspirations as livestock farming is a hard and relentless slog and if you have another calling you ain’t gonna last. However if you know this is your calling then don’t ever let anyone convince you that you can’t do it, follow your dreams. Surround yourself with support from positive people who believe in you and your dream. Don’t be put off by other people and remember when/if they laugh it’s either because they do not understand or they feel threatened. Focus and specialise on the one thing that grabs you the most, put everything into that and only once you have perfected that, then think about introducing the other things that will compliment it. So for me the one thing that I really ever wanted to do was high welfare dairying. I loved and wanted to do so many other things but I have learnt over the years that by spreading myself too thinly I can’t be effective at anything. The other thing that grabs me is regenerative agriculture and holistic grazing methods, and only now after 7 years of becoming a registered dairy business I can think about implementing these to compliment my dairy and restore, soils, and the ecology in the environment I work.
Also make sure you have the right animal and system for your environment and use social media well, to sell your story and your product.
'Dairy Angel' - Zoe
'Dairy Angel' - Amy
Founder - Fiona
I took home a bottle of their AMAZING raw milk which has been thoroughly enjoyed by me and my family!
I would like to say a HUGE thank you to Fiona, Zoe, Amy and their wonderful volunteers who made me feel so welcome and for sharing their story with me. I came away feeling completely inspired and in awe of the amazing work that they all do, with such passion, knowledge and enthusiasm. I just hope I have managed to portray their incredible hard work and compassion for the animals they work with through this blog. If you want to find out more about The Calf at Foot Dairy please take a look at their website www.the-calf-at-foot-dairy.co.uk or follow them on Instagram @thecalfatfootdairy.
I am Izzi, farmer’s daughter and textile designer at IzziRainey. If I am not designing or sewing you will find me out in the farmyard with my cattle. I am constantly seeking inspiration for my prints, not that I have to look very far. Growing up on the farm, I have always been influenced by my surroundings and this combined with my passion for farming is what inspires my designs. I love spending time on the farm but I also enjoy learning about other people’s animals, passions and stories, which are also influential to my design process. I hope you enjoy reading ‘Over the Farm Gate’