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Jo Mackenzie: All go at Rootfield Farm until the milking robots arrive

Jo Mackenzie
Jo Mackenzie

It is all go on the farm just now.

Nick is working silly hours to cover the milking until the robots arrive but instead of having a sleep in the mornings – as the usual cattleman would have done – to make up for the 3am start, he has been working through to supervise ongoing preparations in the cowshed as well as managing the usual ice-cream and yoghurt orders and deliveries.

Having Duncan as his righthand man has been invaluable at the moment, meanwhile Rosie and the team have stepped up a gear as orders begin to increase in the run-up to the summer season. Despite all of this, Nick also managed to fit in a visit to nearby organic dairy farm Connage at Ardersier which installed robots for its cheese-making business three years ago.

Connage Highland Dairy is run by brothers Callum and Cameron in partnership with their wives Jill and Eileen. It produces award-winning cheese including the iconic heart-shaped Clava brie-style cheese. They decided to put in robots to streamline the business and reduce the pressure of twice-a-day milking on Cameron. And despite some early bedding-in issues, the family hasn’t looked back.

It was a useful visit for Nick as Cameron pointed out some important lessons they had learned from their experience of installing the robots. Nick was then able to feed back to both his builder, Alan, and the Lely rep before beginning work on the “clean rooms” in the cowshed.

The clean rooms, as I discovered with Daisy and Mollie when we went for a recce the other day, are in fact pretty substantial concrete cube structures with one open side. The robot will be fitted in front of the open side, so the cow doesn’t actually enter the clean room (although there will inevitably be some bovine splatter). Its purpose is to enable human access to the robot for servicing and maintenance.

Located at one end of the shed, opposite each other with the central pass in between, the clean rooms have been double rendered until smooth and painted white, so they are more easily power washed at the end of every day.

Another requirement is for two pits to be dug into the central pass between the rooms to carry away the slurry – Alan explained to me that the floors therefore need to have a slight gradient towards these pits.

From the layperson’s point of view, there still looks like there’s a fair bit to do, especially as the robots are already en route from Holland – albeit a week earlier than originally scheduled. Alan and Nick seem confident however that the rooms will be ready by the end of the month, in time for Lely to instal them.

The whole process is pretty amazing and I’m sure Nick can’t quite believe it’s happening sometimes (I can’t either). It will revolutionise the way the farm is run here at Rootfield, freeing up some of Nick’s precious time so he can concentrate on the processing side of the business.

One such job is going to be shifting our honesty shop from its modest quarters (a narrow adjoining room to Nick’s office, currently located in a lovely painted timber summer house) into Nick’s more generously sized office.

Such has been the success of the on-farm shop, with a surge in sales every time the sun shines, the existing ice-cream freezer is not large enough to meet demand. On sunny days and on Fridays, Duncan, Nick or Rosie need to replenish stocks at least once if not twice a day and sometimes this is not practical for any of them to do as they are busy with their day-to-day jobs.

The end section of the summer house will be used for storage of ambient supplies and we will move the fridge that holds our yoghurt and unhomogenised whole milk and a large freezer for our ice-creams, sorbets and frozen yoghurts into the bigger section.

I worry it will look a little sparse however so I am already thinking of other products we could sell that our customers might like. Eggs are an obvious one but we only have three uncontrollable chickens at the moment (I can’t get them out of our garden) and we get through all of their eggs ourselves.

We also have an excellent local honey producer, Struan Apiaries, but obviously that would involve buying in stock which we are unsure about.

The other slightly out there notion I had at New Year was to make my own soap using the cow’s milk, something I mentioned to my younger sister Kate. Next thing I knew, my siblings had clubbed together and very kindly bought me a voucher for a soap-making course, which I will attend in July.

Having absolutely zero experience in this field, I don’t know what to expect and I’m not sure how straightforward it is to sell handmade cosmetics commercially – from what I’ve read so far it’s fine to give your creations away as gifts but understandably legislation and standards are pretty stringent when it comes to selling to the public . . . I will, of course, keep you posted.

In the meantime, as you read this I will be having a “rest” day ahead of my first ever Race for Life in Inverness.

My good friend Zoe persuaded me to sign up in a bid to get fit as well as raising money for Cancer Research and we have been running, well jogging, together with another friend Ximena for the past few weeks.

In between, I’ve been jogging while Nick and the girls cycle – my very own support team. And I can honestly say hand on heart that I have enjoyed the training. At the same time, I’m glad we only signed up for the 5k race although Zoe is already talking about a 10k in the Baxters Festival of Running this September. Having not been properly fit for at least 15 years, I think I’d better see how tomorrow goes first.

  • Rootfield Farm is on the Black Isle, 10 miles north of Inverness, where Jo lives with husband Nick, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, their daughters Daisy and Mollie, and 150 cows