Lessons for all at Leicestershire dairy farm’s Cow Classroom

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16 Sep, 2019


More farms should be looking at how they can provide a stimulating outdoor classroom where children can learn about agriculture.

The tough decision to relocate a family’s 79-year-old dairy opened up a chance to diversify into the “townie” market for Jane Barnes.

That’s the idea she had in mind when she set up her “Cow Classroom” education centre, possibly the only one of its kind in East Midlands.

The classroom aims to educate urban dwellers, young and old, about what it’s like to live and work on a modern, commercial dairy farm.

It embraces everything from animal care, protecting the environment, through to the nutritional benefits of food products made from the dairy’s milk.

Visitors can stand on a viewing platform to see how cows are milked on the farm’s new Herringbone, installed by Waikato Milking Systems in New Zealand.

Descendants of the Barnes family had been milking in the village of Melton Mowbray, near Leicester, since 1940. 

But when it came time for the fourth generation to take over, a new dairy parlour was needed.

It was built outside of the village to accommodate the expanding herd, new buildings and equipment.

It was a decision Jane and her husband Mark had to make over a year ago when their son Harry, 22, wanted to take over the dairy.

Their daughter Charlotte lives away from the farm but still takes a keen interest in the new venture.

The move out of the village was the perfect opportunity to not only upgrade their milking system but also provide a unique space to build a Cow Classroom alongside the parlour.

The new Farmer Barnes Dairy was built during the summer of 2018 and the old farmyard was demolished in January 2019.

Saying goodbye to the original farmyard was not easy for Mark. He had worked in the village all of his life and it was his first move outside of the village.

Jane said Mark took a walk around the old Church Land farm buildings before demolition.

He was reminded of all the past generations who lived and worked there, he thought about the memories well spent within those walls. The equipment was dismantled and parts that could be reused were kept.

Curious about cows

Jane found her niche in life working as a speaker, giving presentations to mostly retirees, Women’s Institute, Probus, U3A, about her life on the dairy over the past 18 years.

She also writes a blog now which is published on the farm’s website.

Her “life on the farm” talks prompted people to ask to visit her dairy to “see how a cow is milked”.

“When we decided to build the new farmstead, I had the backing of my family to build a Cow Classroom, with viewing windows and a viewing gallery above. 

“I knew there’d be a market for the general public to see the cows and learn directly for themselves how we produce the right sort of milk for Stilton Cheese production.”

The family has supplied milk to Long Clawson Dairy for 10 years.

It’s best known for producing Stilton Cheese but also makes other cheese products such as Blue Shropshire, Rutland Red and a range of sweet and savoury cheese blends.

Long Clawson Dairy is about 12 miles from Farmer Barnes Dairy. It was started in 1911 by five farmers in the Vale of Belvoir, selling milk door-to-door. 

It’s a farmer-owned co-op with 44 dairy farmers supplying milk all year round. All the cheese produced is sold through supermarkets.

Jane said the co-op’s rich history adds to the overall story of her family dairy.

“My aim is always to share our dairy farm with those who wish to learn and be an exciting education centre to represent the UK Dairy Farming industry in the modern era,” Jane said.

“There are now less than 8700 dairy farmers left in England and Wales and numbers are still dropping.”

Since the new family dairy parlour began operation, Jane has held more farm talks, farm tours and educational tours for schools. You can even hire room at the dairy farm for meetings, lectures or seminars.

“I didn’t do a great deal of research before setting up the Cow Classroom, as I already had visitors come to the old farmstead in the village most summers.

“As far as I’m aware, there isn’t anyone else doing the sort of tours I’m offering in the East Midlands region. I’m pretty unique.

“There’s plenty doing tractor and trailer rides, farm parks with animal petting, but nothing focusing on a real, working dairy.

“We want to remain a proper commercial dairy farm, where we allow visitors to come and see our farm without disturbing the farm routines.”

The new dairy parlour

The family farms 400 acres (161ha) of High Leicestershire grassland.

The dairy is milking 250 cows, 50 per cent spring calving and 50 per cent autumn 

calving using the New Zealand grazing system set up by Mark Barnes eight years ago.

The farm averages 6000 litres of milk per cow, per year.  The cows average less than 1 tonne of concentrate per year.

“1.2m litres per year off-grazing system is the annual forecast and it all does into cheese production at the Long Clawson Dairy co-op.

“We do use Genus AI for cross breeding for first six weeks in mating season, and also run two Pedigree Ayrshire bulls and a couple of beef bulls.”

Building a brand new dairy system led the family to Waikato Milking Systems.

They wanted to set up for single-person milking operation for Harry. It had to be efficient in terms of time, labour and running costs but also it had to be a simple, reliable system.

“Harry had milked in a couple of dairies during his college years, and he replicated the 24/48 Waikato Supa 4 Herringbone in our new set up,” Jane said.

The family decided on three key technology options to add to the parlour.

It included the Swing Arm ACRs, the automatic wash system and the variable speed pump.

“We were the first UK farm to install the new Swing Arm ACRs. It’s especially handy to have now as there are 24 units on the new parlour now not 12.

“The variable speed pump keeps the energy costs to a minimum so that’s a no-brainer.

“As the auto wash is just pressing a button, the hygiene levels are consistently good and low BactoScan scores.”

Jane said Harry was also happy with the swing down cluster wash system, which lowers the cluster washer so it’s easy to access and manage.

“We have four regular people milking for us as it’s such a simple system, it all works well.”  

The family traditionally bred Pedigree Ayrshires but Harry’s since purchased 70 Friesian cross-bred heifers which are now in the milking herd, Jane said.

“We moved the cows into the new set up on October 31, 2018 and they took to the new parlour like ducks to water,” Jane said.

“The whole milking process has been easy and efficient both in time, labour and running costs.”

Learn about agriculture

Jane said more farms should be looking at how they can provide a stimulating outdoor classroom where children and young people can learn about agriculture.

“Outdoor classrooms can also provide the context for delivery of wider subject such as science and geography, through to mathematics and history, while giving children the inspiration for art and literature.”

The family doesn’t plan any new additions to their dairy or the Cow Classroom, in the immediate future.

“There’s too much going on for a family of three. We are just looking for a good standard of living and we love the way of life.

“We live in the most prettiest part of the UK and we love our cows.”

Although there are no plans to expand, Jane said she would be at this year’s UK Dairy Day in Shropshire to see what’s new in the industry.