July 05, 2021 7 min read
How to feed animals is a far-reaching topic that is influenced by climate, land price, productivity, breed of animal and seasonality. Some of the factors governing choice of animal feed are summarized below.
We have chosen to compare and contrast cheeses where the animals are hay fed with one that uncommonly for France, uses maize silage or cornlage in our July Cheese of the Month Subscription.
In Switzerland, haymaking is the common and they manage to make hay successfully despite not having permanent sunshine. Clouds & rain gets trapped in the mountains, so the Swiss invest in barns and machines that can turn the cut grass as it dries. It’s viable largely because they farm with traditional lower-yielding breeds. Farmers are supported politically and paid at a level which allows them to invest in their farms and make a profit. Our Gruyere is made at co-operative level and not exclusively from grass fed milk. It’s a great example of how a cheese that is no longer farmhouse in scale can maintain quality. It has huge complexity of hazelnut, sweet cream & beef broth flavours, and its texture is pleasingly supple.
Milk in the vat ready to be turned into Gruyere.
Hailing from the western slopes of the Rhone Alpes, this cheese is also an example of making hay without unrelenting sunshine. This area attracts cooler and wetter weather and like the Swiss farmers, Isabelle Douillon has invested in hay barns and turning machines. She has 2 herds of goats, one for winter production (at a lower level) and one that produces milk over the summer. The winter cheeses have a more subtle, mineral flavour profile to the summer cheeses which we are currently selling: yoghurt-like acidity, buttery texture & fresh milky sweetness.
In general, dairy agriculture in France compared to neighbouring countries is less intensive. This is due in part to the land price being lower and the drive for high productivity not as strong. However in certain areas, farming is more productive. One of these is Alsace where Munster is made. Higher yielding cows like Holsteins are used & they need a higher protein feed. In the case of the Vincents, who make our Munster on a farmhouse scale, this means fermented corn silage which is considered to account for the boozy sweetness of their incredibly complex cheese. Other flavours we note are fruity, nutty, cocoa or richly meaty, farmyard funk.
Munster curds draining
There are a mere handful of cheesemakers in the UK who make hay today. One of them is Martin Gott, a passionate advocate for it, who farms in in the Western Lake District where up until around the 1980s, hay continued to be made every summer. For his Lacaune sheep who do not produce milk in the winter, hay is a much better food when they can’t graze due to its greater biodiversity and minimum environmental impact. St James, another washed rind cheese which we don’t normally make available online, is rich, succulent with mouth-coating creaminess & a meaty, savoury flavour.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO ADD?
Complimentary cheeses to this selection would be Kirkham’s Lancashire or Cantal Au Lait de Salers. Both cheeses are made in a very similar manner but the end results compare and contrast in an interesting and delicious way.
Graham Kirkham, who makes the Lancashire, is a very fortunate UK farmer. All his milk is made into cheese. He farms with the quality of cheese in mind. The system that works for him is to buffer feed silage to his cows as it gives him more consistent milk.
Meanwhile Geraud Delorme is at the other end of the scale. Also farming exclusively for his cheese, Geraud’s cows are fed hay during the winter, harvested from their farm pastures and on veterinary advice they reduced their use of fertilisers by 85% and the cows’ health improved as the variety of plants in their pasture increased.
Kirkham’s Lancashire has a rich, buttery crumbly texture and flavours of fresh, lactic yoghurt with a grassy hint and notes of something more spicy as it matures.
Cantal Au Lait de Salers also has a rich, buttery texture with boldly savoury beefy flavours, a notable acidity and warm golden spice.
HAYMAKING & SILAGE
From the perspective of an English person, haymaking evokes either the exoticism of pristine Alpine pastures or an old-fashioned sepia tinted charm of a pre-Industrial Revolution way of farming. However, it is neither so exotic or remote if you look at how farming has developed.
Making silage arrived in the UK from America in 1920s and was attractive to farmers recovering from a few years bad weather at crucial haymaking time. The more prolific dairy areas of the UK were the first to adopt the practice but in remoter areas such as the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales or North Yorkshire Moors where the herd size would have rarely gone above 30 cows, haymaking remained the most practical solution.
