For Becky Houzé, it is getting a little bit harder these days to go about her business without being recognised.
“People sometimes stop me when out and about asking: ‘Are you that cowgirl?’ she laughs.
Because at 29, Becky is currently the youngest dairy farmer in Jersey, Channel Islands, taking over the family’s 220-cow pedigree Jersey dairy farm. This will make her the fourth generation at Lodge Farm.
Jersey – which measures nine-by-five miles – is home to just 13 remaining dairy farms, including the Houzé’s Lodge Farm, which was established by Becky’s great-grandparents in 1944.
“They used to be mixed farmers, growing lots of different kinds of vegetables, daffodils, they raised some pigs and had eight cows. But as the operation grew, the farm focused on dairy farming,” explains Becky. “Today the farm is primarily a dairy farm and grows all its own forage.”
But growing up, Becky admits that she was more interested in becoming a professional ballerina. That is until it came to choosing the subjects for her AS exams (the equivalent of the Leaving Certificate).
“At the time, helping out on the farm was pocket money. But then I came to the realisation that my real passion was working with animals and I also enjoyed all the tractor jobs working on the land. Taking over the family business soon became my new ambition,” she explains.
With agricultural science not on the school curriculum in Jersey, at 17 years old, Becky attended Harper Adams University in the UK to first study the extended foundation degree, before later going onto her degree in agriculture with animal science.
“I’ve always done well at school but didn’t really come into my own until I started university, where I was studying my specialist subjects,” says Becky. However, she confesses that there was a lot to get used to, right down to the terminology used in Jersey compared to mainland UK.
“We were learning about farming in hectares but in Jersey we’re lucky to have a field that is over two acres,” she laughs, “and we have our own land measurement called vergées [19,360sq ft].”
Dairying in Jersey
It didn’t take long to put what she had learned into practice. Having returned home in 2015 after graduating and completing a year’s placement in the US, Becky now runs Lodge Farm in partnership with her father Paul.
Today, they milk approximately 220 pedigree Jersey cows, as well as rearing 140 followers for replacements at Lodge Farm and exports to the UK. They also grow their own wheat, barley, maize and grass for forage, have a small enterprise rearing Aberdeen Angus X Jersey beef, and are the island’s agent for a number of companies, including JFC, Dairy Spares, Germinal Seeds and Fullwood. Four farm workers are employed and the farm has grown to 400 acres over four generations.
Like the other farms on the island, Lodge Farm supplies all their milk to The Jersey Dairy, which is a farmer-owned co-operative. Jersey’s dairy farmers currently produce about 14 m litres of milk annually to completely supply the local market, as well as exporting products like soft mix ice-cream, UHT (ultra heat treated)milk and butter from the UK to Hong Kong.
“In Jersey, we don’t import any liquid milk, so that safeguards us as farmers with a decent milk price. Where in the UK supermarkets set milk prices, here in Jersey they have to buy our milk from Jersey Dairy,” explains Becky.
Though she quickly qualifies that this is not as lucrative as it might first appear, as farming on an island means relying on expensive imports for things like concentrates or equipment.
“We have to pay the UK price of that, plus almost the equivalent in shipping; it’s currently, like £93, to ship a pallet board in from the UK,” she says.
But while farming in Jersey has its challenges, all the dairy farms work together as a team.
“We use a software called MCI where we have the equivalent of a football league table and we put in all our finances and we find out who is the most profitable each month. If someone takes over the leaderboard, we ask them: ‘What are you doing differently?’ And everyone wants to help everyone succeed together,” says Becky, adding that the dairy farmers also co-operate with the potato farmers in The Jersey Royal Company.
“Good field rotations are so important for soil health and fertility so we often do land swaps. They also allow us to graze their land while we pay them back with cattle manure and slurry,” she says. “That’s why farming in Jersey is world-leading; we work together helping each other to run our business profitably.”
Life on the farm
One of the rules for supplying The Jersey Dairy is that each farm has to have an all-year-round calving herd, with the pedigrees grazing outdoors for 180 days a year minimum – though the mild climate means that is well exceeded.
At Lodge Farm, the first milking of the day is at 5.30am, with the second at 3.30pm.
“We know we could benefit from milking three times a day, but unfortunately working odd hours we’d have issues with finding staff,” says Becky.
In recent years, however, they have invested heavily in technology, including a FeedStar conveyor belt feeding system, Lely robotic slurry hoovers and CowManager health ear tags, which Becky says have been particularly “life-changing” and for which she is now a brand ambassador.
“The information is so accurate. It tells you that there’s a problem before you can see it with the eye,” she says.
At the same time, Becky is also working on improving the genetics of her herd, as up until 2008, farmers in Jersey were not allowed to import semen from abroad.
“Before 2008, we didn’t have a big enough gene pool like the United States, Canada or New Zealand to improve our island generics to the rate where they are elsewhere in the world. So each year we’re seeing production improvements, so our goal is to increase production but not to increase numbers,” she says.
“It’s about getting the most out of the cows that we have, so it’s concentrating and improving our nutrition and working with the genetics we’ve now got.”
Looking to the future
Technology and genetics will be even more important going forward, as the biggest challenge facing Jersey dairying is the ageing farm population.
Becky is the youngest farmer in the co-op, with only four farmers under 40 in total. She explains that unless you are born into it, it’s very difficult for a young person to start farming in their own right in Jersey.
If we can’t supply the island with enough milk, then we are in trouble
“It’s a place for the rich and sadly a hot spot for investors to buy property to rent out. It’s a bit like Monaco, the cost of living over here is driving all the younger generation out,” she says.
“So for a farmer to come in, it’s virtually impossible, unless they are like myself and taking over a well-established family farm. There’s only a handful of us [family farms] left that will probably be around in the next 20, if even 10 years’ time. So it’s going to be on us that are left to make our farms profitable and keep up production levels.”
The pressure will be on.
“If we can’t supply the island with enough milk, then we are in trouble,” says Becky. “That will be the end of our dairy industry because we could never survive competing against English milk.”
With an eye to the future, Becky is involved in the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s Cultivate programme (the equivalent of Agri Aware), as well as initiatives like Facetime A Farmer to teach the next generation about farming in Jersey.
“The audience you want are the 13- or 14-year-olds,” she says. “They’re going to be the age group that is going to be making conscious decisions of what they eat, what they buy. They’re going to be our future customers and they’re going to be our next workforce.”
Becky is obviously getting the message out there as her Instagram account @jerseycowgirl, where she shares her day-to-day life as a dairy farmer, currently has over 50,000 followers.
“Though it’s interesting managing a social media presence while still working 14 hours a day,” she laughs.
Follow Becky Houzé on Instagram @jerseycowgirl