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Dairy Blog: Too Much Spilt Milk

04 March 2016

In her first blog for TheCattleSite and TheDairySite, Carol Lever discusses the recent dairy downturn and her ideas for the future of dairy.

Articles in the national media highlighting the continuing dairy crisis included a quote from the NFU’s Rob Harrison saying “We’re expecting an awful lot to exit the industry by the end of this year, when lots of farmers will have eaten up their savings."

In 2013, the NFU and DairyCo (now AHDB Dairy) encouraged dairy farmers to ramp up production as part of their ‘Compete to Grow’ strategy.

The markets had picked and no doubt the strategic thinking behind this advice was in anticipation of a growing population and emerging markets.

If it had all gone to plan, no doubt our dairy farmers would be sitting pretty right now. Instead, we saw trade embargoes and expectant markets like China have their own problems.

Unlike growing crops, to ramp up production means investing a lot of money in machinery, feed and more cows to produce a higher yield.

As your profit drops then adding more cows to try and make up that money can seem like the best answer but really it condemns farmers to a vicious cycle of continuing oversupply and depressed prices. When herd sizes get too big to manage on pasture they are often brought in and managed on an intensive system.

Sometimes I feel like I’m missing something here? Instead of looking overseas to save our dairy industry why aren’t we doing more to strengthen our domestic market? Its not working but for some reason the status quo is being maintained.

Müller Milk and Ingredients bought Dairy Crest recently, consolidating most of the milk now processed for consumption in the UK between Muller and Arla.

They also have the majority of the supermarket deals which is how we buy our milk. Unless the major processors and major retailers are prepared to work in collaboration with initiative like Free Range Dairy CIC how is anything going to change and improve for dairy farmers in the UK?

The reason I set up Free Range Dairy CIC with Neil Darwent, BBC Farmer of the Year, in 2014 is because we believe we can have a robust domestic market if we’re prepared to make changes.

The UK has an abundance of pasture that cows can eat to produce milk. ‘Milk for Farmers’ shows that consumers are prepared to pay more for their milk and we know that people want to support smaller local farms over large intensive farms.

If consumers want these things and retailers and others say they are consumer led, why isn’t there more support for initiatives like Free Range Dairy amongst the likes of NFU, AHDB Dairy, the major supermarkets and others who could help our farmers right now?

Instead of accepting this state of affairs we need to work together to find positive solutions.

Free Range Dairy Network CIC works with dairy farmers to produce milk from cows grazed for six months of the year, on a pasture based system and pay farmers a bonus for the milk produced in this way.

Together we are offering consumers an informed choice and putting value back into the milk. We are collaborating with dairy farmers, independent processors and wholesalers to get the milk to market under the Pasture Promise label.

We want to offer hope amongst these dark days and we see our domestic market and people in the UK as the key to our success.

But, we need the big players in the industry to join us in focussing on the value in traditional British dairy farms and offer farmers an alternative to the commodity trap that threatens to halve producer numbers again in the next 10 years.

John Wilkes

Carol Lever
Freelance journalist

Carol Lever is joint Director of Free Range Dairy Network Community Interest Company (CIC). The CIC works in collaboration with small independent processors, farmers and others to promote the value of pasture-based dairy farming that benefits farmers, cows and consumers. Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise™ is the only label that gives a clear assurance that milk comes from cows that enjoy the freedom to graze for at least six months of the year and for this we pay Free Range Dairy farmers a bonus on their milk.

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