Analysis: Is the UK ready for an 8000-cow dairy herd?

Plans to build Britain’s biggest dairy unit in Lincolnshire might not be as crazy as many people think. Johann Tasker reports.

Never before has the tiny Lincolnshire village of Nocton seen anything like it. Dozens of locals will cram into the village hall next Monday (15 March) to hear about plans to set up a £50m “super dairy” farm on their doorstep.

It promises to be a heated debate – the most talked about event since Nocton Hall mysteriously burned down in 2004. If approved, the farm will be home to more than 8100 cows, producing up to 250,000 litres of milk daily and employing 85 staff.

The community is divided. Supporters claim the plan will boost the rural economy in an area where decent jobs can be hard to come by. But detractors highlight fears about animal welfare and the impact on the environment.

Planning officials at North Kesteven District Council, who must decide whether to approve the proposal, have seen their website inundated with almost 600 messages – almost all of them negative – about the scheme.

What do you think of the plans? Have your say in our forum.

Comments range from accusations of feedlot-style factory farming to concerns that animal welfare will be compromised by cows housed indoors and bedded on sand, rather than straw, for months on end.

Is an 8100-cow dairy herd another nail in the coffin for family farms already struggling to produce cheap milk for the masses? Or is a vote of confidence in a beleaguered dairy industry about to embark on a brighter future?

Unsurprisingly, dairy consultant Graeme Surtees takes the latter view. Involved with the project from the outset, he advises the two farmers who set up Nocton Dairies, the company behind the project.

Mr Surtees doesn’t like the phrase “super dairy”. And while acknowledging there has been a little local difficulty, he insists the farm will surpass the highest animal welfare and environmental standards ever seen in the UK.

Nocton Dairies facts

8100 Holstein Friesian cows

85 employees

1 full-time vet

8 cattle buildings

2 cow maternity/hospital buildings

2 4500l rotary parlours

250,000 litres of milk daily  

Similar to large dairy farms in the USA and Saudi Arabia, the Lincolnshire unit has already been more than two years in the making. The planning application alone cost more than £160,000 and involved numerous trans-Atlantic trips.

“It will be a flagship unit and will have some of the best health statistics in the world,” Mr Surtees told Farmers Weekly. “People are entitled to their opinions but most of the comments we have received are misconceived.”

Herd size is dictated by the capacity of two massive rotary parlours, each capable of milking 4500 cows. Cows will be brought in and managed in herds of 500, so the total will build up over a number of years.

Initially, Holstein Friesians heifers will be imported from continental Europe. “It sounds a lot of dairy cows, but you have to keep these things in perspective,” said Mr Surtees. “Last year, 50,000 heifers were imported from Germany alone.”

The farm will have no yield targets, he claimed, although modern dairy breeds are capable of delivering in excess of 10,000 litres per lactation. “The only reason some cows don’t achieve it is because of low health status.

“Cows bedded on deep sand will ensure unparallelled levels of hygiene and comfort. This sand bedding will be continuously washed and recycled using state of the art cleaning technology.

“We are hoping to develop technology to dry the bedding using surplus heat captured during the recycling process,” says Mr Surtees. “And all of the cows will have access to grazing.”

Given its herd size, the farm’s carbon footprint would be “one of the lowest in Europe”. The planning application includes plans for an anaerobic digester to produce 2MW of power from farm waste – enough to power 2000 homes.

The digester will minimise any smell. Unlike slurry, residue from the digester will be odour-free, separated into liquids and solids before being applied back to the land – well within any Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) limits.

Forage will be produced by a co-operative of local farmers. Cows will be fed on lucerne and maize, supplemented with by-products from the sugar beet factory at nearby Newark and a proposed ethanol plant at Immingham.

This specially designed diet will reduce methane emissions while helping to improve growing crops, widen rotations and replenish much-needed organic matter and soil nutrients in an area where livestock are scarce.

To the general public – and many farmers – the concept of housing cows all-year-round might be unusual. But it could soon be increasingly commonplace, according to a report by climate change experts.

A radical strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions could lead to the majority of cattle being housed, concludes a study by the Land Use Climate Change Group on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Published earlier this month, the report supports many of the theories on which the Nocton Dairies proposals are based, including anaerobic digestion, the more efficient use of manure and the housing of cattle to capture methane.

A combination of all three would help to achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 while generating additional income streams for farmers, according to Professor Gareth Wyn Jones, of Bangor University.

Setting up a £50m dairy farm from scratch in Lincolnshire could bring further benefits, said Mr Surtees. “There are plenty of large fields, plenty of room and very few other cows, which will make disease management easier.”

Local farmers such as Robert Howard, who farms at Nocton, are supporting the venture. This will give the dairy access to some 8500ha (21,000 acres) available for forage production and manure spreading.

Milk will go to the liquid market, rather than for processing. “We are talking to a number of buyers at the moment,” said Mr Surtees. “There’s lots of interest but we don’t have a final agreement in place yet.”

Located away from Nocton village on the B1188, the dairy would add less than 1% traffic to the B1188, he added. All lorries, including the 25 milk tankers expected each day, would be routed away from surrounding villages.

Collecting milk from a single 8000-cow farm rather than collecting it from scores of smaller herds is an obvious attraction for potential buyers. But Lincolnshire has other advantages too, explained Mr Surtees.

“Sun hours are much higher which means forage quality is better than the west of the country where it can be much more inconsistent. The east of the country is ideally suited to this type of farming system.”

Whether the local council agrees remains to be seen. Planning officials are expected to announce their decision by 3 May. If they give the go-ahead, milking could start as soon as this autumn.

Nocton Dairies?

Nocton Dairies is a company formed by Devon farmer and cheese-maker Peter Willes and Lancashire milk producer David Barnes.

Mr Willes, of Parkham Farms, Bideford, milks 1500 cows in both Devon and Lancashire. Cheese-making commenced as an added-value diversification in 1984. The company now produces some 4250t of mature cheddar each year.

Mr Barnes manages the Lancashire herd, at Withgill Farm, near Clitheroe. It is one of the UK’s biggest milking dairy herds on a single site, producing  55,000 litres daily.

Having secured the Nocton farm in Lincolnshire, the two men then approached local grower Robert Howard, who farms about 690ha (1700 acres) of potatoes, sugar beet and combinable crops.

Mr Howard, who left a banking career to join the long-standing family farming business, said: The British dairy industry has suffered from under-investment in recent years. Hopefully this will go someway towards reversing that trend.” 

See the plans at North Kesteven District Council by clicking here, or have your say on this proposal on the FWi forums at