From fans to farms, Nicholas Millard, ex-drummer of indie-rock band, The Kooks, is living his dream life as Herd Manager at Milton Farm, Westcombe Dairy; and ‘getting up now at the time he used to go to bed.’
Why have you always wanted to go into farming?
When I was young, dairy farms were my weekend and school holiday playground. I was surrounded by tractors and fell in love with the idea of farming. My first word was ‘tractor’ – ironic really, because I am not a particularly gifted tractor driver.
You were in The Kooks by the time you left school?
My maternal grandmother loved music and wanted her grandchildren to play an instrument, so my siblings and I were packed off to Suzuki violin lessons from the age of three. I drifted into playing drums when I went to secondary school and it all just happened. I started touring when I left school at 18. I was told many times that there was no future in farming, and not being from a farming family, that I wouldn’t be able to get on in the industry.
Now you’re living your dream life?
When I first came to Milton Farm, part of my brief was to put into action all that I have learnt about best practice farming for cheesemaking, through my studies and practical experience on farms in France and Italy. What the French and Italians are doing up in those mountains is about as good as it gets for producing a milk full of aromatic and flavoursome potential for cheesemaking. The key is a rich biodiversity that is found in wild alpine grasslands, filled with flowering plants. So that’s what I’ve been attempting to replicate at Milton.
I do most of the jobs that have to be done with the cows, from milking and calving, to veterinary treatments, and managing the cows’ non-grazing feeding. I am assisted in much of my work by Wayne Baker, the brilliant tractor driver we have at Milton Farm.
I’m also involved in the arable side of both Westcombe farms – what crops to grow, where and how, etc.
Has your role changed at all?
Quite a bit. The cows were grazed on a set-stocking system. In 2020, I successfully submitted a Countryside Stewardship application, and in 2021 the farm’s team got to work at making the CS agreement a reality. Consequently, we’re now grazing the Milton cows on a large array of multi-species herb- and legume-rich grazing pastures, and there’s a lot of day-to-day management in keeping that rotational grazing system going.
I also played a part in designing our agroforestry system, which we started planting last winter. Another of our tractor drivers, Barry, is an experienced tree-planter, and between us we planted around 400 fruit and nut trees and bushes along paddock divisions at Milton Farm, and at Manor Farm, Westcombe’s other dairy farm. I am quite looking forward to spending the period between winter morning and afternoon milking, pruning trees and bushes. In time, the trees will provide shade for our cows, additional food for both humans and cows, sequester carbon, improve soil health, and improve biodiversity. Well, that’s the hope, anyway.
What is the virtue of scrapping maize for barley, pea and vetch?
Maize isn’t good for cheesemaking. There are stacks of scientific literature showing this to be the case. It’s also not great for soil health. You only have to witness the streams of topsoil flowing off bare maize stubbles and down the country lanes in much of Somerset in the winter.
Since we got rid of maize, contrary to expectation, the fertility of Westcombe’s herds improved. Barley, pea, and vetch are much better for soil health, are a big cost saver on nitrogen fertiliser (and other agrichemicals), fantastic for pollinators, and are better for cheese flavour and texture than maize. We did lose some overall bulk in silage production – maize being a huge plant producing high yields of bulky forage – but growing red clover in our silage grass leys has given us much bigger cuts than ever before.
Also, by moving from Holstein to Dairy Shorthorn breeding, to get a smaller, hardier cow, we’ve been better able to make the most of those species-rich grazing lands.
Have you always had a strong passion for cheese?
Yes. Every family summer holiday was in France. My maternal grandfather was a gourmand and it rubbed off on me. My favourite cheese is St Nectaire, from Auvergne. The best of it holds a mirror up to the beautiful landscape there and excellent wildlife-friendly dairy farming that takes place on those hills and mountains.
How special is the Milton herd to you?
Whatever farm you work on is special. You spend so much time with the cows, you become part of the herd, and they’re like an extended family.
Do you ever sing to your cows?
I play them music. Classical in the morning; jazz in the afternoon.
What’s a favourite melody in your head?
That’s a very hard one! The opening of Bruckner’s 4th symphony? One of Sibelius’s doom-laden endings. It depends on my mood. My head is a jukebox that I find difficult to turn off.
What has inspired you most?
I have gained a lot from reading books like Andre Voisin’s ‘Grass Productivity’ and Frank Newman Turner’s ‘Fertility Pastures’, all the research scientists at the INRA (Institut national de la recherche agronomique) in Auvergne, Aurillac and Savoie too.
What’s one thing people don’t know about you?
Every other book I read is a Georges Simenon Maigret novel. I’m attempting to read all 75 of them. I’m at something like number 26.
What’s a happy moment in your life?
Walking through those flowery, grazing fields, with an uplift of butterflies and bees, surrounded by dairy cows and birdsong, while carrying my one-year-old daughter, Robin, in my arms.
What’s Nick’s secret to a happy week?
The cows behaving themselves.
Follow Nick on Instagram @herdsman_nick for his inspiring farming prose.