Famous as the UK’s largest farmer-owned dairy business, Dale Farm is showcasing excellence and powering forward-thinking agriculture
Writer: Jonathan Dyble | Project Manager: Matthew Selby
While the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries may have somewhat propelled the diversification of the UK economy, agriculture remains a key pillar of national GDP.
Looking at the dairy industry, for example, statistics from the House of Commons Library show that the UK is the third largest milk producer in the EU and the 10th largest producer in the world. In fact, dairy is a crucial mainstay of UK farming, accounting for just shy of one fifth of total national industry output, with tens of billions of litres produced across the country year after year.
An established stalwart inspiring the strength of this thriving sector is Dale Farm, a cooperative owned by 1,300 dairy farmers across the UK.
With heritage dating back to the 1800s, Dale Farm is renowned as Northern Ireland’s leading dairy company and the largest UK farmer-owned dairy business, providing an extensive range of esteemed products, from milk, cream and cheese to ice cream, yoghurts and spreads.
“We alone process around one billion litres of milk across three pools in Northern Ireland, the Lake District and Scotland,” reveals Nick Whelan, the cooperative’s group CEO. “We use that milk to produce and supply a wide variety of dairy products to the retail, foodservice and ingredients markets across both the UK and more than 45 countries internationally.”
Having grown up on a southern Irish dairy farm himself, Whelan has developed an adept understanding of the sector over many years, having held roles within companies such as Kerry and Glanbia throughout his career prior to joining Dale Farm in 2016.
“Growing up in a rural society and understanding the impact dairy has on the rural economy grounded me with a strong sense of purpose working in this dynamic industry,” The Chief Exec affirms.
This sense of purpose was a natural fit with Dale Farm’s existing mantra, its philosophy centred around six cultural ideals of ambition, curiosity, teamwork, positivity, resolve and accountability. Whelan continues: “There is a great sense of momentum within the business that is helping transform Dale Farm through the cultivation of this can do, winning ethos.”
A forward-thinking enterprise, Dale Farm’s modus operandi can be characterised by its recent and expansive investment initiative that has seen the business earmark over £60 million to the modernisation of its cheddar cheese and whey facilities over the past six years.
“On top of that,” Whelan adds, “we invest around £10 million a year on automation and other capital improvements across the group.”
This includes product development, the company having financed exploration into new categories such as custard, fromage frais and sport nutrition dairy products in recent times, readily catering to the ever-evolving demands of the consumer landscape.
Indeed, this adaptive and proactive approach continues to serve Dale Farm well, evidenced by the substantial strategic progress that has been made of late.
“We are halfway into our five-year growth plan and have already doubled the profits of the group during this time,” reveals Whelan. “From the introduction of lean principles across the business in driving efficiencies to bolstering our partnerships with key customers, there have been a number of driving forces behind this success.
“We’ve also inaugurated fixed milk price schemes for our farmers and retailers which have reduced volatility for our partners in the supply chain, and, perhaps most significantly, rolled out our people programme. It’s an initiative centred around recruitment, replacement, mentoring, training and development of our talent, without whom the business wouldn’t be where it is today.”
The people programme is just one element of Dale Farm’s responsible efforts, another such example being the company’s recent Dunmanbridge, Northern Ireland site investment.
The largest of its 10 facilities across the UK, processing 600 million litres of milk and producing 55,000 tonnes of cheddar cheese each year, Dale Farm last year took the opportunity to install one of the biggest solar farms in the global dairy industry at the Dunmanbridge plant.
Spanning 35 acres, the solar farm is set to reduce the company’s overall carbon footprint by 20 percent, delivering multimillion-pound savings in energy costs.
“We’re always seeking to lead on sector sustainability, and this site is testament to that,” Whelan states.
Community upliftment, alongside sustainable energy, is another area that Dale Farm is innovatively championing, readily sponsoring a number of sporting teams at both grassroots and professional level in the aim of promoting and encouraging healthy lifestyles and a balanced diet.
“Dale Farm has been the proud sponsor and official dairy supplier to the Ulster Rugby team for several years,” Whelan states. “As well as financial support, we have provided the team with Dale Farm Protein Milk to aid recovery – now an integral part of the team’s Food First nutritional programme.
“Similarly, we sponsor the Elite Athlete Programme and Queen’s University Belfast’s Gaelic Games teams and are the official dairy supplier to Queen’s Sport. These platforms are used not only as opportunities to sponsor elite athletes, but also to inspire up and coming talent through masterclasses and educational outreach, highlighting the importance of good nutrition in sport.”
What’s more, the firm leverages its esteemed position and reputation to play an active role in reaching out to rural communities across the UK.
Whelan continues: “A successful example of this can be found in our 2018 initiative where we partnered with a performing arts company to tour primary schools in rural areas. The production focused on the importance of farm safety and brought awareness to a serious issue in a light-hearted, engaging way.”
From its social outreach programmes to its extensive, industry leading investments, Dale Farm remains a pioneer of progress in the UK’s dairy industry, embodying the vibrance of British agriculture.
“We’re processing a lot more milk with many new farmers having joined the cooperative,” Whelan states, “and our company is always looking for new ways to use our milk that will really add value to the business.”
This has recently led to the elevation of Dale Farm’s ice cream business, the firm seeking to expand the dominant share it has in Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland’s markets, while the company is equally looking to target Generation Z more readily in order to capitalise on new trends.
Looking ahead, Dale Farm’s growth prospects are unlikely to change, owed to its innovative outlook and business model, the unrivalled expertise of its farmers, and a wave of optimism sweeping the industry.
Whelan concludes: “We are very proud to have genuinely world-class, dedicated, knowledgeable people who are at the cutting edge of the science of farming. Our people will always remain a core focus as part of our onward journey, and we are hugely optimistic about the future of our UK-based dairy cooperative.
“I am also of the belief that food security will become a central element of a UK Food Strategy for the future. Given the growth in global population, the westernisation of diets, water supply and soil erosion, the UK will have to look to indigenous supply more, especially in dairy.
“All things considered, there is certainly an abundance of wonderful opportunities for Dale Farm.”