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Milking it

Posted 21/01/2015 by cgodfrey

How much for a price of milk? It’s the standard question used to sound out whether an MP is or is not ‘in touch’ with his or her constituents. At just 20 pence per litre from some retailers, however, the cost of a pint of milk now falls far short of the actual cost of production. It is a price that is simply not sustainable and is forcing farmers out of business every week, according to the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

In December 2014, the National Farmers Union (NFU) reported that the number of dairy farmers had dipped below 10,000 for the first time – a 50% fall since 2001. Yet the dairy farmers’ problems are not new. C&I reported on the topic several years ago, while many observers say the trouble started back in 1994 when the Milk Marketing Board, which had previously set milk prices according to production costs, was scrapped– a move that shifted power to the big supermarkets, which have continued to discount prices in a bid to encourage competition.

Global competition, too, has played a part, with one independent dairy analyst cited by BBC News in October 2014 noting that world demand for dairy is growing at 2.5% while growth in world production has leapt 5%. Both falling demand in China, as well as the ban on EU food imports by Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict, are blamed for putting pressure on prices.

Higher productivity, meanwhile, comes at a price. As a C&I article ‘Is the grass always greener?’ pointed out in August 2012, thanks largely to genetic selection, today’s high performance dairy cows can produce 50L of milk per day. Not only do these cows have to be fed large amounts of feed, however, they are also more susceptible to fertility and joint problems or hoof and udder infections, while selective breeding has ‘exacerbated’ the problem of disease.

Some farmers, meanwhile, are opting for an intensive ‘mega dairy’ approach, where cows are permanently housed indoors and fed carefully controlled diets. Such ‘zero grazing’ farms are popular in Demark, the article reports, where roughly half the national herd is kept indoors year-round.

So what can be done to support the UK’s traditional dairy farmers? More research on cattle nutrition and welfare is one aspect, as the C&I feature makes clear. Action by politicians and consumers is also critical to stop the continued exodus of farmers from the profession. The UK Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is calling on government to extend the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure more dairy farmers are treated ‘lawfully and fairly’ by retailers – which will otherwise face the threat of heavy, as yet undecided, fines. Consumers, too, should be aware of the red tractor logo on milk products, or perhaps consider backing the campaign this week by Farmers Guardian to ‘Help save the British dairy industry’ – before it is too late.

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor

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