Seasonality in cheesemaking

September 05, 2023 3 min read

Seasonality in cheesemaking

We have a dichotomous attitude to seasonality in food in the UK.  On one hand, we can buy asparagus all year round as long as we import from Peru.  On the other hand, we champion the arrival of British strawberries.  The natural cycle of life begins as winter ends and our food year follows this.  The entire reason that cheese is made is to preserve the nutritional content of milk for the sparse winter months.  In the same way, fruits and vegetables are preserved or carefully stored for the same purpose. 

Historically, all cheese was seasonal.  Calves, kids, lambs were born in spring and subsequently there was milk.  The natural cycle isn’t commercially convenient, however.  Considerable research has gone into encouraging animals to give birth out of season so that a supply of milk can be available all year round.  The most common form of dairy farming is cows. Genetic research and breeding practices have been adapted to the extent that it is very rare to find herds that don’t produce some milk all year round. 

It is more complicated to encourage goats to kid at different times of year.  The instinct hasn’t been bred out of them to the same extent and they respond to the length of the days.  Where goats milk cheeses are available out of season, the animals tend to be housed indoors where the light can be regulated, and different portions of the overall herd can be encouraged to have kids in a staggered pattern throughout the year.  This only applies to larger herd.  Our smaller farmers, such as the Mastos making Mistralou & Buchette de Manon, farm seasonally with the goats outside on pasture.  Sheep too remain largely seasonal. 

You would think, therefore, that at the peak of the summer, supplies of goats’ cheese would be at their most plentiful yet over the last four or five years, we have had unexpected gaps in supply.  More often than not, this has coincided with unexpected heatwaves or summer storms.  

The changes in weather affect the way a dairy farmer manages their land.  Small scale farmers practise rotational grazing.  This means that their entire land is divided up into pastures which are grazed in turn.  The idea is that after the first grazing is finished, by the time the animals next return new shoots of grass have been able to grow.  Leafy shoots of grass promote protein in the milk, and this drives the volume of cheese that it can yield.  During hot weather, in the 3 weeks or fortnight before the animals return to a pasture, the grass hasn’t had a chance to grow green shoots again.  The grass that remains is more stalky and fibrous.  

The higher fibre means that the animals feel full sooner and stop eating.  This actually doesn’t mean that they are unhealthy.  The fibre in the feed encourages them to lay down fat stores and makes the milk more fatty in turn.  They will produce less milk, however, because the nutritional content of their pasture isn’t as ideally suited.  There will be less cheese as a result.  

If the heat continues, a farmer may decide just to dry the animals off early rather than risk them putting on too much fat. Overweight animals are less fertile so this would compromise the following season.  This would mean putting in the Tups (male sheep) or Billies (male goats) early and starting the next season on a different timescale. 

It isn’t just goat’s milk or sheep’s milk cheese that is affected, although those are the most extreme examples as they are the most seasonal.  We have experienced shortages of Comte in previous years as those herds are pasture fed and they aim to make most cheese between May and September.  The shortage will be felt, even if it takes 18 months for it to feed through. 

There is no doubt that heat is affecting the way we farm, but To suggest this is all down to climate change or hot summers would be to oversimplify.  There are other factors such as geography and remoteness of pasture, and while it may seem that the small farms are more vulnerable, they tend to be resilient and able to adapt and pivot in ways that a larger farm cannot.  One of our smaller farmers, the Ladu who make Castillon, have adapted to the challenges of last year’s heatwave and its effects on their milk production to hold more events on their farm.  This has meant they sell more cheese directly to those visitors and subsequently we have had less on our counters. 

In other words, before we blame heatwaves, look at the detail.  As with life, dairy farming does not deal with issues in black and white.

Francois Masto