There hasn’t been much in the news lately about cuts in milk prices or the blockading of supermarket distribution centres by angry farmers. That’s because over the last six months there has been a steady rise in farm gate prices, following a significant drop in production on farms. Total UK milk production was 770 million litres lower in the period February 2016 to February 2017 than in the previous year. In February 2017 the average UK farm gate price was 27.46 pence per litre, up 5.33 pence (24.1%) on the same month in 2016. However, the recent recovery follows a period of extremely low prices in 2015 and 2016, with the average UK farm gate price for 2016 at 22.73 pence per litre.
Table 1 below highlights the volatility in UK farm gate price for milk over the last 20 years. Whilst it does not show the recovery in prices in early 2017, neither does it show the cooling off in global dairy markets which is now happening as the seasonal ‘spring flush’ in production starts to increase supplies once again. So, the cycle of boom and bust continues and farmers continue to exit the industry. The dairy farming landscape is changing at an alarming rate and we need farmers and consumers to come together, to offer everyone the chance to vote for the kind of farming they want to see in the UK.
Changes in average UK farm gate milk price from 1996 to 2016 (Source: AHDB Dairy)
With volatility comes uncertainty and a lack of confidence amongst farmers, who are often told they need to get big or get out. For too long, volume has been the only game in town and the lack of an opportunity to instil real value in milk at the farm gate is leading to dramatic changes in the UK’s dairy farming landscape. Table 2 below, highlights that whilst producer numbers have fallen by 60% since 1996 and dairy cow numbers are down by 27%, total UK milk output has risen by 1 billion litres in the same period, due to significant rises in milk yields and average herd size. But, why should those who buy and consume milk and dairy products be concerned at the changes to the structure of UK dairy farming? After all, it appears that milk is still plentiful and retail prices remain low.
Changes in the structure of the UK dairy industry between 1996 and 2016 (Source: AHDB Dairy)
|UK Dairy Data||1996||2016||Var +/-|
|Milk producer numbers||33,352||13,227||-60%|
|Total dairy cow numbers (million)||2.59||1.88||-27%|
|Annual milk production (billion litres)||13.8||14.8||+7%|
|Average daily milk yield per cow (litres)||5,626||7,912||+40%|
|Average herd size||75||143||+91%|
140 dairy farmers in England & Wales ceased milk production between April 2016 and April 2017 (Source: Food Standards Agency) and the trend continues. But, whilst many may regard the reduction in cow numbers and corresponding increase in milk output as a simple indication of improved efficiency on farms, few are aware of the impact on the life cows are afforded, the fabric of rural communities and the taste and nutritional composition of their milk.
Today, large farms are incentivised with ‘volume bonuses’, to farmers producing large volumes of milk. But farmers are not rewarded for the nutritional composition of their milk, its taste or the impact their farming system has on the cows and the environment. Cheap milk is putting farmers out of business and shaping an increasingly industrial dairy landscape. The Free Range Dairy Network is working to restore the true value in milk from traditional, pasture-based herds, by reconnecting consumers to the source of their milk. However, this is not simply to enhance farm incomes and keep producers in business; it is also to secure a fair deal for cows and offer people the chance to enjoy great tasting milk. To achieve these goals we need to establish recognition for a clearly defined farming system and that is what the Pasture Promise logo represents.
We want to help as many dairy farmers as possible. But, the value in free range milk must be defined by clear standards and these are founded on a commitment to grazing cows for at least 180 days and nights a year. It is true that some farmers in the UK will struggle to graze their cows for six months of the year. We don’t have a solution for everyone, because some farmers have chosen to develop larger, more intensive farms, in an attempt to compete in the global commodity market. It is vital we have a clear ‘value added’ proposition for consumers and that means promoting tangible differences in the farming system and the milk it delivers. We are delighted with the response to free range milk and the Pasture Promise logo and we are now able to offer more people the chance to make an informed choice when they buy milk.
The means and methods by which milk is produced in the UK are owned by farmers and so it is they who determine the true value of milk. We must not allow free range milk to become a meaningless term for token gestures to freedom. So, we are now asking farmers who are interested in winning recognition for a clear commitment to grazing cows in fields, to join us, to ensure recognition and reward for free range milk are captured the farm gate. We must all unite under one banner if we are to promote a clear and consistent message about the value of cows in fields and traditional British dairy farms. The Pasture Promise logo can be that banner.
The farmers we work with today have invested heavily in terms of their own, personal commitment to adhering to our Producer Standards and actively promoting their farming system. We are not here to simply hand out a milk price premium; we are working together with farmers and their milk buyers to raise awareness of the value in free range milk and it takes time. But, the doors are starting to open and rewards are starting to come for those who have invested something of themselves in our cause. So, even if you have no immediate prospect of selling your milk free range, please ask not what can the Free Range Dairy Network do for you, but what you can do for the future of British dairy farming. Together we can make a difference.