A loss of labour on farms during the Second World War contributed to the decline in haymaking. Hay is turned by hand so losing the male workforce made this more difficult. Silage, by contrast, does not have to dry out and preserves by excluding oxygen so, as long as it was tightly wrapped up, it needed less labour. Whether this altered the flavours in the milk at the time is hard to prove because, during the same period, farmers sold their milk to a centralised government agency in order that it could be turned into the ‘War Cheese’, a mild, pasteurized cheese a little like a block cheddar. Although cheesemaking returned to some farms after the war ended, a break of 6 years making cheese would have affected the flavour memory of the cheesemakers.
A theme in farming across Europe since the 1940s has been for smaller farms to retire from the profession, while bigger farms increase their herd size. In the UK in particular, land is expensive to own or rent and as such needs to be productive. This has led to larger dairy herds of higher yielding animals like Holsteins & Friesian Holsteins over the traditional, native breeds. These cows need the relatively higher protein count of silage over hay and in most cases are buffer fed it all year round. The smaller, more remote farms in the Lake District and Yorkshire before the 1940s produced milk more seasonally with either a break from milking or lower production during the winter months. Their traditional herds produced less milk and could happily have their nutritional needs met with hay and some dry food like rolled oats.
On the bigger farms with high yielding cows however, milk was produced at the same level all year round. In order to feed these higher yielding animals, many farmers turned to nitrogen fertilisers which helped the grass grow fast, meaning they could cut it for silage several times a year. Nitrogen encourages leafy wet grass rather than a more naturally varied wildflower meadow. This type of grass is also not suited to making hay.
Silage is cut several times a year in general starting as early as March when it is still full of moisture and it’s better suited to fermenting. Haymaking was traditionally done at the end of August or early September when the grass was at the end of its natural life and only takes around three days to dry.
It is not only the UK where farming has become more intensive and land prices have increased. In France, many areas still have a relatively low land cost compared to countries such as Germany or the UK and as a result, farming is less intensive in most areas. Traditional, lower yielding breeds are still common and their milk which tends to have higher protein and fat levels, arguably is better suited to cheesemaking. A key difference is that cheesemaking did not have to move off the farms in France during the Second World War. As creameries developed in places like Normandy, Alsace or the areas around Paris where Brie de Meaux is made, some farmers found it easier to sell their milk and stop cheese production but there was not a 6 year divorce from farmhouse cheesemaking unlike in the UK. As the move to creamery production has been gradual, more of the farmhouse knowledge has been retained even as the production rose. In the more remote mountainous areas where herd size remains small, a co-operative approach to cheesemaking developed. This system is also in place in Switzerland. In order for smaller producers to remain viable, local groups began to organize collection of milk from several farms to make cheese centrally in the valleys. This has meant that in France, farmers can still produce their milk solely for cheesemaking, feeding hay and wildflower pasture, farming traditional breeds, practicing transhumance even if they no longer make their own cheese.
Farming in Switzerland is again dictated by the geography but also the value of the milk. Even with a lower land cost and less need for intensive production in France, the effect of a lower milk price is noted where farmers sell their milk. In the UK the situation is worse with farmers who sell milk for drinking increasingly finding it hard to break even. In Switzerland however it is recognised that its major exports are cheeses and chocolate. Swiss dairy farmers are supported by a viable milk price & even the larger farmers can maintain traditional breeds & make hay on mountain pastures. There are even schemes in certain areas such as the Canton of Uri to preserve haymaking on almost vertical slopes that are inaccessible by vehicles. Above the tree line and very exposed, the grasses, herbs & flowers in these meadows need little time to dry. Once dried, the hay is stuffed into the traditional 60kg nets called Pinggel and sent down to the valley by zip wire or helicopter. This is risky work for the harvesters but is encouraged because left uncut, the pasture will be flattened by autumn rains and form a slippery surface which, when the snows fall will be susceptible to avalanches.
The choice a farmer makes on how to feed their animals is very personal and good cheese can be made under both the traditional and the higher yielding systems. In the UK, Martin Gott is adamant that hay is the right choice for his St James but he acknowledges that had he to produce milk all year round, with a higher yielding animal he would struggle to keep them in the best condition. Hay & pasture advocates insist that the complexity of their cheese is due to the varied diet that their animals have. The Vincents, making Munster on the Ferme d’Houtrou, however, demonstrate that a complex cheese is also possible using Holstein milk & feeding silage.
Click here to view a video of Swiss Haymaking in the Canton of Uri