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Golden girls return to Sark (Jan 2022)

The warm climate matched the welcome for the herd managers of a new dairy unit, recently set up on the remote island of Sark, just off Guernsey. We find out what else was waiting for them.


The opportunity to manage a dairy herd on a remote island in the English Channel sounds idyllic and must have caught many producers’ attention, and imagination, when the position was advertised back in 2018. But it takes a certain kind of dairy manager to set up a new herd on Sark – a small Channel Island – more than a day’s travel away from their existing dairy herd.

That’s exactly what Jason and Katharine Salisbury, from Suffolk, have done. And, although it’s been a long journey both literally and metaphorically, and challenging, not least due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re extremely happy with how things are going and have no regrets.

“We knew there’d be surprises but they have, predominantly, been pleasant ones,” says Jason, adding that he knew the weather would be better on Sark than in Suffolk. “But I had no idea it would be this good.” Indeed, when CowManagement caught up with him, at the beginning of December, the temperature was 18 degrees C. It was close to freezing back home.

Sark, an island just off Guernsey, had been without a dairy herd for four years until this year. There was a dairy herd on the island, but the business closed and the unit was in a poor state of repair. The islanders – all 500 residents – wanted milk produced on the island. So a trust – the Sark Dairy Trust (SDT) – was set up to build a new dairy unit and find someone to manage it. It stipulated that successful applicants must have experience managing the Guernsey breed (it is a requirement, by law, to milk only Guernseys on Sark), as well as processing and selling dairy produce.

“And, fortunately for us, that was what we were already doing on our Suffolk-based farm. The job certainly had our name written all over it, but we visited the Island a couple of times before accepting the challenge,” says Jason.

Those initial visits were back in 2018, to see the farm, the island and the plans for the new unit. “We weren’t happy with the plans the trust had drawn up. But they listened to us and trusted our experience and expertise, and drew up a second set of plans. We were much happier with those and accepted the offer to manage the unit in 2019.”

Processing milk

Katharine, who’s also a qualified vet, is still predominantly based in Suffolk and a herd manager helps look after the 80-cow mixed herd of pure-bred Jerseys, Guernseys and Ayrshires, which is based at Creeting St Mary near Needham Market. Milk from this herd is processed on farm and sold via a farmgate vending machine, and in local shops.

New parlour: four-sided herringbone is simple to run

Jason moved to Sark in spring 2021 to settle the small but expanding 15-cow Guernsey herd into the new facilities at Seigneurie. The herd is milked through a DeLaval four-sided herringbone parlour and Jason spent much of the summer processing milk – every third day – into whole milk. “For the local residents and for the 55,000-plus tourists who visit the island each year,” he says. “Tourism picked up this summer, after a quiet season in 2020 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and we’re now looking to match the herd’s calving pattern and milk production curve to the summer influx of visitors and the increased demand for milk and dairy products on the island.

As in Suffolk, milk is sold from the Sark herd’s farmgate, via a Risto vending machine, to locals and tourists. Plenty more is supplied to shops and other food outlets on the 3.5-mile-long island. “We’re right in the centre. If you walk anywhere on the island, which is just 2.1 square miles, you’ll pass the farm. So we do sell a lot through the vending machine. The farm is 18 hectares – that’s 16% of the island’s total land area.”

Soil is fertile on the island and, prior to the move and the herd’s arrival, Jason asked that grazing be reseeded to produce mixed species long-term leys. “Again, access to fertiliser and herbicides is limited. So we needed to set up a self-contained and sustainable system. These leys fit perfectly and performed well in 2021.”

The all-year-round calving herd – cows were all sourced from the Island of Guernsey – does have a spring block to help meet the increased demand for dairy during the summer tourist season.

Cows are out at grass for 10 months of the year. “Grass only really stops growing here for eight weeks of the year. The cows come in for a few hours at night from the end of October and are fully housed by Christmas. And they’re back out again in early February,” says Jason.

The Guernsey breed suits the climate – and the system set up by Jason and the SDT. “They’re certainly good grazers, which is essential when we’re so reliant on producing milk from home-grown forage. Feed conversion into milk is good. And the milk quality is fantastic.”

Slower pace

Jason AIs the herd with semen bought from Global Guernsey Breeding Plan. He selects from a list and has two AI flasks. The flasks travel to Guernsey on a cargo boat and are met by the AI technician, who tops up the flasks with liquid nitrogen and the semen straws Jason has selected, and sends them straight back.

“We’re looking to breed cows with good feet, legs and udders, and plenty of milk. And we avoid sires that add too much stature. We’re happy with the size of our cows.” “We use conventional semen because there’s a market for Guernsey bull calves on Sark. They’re sold to a local bull-beef rearer, and the beef is sold in shops and restaurants on the island, so we don’t need to use sexed semen.”

Jason says the attraction of moving to Sark was the slower pace of life. “Even on our relatively small unit in Suffolk, the day-to-day routine was relentless. Here things are slower, calmer – and warmer. And we’re doing just what we’re doing in Suffolk, but on a smaller scale. So there’s less pressure.”

New arrivals: cows and heifers came to the island by boat

That said, there are challenges to running a dairy herd on a small island, not least the cost of inputs. “Concentrate prices are already high on the mainland – at around £200 per tonne. But with shipping and haulage to the farm, we’re looking at an additional £150 per tonne. So we grow all our own feed. We can do that because we’re running the herd on a relatively extensive system – we’re looking for more lactations, not huge yields. And the cows are doing well on a diet of hay, lucerne and rolled barley.”

Another surprise was the price of electricity. “We’re certainly careful about our usage – it’s so expensive.” Marmite and peanut butter, bizarrely, are also difficult to find on the island. And Jason was also shocked to find out that a litre of orange juice costs £5.00. It certainly makes the price of milk on the island extremely good value for money. Milk from the herd retails at £2 per litre – both from the farm’s vending machine and in shops on the island.

Satisfying demand

Herd average yield is around 5,000 litres, at 5.20% butterfat and 3.95% protein. “And that’s enough. The island still imports some milk and dairy produce from the mainland – mainly semi-skimmed and low-fat dairy products. But we’re satisfying demand for whole milk. At some point, we’ll move into cream, yoghurt and, eventually, cheese production. That’ll probably be once we push cow numbers up closer to 25 milkers and have a slight glut of milk.”

Jason says he also has to plan well ahead. “If I think I’m going to run out of something, I order it then – not once I need it. Some things can be delivered relatively quickly but, for example, I’ve been waiting for a water trough for four months.”

He also has a stash of spare parts and other sundries to anticipate any breakdowns and ensure herd management runs smoothly. “That’s another reason why we installed a fairly basic parlour – nothing ‘whizzy’. We don’t have a large herd to milk, so speed isn’t a huge issue. But we do have to milk the cows twice a day. So if there’s a breakdown I have to be able to fix it relatively easily.”

Jason adds that, even though the island is remote, there are a lot of skilled people living on the island. “It’s easy to find an electrician or a plumber if you need one.” And here he shares another pleasant surprise – just how welcoming and friendly the island residents are. “I hadn’t been here for long before I found myself being invited to people’s houses for dinner three or four evenings a week. There’s a real sense of community and belonging – more than you’d get in a small town or village on the mainland. I thought we’d be welcome, but the islanders’ friendliness has surpassed all my expectations.”

He also suspects the residents are thrilled to see cows back on the island – and a ready supply of fresh and local milk. “I guess there’s also some gratitude attached to their hospitality. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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