East Yorkshire dairy farmer quits to protect his family’s future

Sam Middleton in his former cow shed at his farm in Wawne.
Sam Middleton in his former cow shed at his farm in Wawne.
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JUST A fortnight ago yet another East Yorkshire dairy farm disappeared. No tears were shed and perhaps significantly no great recrimination was laid at anyone’s doorstep.

The latest casualty was simply accepted as a fact of life when Sam Middleton sold his cows at York Auction Centre.

This was much more than another sad statistic to add to the exodus from the milking cow sector over the past two decades and it wasn’t the act of someone in the autumn of his life with no immediate family succession.

Sam’s grandfather Guy Middleton had been dairying for many years. Sam loved dairying and having studied at Harper Adams University he came back to the East Riding and wanted to make a success of milking cows at the tenanted 320-acre Grangecroft Farm in the village of Wawne near Hull.

Less than a decade ago he modernised it with a new 140-cubicle cow shed, robotic milkers and an automatic slurry scraping system. His cows were achieving a healthy herd average of around 10,000 litres per annum per cow and more recently he had identified the breed that worked best for his farm. Sam was as forward thinking a young dairy farmer as the industry could want.

So where did it all go wrong? In common with many others who have left the sector he just couldn’t make it pay and he couldn’t see how things would get much better in the short to mid term. This time last year he was thinking very differently.

“The milk price around May-time last year was through the roof in comparison to where it had been. It was at 32.5 pence per litre (ppl) and I invested in more cows believing that the time was right to push on. I went over to Germany and bought some Brown Swiss cows. I’d first come across them when I’d been over to America and had been stock judging. After that I had bought a Brown Swiss cow from Johnnie Lochhead in Dumfries and having been impressed by what they could do for my farm I had gone back to buy a dozen. When the price reached its high point last year I decided to invest further in the breed instead of Holsteins and spent a sizeable chunk of money on increasing the herd to 130 cows.

“Everything appeared to be going well but within five months the milk price nearly halved to what was effectively 18.5ppl with our buyers First Milk. No matter how you budget or what indicators you look at you couldn’t forecast that and we’ve still got borrowings and outgoings related to where we were at when the price was high. Our actual milk price dropped to 20.5ppl but then we were told that First Milk were taking another 2ppl in order that they could keep themselves afloat. They are on the bones of their backsides. With production costs being around 24.5ppl that meant we were losing 6p for every litre of milk we were producing.”

While 6p might not seem a lot to a lay person when it is multiplied by the 1.2 million litres Sam’s farm was producing over a year that would equate to having debts of £72,000 that he couldn’t have afforded to pay through the normal dairy farm business.

“It got to the point where I became disillusioned with dairy farming. How can the milk price be at 32.5ppl and five months later be back raking along the bottom? It didn’t make any sense. My dad runs a 311-acre arable farm at our other family farm that is owned at Bishop Burton and this farm also has cropping. The two farms are run as one whole business and although I’m a partner it is dad who is in charge overall. Dairy cows have never been his passion and he’s never stopped me from milking but I made the business decision of coming out of dairying.

“I have a lovely wife Lucy and two young children Blaize (three) and Scarlet (one) and my first priority is their security. No matter how you look at it there’s no way any business would carry on losing money and I couldn’t see a future in the short term or in the next two to three years. The milk price really needs to be at least over 30ppl to give dairy farms room for manoeuvre.

“I’m coming up to 40 this year and I need to change things to look for a positive future. The arable land here has all been contracted out previously as I’ve been flat out with the cows but I’ll now run this arable unit myself with the contractor handling the combining and spraying. It’s not that I don’t know what to do. I was always on a tractor from 13-20 years of age.

“Others looking at what I have done will probably think what on earth has gone wrong? He has a better set-up than most dairy farmers so why can’t he make money? In reality my mathematics work out that at the price I was being paid I cannot make a profit. Perhaps others might be kidding themselves that they can and are presently living off savings. Have I failed? All I know is that I’ve made the right decision for me and my family. It took a lot of beating around my head and I’ve not taken it lightly.

“It’s just ten days (when I visited) since the cows were sold and after 18 years of working with them and building the herd up on my own there’s a huge part of me that’s empty. I’ve put everything I could into this unit and all of a sudden I’ve just had to get rid of it. I don’t regret my decision one bit, but there is an emptiness, and an eerie quietness around the farm right now.”