A friendship and business relationship between dairy farmer, Bruce Mackie, Middleton of Rora, and Ed Smith, owner and director of animal feed business, Norvite, has developed a mutual benefit driven by robust and scientific proven data where both businesses not only thrive but also reduce their carbon footprint.

Kerry Cartwright, a final year student at SRUC, was the unlikely ‘cupid’ in the story, helping to develop a symbiotic relationship which is showcasing a product with strong environmental credentials as well as nutritional ones.

The product in question is NEOlac, a protein-rich feedstuff derived from cold pressed rapeseed oil which is produced at the Norvite crushing plant sited on a hill, with panoramic views of Aberdeenshire and the oilseed rape which feeds the plant growing in the field next door.

After its development, trials took place on the 250-cow herd at Middleton of Rora, where Bruce and his team compared the new Norvite product against conventional soya meal in rations for their cows in five months of trials set up and monitored by Kerry and other independent experts from SRUC. Data was collected through the farm’s robotic milking system.

The milking cows were fed a ration containing NEOlac for a six-week trial period, with milk yield and quality closely monitored. This was followed by a short transition period before a further six weeks with the herd fed on a soyabean meal ration, with the whole process then repeated for statistical accuracy.

The milk yield averaged 38.2 litres per cow per day during the soya phase and 38.4 l/day on NEOlac – so no significant differences in terms of milk yield between the two protein sources. Butterfat and protein showed small (though significant in terms of the research) increases when NEOlac was fed.

Nutritionist Ed Smith explained how NEOlac is produced: “Unlike other rapemeal producers, we actually use pressure and pure mechanical extraction, rather than using the solvent hexane, to crush and burst the seeds. This means we leave about 12% of oil in the seed.

“The cold-pressing process produces the meal in a flake form. That's 30% protein and 12-14% oil. So, while it doesn't look oily, the oil is still encapsulated in the matrix of the meal and it’s worth more nutritionally because it's got extra energy content.

“In a high-yielding dairy cow, particularly in early lactation when intake is the limiting factor, herd managers need to use very nutrient-dense ingredients. NEOlac is the highest energy ingredient that we have. It's about 15 megajoules per kg of dry matter. There isn't any other ingredient that offers that level of energy content apart from when you look at pure fats.”

In contrast to products containing imported soya, this new feed is produced from oilseed rape grown within 15 miles of the plant.

Another benefit is its almost 120g of protected fat or oil, an important ingredient in dairy rations, particularly for cows in early lactation where they are in energy deficit. Traditionally, farmers have used palm fat grown in tropical regions.

“I think that we are telling a really positive story, not only for the North-east of Scotland but for the wider Scottish market," said Mr Smith. "We hope people will recognise that and support us. I

"t can be quite difficult to introduce new products and new concepts into what is typically a very traditional industry. This is why it was fantastic to have so much help from Kerry Cartwright and the SRUC team.

“The college themselves were very much involved in the scientific design of the trial. The statistics have been really thoroughly interrogated. The data is irrefutable and gave us the confidence to take this out to the marketplace.”

The success of the trials meant that Bruce became a loyal customer for the feed. Middleton of Rora is home to Rora dairy yoghurt, but having found the yoghurt sector quite crowded, Bruce and his wife, Jane, saw a need to differentiate their product.

“Part of what we do is about being open, showing people the cows, welcoming people on farm, not only to see the cows but in terms of the wildlife and conservation measures we undertake – that’s all part of the package and you get that free with every pot of yoghurt," said Bruce.

“But it’s also, naturally, about the diet and lifestyle of our herd. We think about the environment on the farm, and also the environmental impact of how we buy in our inputs. We want to be producing a product which is healthy and that has been sourced environmentally and we know soya is not the solution," he said.

Bruce added that while many diets have an element of palm oil in them, farmers and some supermarkets, including Marks and Spencer and Iceland, have been omitting the oil from their products. "There's an absurdity to the fact that rainforest and orangutan habitat might be destroyed for something which actually we can produce here," argued Bruce.

"That’s what was a real driving force in doing the trial with NEOlac to see if we could make our production more sustainable. Norvite is a local company and we are very keen to work with our neighbours and farm together.

“It is also important because at the moment we are at a point of really tight margins within the dairy industry. Here's a product which is competitive on price, so it does a great job, has the same nutritional benefits and is not costing us more. So, there is no excuse not to use it!

“As an old neighbour used to say 'tough times make for better farmers' which means that we have to go and search out new ways and better ways of doing things. That impetus means that you have to work with people who develop new solutions to problems in order for our businesses to go on,” concluded Bruce.