DESPERATION with the current milk price paid to dairy farmers has led to some extreme attempts at highlighting the issue recently including a group of Ayrshire farmers purchasing the whole of one supermarket’s stocks and then giving it all away.
This one act is indicative of the belief amongst many dairymen and women that the fault with the current predicament lays with those who operate the UK’s large-scale retail businesses.
While it’s hard to argue against this when some supermarkets are selling milk at 84p for four pints, the root of the problem is accepted as being more of a worldwide supply and demand dilemma.
John Banks of Wildon Grange, near Kilburn may not have expressed his concern in the same way as his Scottish counterparts but he feels greater involvement and promoting increased awareness with the consumer is important.
John farms with his brother Roger and their respective wives Sally and Angela. Theirs is a mixed dairy-arable farm with 340 Holstein dairy cows, cereals, oilseed rape, maize and grass for silage.
The family took part in a highly successful Open Farm Sunday two months ago when they welcomed 270 visitors who were treated to the birth of a dairy calf. It was their second such event after having taken part before in 2013, and they’ve helped two other local dairy farms over the past four years. John’s careful not to over emphasise Open Farm Sunday above today’s plight but sees it and other connections as useful tools for the future.
“Clearly 84p for four pints is totally devaluing the fantastic product that is milk and I believe it stops people thinking about what it is and what it provides. What we have to do is work together with retailers to get them away from using milk as that discounted lowest common denominator.
“I think the relationship between the farmer and consumer is something we’re all becoming more aware of in giving everyone a better understanding of what we do and there’s certainly a desire for that within Arla who we are involved with in marketing our milk.”
Open Farm Sunday is not the answer to the current problems in the industry but for the Banks family, it’s encouraged a push towards greater involvement with the consumer.
“There’s a genuine interest in finding out what happens on a real commercial farm,” says Sally. “It’s that discovery and educational aspect that feels extremely rewarding for us and is also good for everyone who works here.
“Being able to see the calves, climb on a combine harvester, check out how enormous the bull actually is and watching the cows are all things we take for granted but it also opens the eyes of those who come to visit and leads to a greater appreciation of how food and milk is produced.
“Our cows are housed throughout the year and we take great care in showing the degree of effort we go to, to ensure their welfare and comfort. Two years ago we introduced sand for bedding. It has proven to be much more comfortable for the cows even though it increases our workload. We’ve had our cows housed inside for around a dozen years or so now and for us it means that we can look after them better and more accurately meet their needs. We had a few questions about housing the cows inside but I think everyone could see just how comfortable they are.
“We helped out Roger Hildreth on his Open Farm Sunday the year before we ran our first one and that gave us an idea of what we should do as we really didn’t have the first clue about car parking facilities and that kind of thing. In the intervening year between our first and second days we also assisted Geoff Spence.
“While the days take a fair bit of organising and lots of our friends and colleagues help out, the response is well worth the effort. As soon as we finished both our Open Farm Sundays everyone on the farm said that we must do it again the next year. What’s important though is to build on what you do and try to find another twist.”
Brothers Roger and John are the third generation of Banks to farm at Wildon Grange. Their late father Cliff ran the farm before them and started the dairy herd. Today’s herd averages around 10,500 litres per cow per annum and the cows average 4-5 lactations. Replacements are reared on farm. They plan to install a new parlour and John hopes they can build on their Open Farm aspect further.
“We’d like to include some kind of provision for consumers to be able to visit more often. We already host school visits and retailer days but we could expand on that too.”
Although the milk price isn’t good enough for any dairy farmer - the Banks’ currently receive 23 pence per litre - John’s committed to Wildon Grange’s future. He’s also the York area district chairman representing his fellow dairy farmers with Arla and he believes the farm will continue in milk and that today’s price will rise.
“While everyone in dairy farming realises the milk price being received at present is unsustainable and doesn’t allow any of us to make anywhere near a real living, there’s a belief that in the medium term the world demand for dairy products is going to grow.
“Two years ago we became full members of what is known as Arla amba, joining with other Arla producers on mainland Europe. They were averaging an 8-10 per cent higher price than UK Arla members so we should have benefitted. Unfortunately at the moment we’ve been hit by what could be referred to as a perfect storm.
“The Russian embargo on imports and China having stopped buying has contributed to the situation and we need to see world economics sort themselves out. The downside of that process is that the current milk price could take another six months before we see some kind of upturn.
“It’s different this time to when the Dairy SOS meetings were being held three years ago, and of course milk being sold so cheaply by supermarkets does not help, but it’s the world price that’s the key.”