We've taken on an extra 20 staff over the last 18 months because the volume of business has increased. And the honest answer is we don't know what has been driving the growth in sales!
We have been growing by 10–15% per year for about six years. Everybody is saying there is a recession on, but we are not seeing it. It’s a bit embarrassing. We're not complaining though.
In addition to our retail products – the milk and clotted creams – we have become several food manufacturers’ supplier of choice. Our milk is produced under the Blackmore Vale brand and, like our clotted cream, is popular in independent shops, farm shops and for doorstep delivery in Dorset. In terms of our food manufacturing and foodservice customers, we supply Bakkavör, Greencore, Whitbread and Brakes.
New product development (return to top)
We are constantly launching new products, with the major ones in recent years being mascarpone and ricotta – both of which are preventing Italian imports coming in, and there is a lot of demand.
We spent a lot of time and effort developing the ricotta product because it is a big market and it fitted with our expertise. From a manufacturing perspective, people don’t need to buy ricotta from abroad because it’s not a protected name and we can make it here without any problems.
I’ve been in the dairy industry ever since I left university. I started with Unigate before moving to St Ivel. Latterly, I was the operations manager at Wootton Bassett, which at its time was the largest dairy in Northern Europe.
I’ve been here 13 years full-time and, before that, I was a consultant here because I ran my own technical and operations consultancy for the food and drink industry.
Company history (return to top)
The business was established in 1958 on a farm about 12 miles from here by the md’s grandfather and father. They got the on-farm operation up and running and the backbone of the operation was clotted cream.
The business grew and grew until they needed better premises and they came to this site about 30 years ago. Some of the buildings here were a United States Air Force code breaking station during the second world war.
The site has been gradually expanded and we now have three phases: the fresh cream products, the cultured department for yogurts, crème fraîche and sour cream – which mop up the surplus skimmed milk – and in 2004 we put in a state-of-the-art ultra filtration plant for soft cheese production. It was less of an art and more of a science. This has really sucked in business and we have recently ordered an extension to increase capacity.
Automation and investing in high-end technology has been a big focus in recent years. Our md is what you might call geeky, he loves the technology, which helps when we want to put some automation in. We have had no problems with automating and our employees have taken to it very quickly without any issue whatsoever.
Our supervisory control and data acquisition system is state-of the-art. From the PCs on our desks we can see exactly what is going on at any part of the factory. In fact, a lot of firms come in to look at it with a view to getting it for their places too.
We recently put in some energy-efficient air compressors and brought on stream a new chilled water plant, which also has heat recovery. That cools down the products after pasteurisation and the heat we take out can warm water for use in the rest of the factory.
In the 13 years I've been here it has been a period of constant evolution and turnover has quadrupled in that period.
Anaerobic digestion (return to top)
The other major project has been our on-site anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. Back in 2009 we were deciding what we could do with all our waste materials because they were becoming a big cost to the business, either by disposing them as a trade effluent or as an animal feed.
We could see the business was growing so this was only going to become a bigger problem. We applied for government funding and we were successful against about 12 others – it was like Dragons’ Den with three of us sat on one side of the table and about 15 people from the government on the other side firing questions at us. It was a bit nerve-wracking but we got just under £2M. The plant performs very well, we put all of our waste in it and it generates 30% of our electricity. We are also putting a project together to use the heat generated to warm up the milk to make cheese. Furthermore, the resulting digestate goes to a local farm as a fertiliser so we are completing the circle.
Production process (return to top)
Our production process hinges on a very tight, local milk field. We deal with about 35 farms within a 12–15 mile radius. We collect milk 24/7 and each farm provides about 1Ml of milk. That is not sufficient for our needs so we buy some on the open market. We also buy cream from other dairy firms. Once the milk is on site we separate it or recombine it with the cream to make products with the right level of butter fat.
For yogurts, for example, we can make anything from 0 to 10% fat or for soft cheeses it is either zero fat or to a base of 14%. We can then add powders, some of which are for functionality.
The process area is like the hub that feeds the cream – single, double, whipping or clotted – into our packing departments. In the culture department we add a starter culture to make either set or stirred yogurt. The only difference is where it is incubated. If it is a set product we incubate it in the container or if it is a stirred product we do it in a large incubation tank. When it reaches the right pH we stir it and let it cool before it is packaged.
On the soft cheese side we put bases and starter cultures into an incubator tank and then we put it through our ultra filtration plant. This is a molecular membrane system, anything that goes through is permeate and that goes off to the AD plant and what is kept back is what we call the retentate and that is the soft cheese. We can add fat to that to make cream cheese. That eventually goes into cold store.
Challenges (return to top)
Prices are our biggest challenge. Not only have we got to maintain your skim, cream, milk balance but we've got to do it economically, because it can be hard to get the returns from either your cream element or skim element.
We are also noticing a downturn in farm production both nationally and locally.
We are looking for other farmers but it's against our ethos to go too far from home.
Energy costs are the other challenge. Happily for us, we bought our energy up to the middle of 2014 six months ago when prices were low. This gave us the time to put in energy efficiency measures and we're also considering biomass systems because we are heavily reliant on oil.
Looking ahead, we have the opportunity to export. At the moment we don’t need to, but it is a market that is there if we ever need it.
Listen to out free-access podcast to hear McInnes talking in dept about the international attention that BV Dairy's anaerobic digestion plant is attracting.
NAME: Alan McInnes AGE: 59
TITLE: Technical and operations director
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Being operations manager at St Ivel's Wootton Bassett site and working here.
OUTSIDE WORK: I play Petanque and enjoy gardening.
Location: BV Dairy, Wincombe Lane, Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 8QD
SIZE: The whole site is 14 acres
OPERATING HOURS: 24/7 operation
PRODUCTS: A range of creams, yogurts and soft cheeses for food manufacture and foodservice, milk and clotted creams for retail, and dips for own-label products such as potato wedges.
OUTPUT: Over 20,000t combined. We also have a surplus of skimmed milk, which we sell to other dairy companies.
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