Taking an environmentally-conscious approach
Earlier in the year, we learnt how Oak Park Dairy has built a successful and sustainable dairy enterprise by embracing diversification. But the family’s plans aren’t just focused around business - Oak Park Dairy is also taking a forward-thinking approach to the environment.
The environmental impact of dairy farming is under increasing public scrutiny, and signals from government indicate that environmental stewardship will be a core component of future subsidy payments. For any farming business looking to secure its long-term sustainability, environmental considerations are essential.
“We have always done environmental land management work, because we know it is the right thing to do in terms of looking after the land,” says Matthew Mitchem, who helps manage Oak Park Dairy alongside his sister, Emily. “Even with the best will in the world, some of the things we do as dairy farmers inevitably impact the environment negatively. As conscientious food producers, we feel it is only right to try and balance the situation by implementing practices on our farm that proactively benefit the environment.”
In practical terms, this mindset has resulted in Oak Park Dairy reducing herbicide use, stopping splash plate slurry applications, planting wildlife and pollinator-friendly flower mixes and maximising the use of home-produced renewable energy.
“This environmentally-conscious approach is good from a public perception standpoint, but also ecologically,” explains Matthew. “Soil health, worm numbers and pollinators have all been given a boost thanks to the environmentally-friendly farming initiatives we carry out, and this increases productivity and the long-term sustainability of our business.”
New crop techniques cut costs and boost efficiency
One of the changes Matthew and his sister has made is to reduce the amount of herbicide used on arable crops.
“We grow a lot of maize for our anaerobic digestion plant and would traditionally carry out multiple herbicide treatments to control weeds,” Matthew says. “We have now removed pre-emergence spraying altogether and want to cut post-emergence applications as much as is practical by using mechanical weed control methods instead of chemical ones.
“Last year we trialled the use of a tine weeder to mechanically remove weeds during the early stage of maize growth. It has been a steep learning curve, but the results have been positive and we are now also trialling the use of a specialist maize hoe to weed more mature maize crops. Thanks to these adaptations we have made significant reductions in overall herbicide use, which is great for the environment, but also good financially. I would estimate that in a typical year, we save around £2,700 by removing pre-emergence spraying alone.”
Matthew was also conscious of the relative inefficiency of spreading slurry using a conventional splash plate system, and the resulting atmospheric ammonia losses. As a result, the business has invested in a slurry trailing shoe with an incorporated aerator. This trailing shoe not only applies slurry directly onto the soil surface, but also helps oxygenate the soil and reduce slurry run off.
“Slurry use is going to come under greater scrutiny in the coming years but irrespective of this, we knew that changing to a more efficient application system was the right thing to do,” continues Matthew. “By using a trailing shoe, we significantly reduce ammonia losses into the atmosphere and prevent potential run off from fields – two things that benefit the environment. But it also makes sense from a business performance point of view. Slurry is a fantastic fertiliser. We want to be using it as effectively and efficiently as possible to help boost grass growth.”
Helping the environment through pollinators and packaging
Matthew and Emily know how important it is to feed and encourage pollinators on the farm, and currently have 40 beehives on site to help with cross-pollination.
“We usually have various flower mixes planted around the farm, but this year we have also grown a dedicated two-acre block of sunflowers,” explains Matthew. “The sunflowers have been a magnet for pollinators, so we are thinking about planting more in the future and trialling companion cropping, alongside maize.
“The sunflowers also look great and are a clear visual statement to the public that we are trying to ‘do our bit’ environmentally.”
Oak Park Dairy runs a successful and expanding doorstep milk round and this part of the business has been developed with environmental considerations in mind.
“All the packaging we use for our products is reusable or biodegradable,” continues Matthew. “And the power used in the pasteurising and bottling processes comes from our own AD plant, fuelled by homegrown maize, grass and slurry. In fact, the majority of our overall enterprise is powered by our own renewable energy.”
“Small changes make a big difference”
Matt is very conscious that consumer, market and environmental demands will all influence how Oak Park Dairy evolves in the future. By keeping one step ahead of these changes, he hopes the family business will continue to thrive.
“We don’t just change for economic or legislative reasons,” concludes Matthew. “We make changes on the farm because we feel they are the right thing to do and want the very best for our cows and our land.
“If every farm makes small changes to improve their environmental credentials, collectively that makes a big difference. We like to think we are doing our bit and will continue to explore ways to reduce our environmental impact going into the future.”
Oak Park Dairy milks 100 Holstein Friesian cows, alongside a smaller herd of 40 pedigree Jersey cows, established three years ago.
A 500-kilowatt AD plant was commissioned in 2014 and is fed with a mixture of slurry, grass and maize silage grown on the farm. The power produced goes into the National Grid, with the waste digestate used as valuable fertiliser on the farm’s crops.
Future Farming: Mindset
Matthew Mitchem has also supported the Future Farming programme by talking about resilience and adapting the farm to make business sense. Click the button below to find out more.Read more here
Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.Future Farming Programme