Happy cows are at the heart of life on Whitegate Farm, the home of Katherine and Jason Salisbury and their Suffolk Farmhouse Cheeses. On a beautiful sunny day, Clare arrived to visit just as their herd of fifty milking cows bounded out into the fields for the first time since October, immediately getting their heads down to enjoy the fresh spring grass. It had been a long, long winter for these cows with the harsh weather of February and March keeping them in their sheds fed on silage.
Over the winter the Salisburys expanded their herd, taking on twenty very pretty Jersey cows from a retiring local farmer. These new arrivals have settled in well with the existing group comprising of Guernsey cows, with a few Ayrshires and a lone Montbeliarde.
Each of the Salisbury's cows is named. Every year the family takes a new theme for naming calves with the calves of 2018 being named after drinks, mostly wines!
Katherine and Jason have been at Whitegate Farm since 2008 having met several years earlier at Cambridge University where Katherine was studying to be a vet and Jason looked after the University's cattle. Keen to make cheese they set up their own herd to provide rich, creamy milk - an interesting twist as often a farm's cheese-making activities evolve to use existing surplus milk.
Last June the Salisburys implemented a new robotic milking system which has significantly changed the rhythm of life on the farm. Both Jason and Katherine are hugely proud of this new system and are keen to introduce farm visitors to how it works. For anyone popping to the farm shop or milk vending machine, there is a ringside-viewing platform to watch the cows being milked by robot.
The cows are able to enter the milking machine at will any time, day or night, however the robot will only milk them once every six and a half hours. A generous serving of feed tempts in the cows and each cow is carefully tracked by ear tag to monitor how frequently it is entering the machine. Alarms sound if an individual cow has not been milked for twelve hours. On average the cows are milked 2.75 times in every twenty-four hour period. The cows have had to acclimatise to this new system, very different from the twice-daily routine of traditional morning and afternoon, farmer-led milking.
Jason explains that the change of system was not primarily to save labour or give him a lie-in (he is still an early riser, getting up at 5.30am - old habits die hard!) but to promote the health of their cows. Robotic milking best mimics the feeding pattern of calves. It keeps the cows comfortable and is good for udder health, reducing the risk of problems such as mastitis. Jason constantly monitors the tracking data and is highly attuned to the sounds of the robot as he does other jobs around the farm - the clanking of the gate as a cow enters the machine and the rattling of feed as it tumbles into the trough.
The current herd produces 700 litres of milk each day and from this Katherine makes 18 tonnes of cheese annually. Some of the surplus liquid milk is used by a local ice-cream maker, and the rest taken by daily tanker to Marybelle Dairy near Halesworth.
Katherine has three cheeses in her Suffolk Farmhouse range: Suffolk Gold, Suffolk Blue and Suffolk Brie. They are all made from pasteurised milk using vegetarian rennet. Suffolk Gold, a creamy, light territorial cheese with a natural mould rind is her best seller and a firm favourite in the Slate counter, particularly amongst visitors looking to create a local cheeseboard.
Katherine makes cheese three days each week: each Monday and Friday she makes Gold and Brie; Wednesdays are reserved for making Blue to keep the mould spores, Pencillium Roqueforte, entirely separate from the other cheeses. With her veterinary training background, Katherine is fastidious about the hygiene and cleanliness of her cheese room. Jason and his mucky farmyard boots are not allowed in! It is her concern for food safety that also leads her to pasteurise all their milk.
All three cheeses start life in the cheese room's 1000 litre vat, and for all three the curds are drained and hand-ladled into moulds. Only Suffolk Gold is lightly pressed, for 4 to 8 hours. There are three separate maturing rooms for the cheeses to avoid any jumping of either blue or brie moulds between them as they mature. The Blue is pierced after one week to trigger its light blueing. Katherine explained that she finds developing the delicate blue veins trickier during winter months when the curds are colder and less structure develops between which the blue moulds can grow.
Both Katherine and Jason enjoy showing people around their farm and sharing their rich knowledge of cows and cheese. They do frequent farm tours to showcase their new robotic milking system and have a large event planned this coming month on Sunday, 10th June for Open Farm Sunday. For more details visit their website.