Frustration as dairy farm numbers hit a new low

NFU dairy board chairman Rob Harrison addressed the Northern Dairy Conference in Skipton.
NFU dairy board chairman Rob Harrison addressed the Northern Dairy Conference in Skipton.
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The number of dairy farms has fallen to a new four-figure low, representatives of the troubled industry heard yesterday.

Farmers have suffered “a real kick in the teeth” this year, dairy sector chief Rob Harrison told an agriculture summit in Skipton, with farmgate prices for milk having fallen to unsustainable levels, undercutting the production costs of many farmers for months now.

Farming Minister George Eustice.

Farming Minister George Eustice.

Speaking at the Northern Dairy Conference at the Rendezvous Hotel, Mr Harrison, chairman of the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) national dairy board, said farmers’ frustration was justified.

“I am as angry and disappointed with the recent milk price cuts as everyone else here – it’s been a real kick in the teeth. Things are bad and we’re all going through some tough times.

“For the first time this month we have dropped below 10,000 dairy farmers in England and Wales and we can’t afford to lose too many more. I also know a number of farmers are on notice for next spring and I am in touch with all the main milk buyers to make it clear what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to contracts,” he said.

Global factors have affected returns for farmers, such as the Russian import embargo brought in response to sanctions from the West over Russia’s role in the political unrest in Ukraine.

But the situation can improve, Mr Harrison said, if the Government, UK processors, retailers and the industry’s levy body, DairyCo, were committed to a long-term strategy of supporting sustainable domestic milk production.

He added: “In Brussels we’re continuing to lobby at all levels for better tools to support our farmers such as intervention and Private Storage Aid. Here in the UK we’re in regular contact with the banks to raise concerns and I urge all dairy farmers to do the same.

“There are positive things happening in processing. Making headroom in the UK retail market will get us through this period better than our close neighbours in Europe. To do this we need more processing capacity and investment here in the UK. This is starting to happen both in capital and in brands – look at Arla’s Aylesbury plant and Muller Wisemans’ new butter plant - this will help mop up the current excess volume.”

Farming Minister George Eustice also addressed farmers in Skipton. He insisted the industry’s future was bright, saying: “We understand the concerns of British dairy farmers over the current pressures on milk prices caused by the volatility of the global market, but the long-term prospects for significant growth are good.

“UK dairy has a world-wide reputation with exports are at record levels – reaching £1.3billion last year, an increase of 62 per cent since 2009.

“We want a competitive and resilient dairy industry that can take advantage of opportunities, which is why we are working with the Dairy Supply Chain Forum and the NFU to help farmers manage price volatility.

“We have also invested £5million in enabling groups of dairy farmers to unite as Producer Organisations, so they have greater leverage in the marketplace.”

The latest figures from DairyCo show that the average price paid to farmers for milk was 29.71 pence per litre in October.