Cows' health linked to milk prices for shops

FARMERS have welcomed a new deal for Marks & Spencer milk suppliers that introduces significant new elements into the business of setting fair farmgate prices.

One is a formula which will link farmers' payments to the company's own retail price for the product, so they get a share of any raise in what the customer pays.

Agricultural manager for M&S Steve McLean said after announcing the scheme this week: "That is unique at the moment.

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"But we were the first to link payments for milk to farm costs, in 2005, and we were then copied by other retailers."

Another new element in the deal is an incentive for farmers to hit targets for animal health measured in "welfare outcomes" – meaning rates of lameness and mastitis (udder infection) will be checked by independent inspectors, along with environmental and infrastructure targets.

M&S and its farmers will spend six months test-driving the system and will then set the final targets, in collaboration with Bristol University, which has been pressing for welfare outcome measurement for some time, on the basis of research for the RSPCA and others.

RSPCA deputy head of farm animal matters John Avizenius said: "We have become increasingly concerned about the welfare of the dairy cow and we are heartened by the initiatives we are seeing from the industry to tackle them."

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The RSPCA is reviewing its own dairy cow welfare standards – passed on through the certificating agency Freedom Food – and is likely to include more outcome targets.

The Soil Association is trialling outcome measures and might update its definition of organic milk to include them.

And discussions are in progress on a general EU dairy welfare standard for which the scientific advice recommends similar checks.

The big buyers already lay down standards – equivalent at least to the Red Tractor farm assurance requirements. But until now most of the emphasis has been on "inputs", including space allocations and diet.

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The Bristol vets, and EU advisers, argue that outcomes reflect the crucial but elusive element of good stockmanship.

Among the big retailers, Sainsbury's has gone further than most by checking outcomes and organising veterinary advice for farmers accordingly.

M&S is pushing the issue another yard by setting fixed targets, above the Red Tractor standard, as part of its guarantee to customers.

At the moment, a supplier hitting all the M&S Milk Pledge targets gets 27.52p a litre for liquid milk.

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Under the new deal, Milk Pledge Plus, it would be 28.27p – 0.75p more – at the same retail price.

David Shaw of Elvington, near York, a 'gold-top' producer and an NFU negotiator on dairy matters, commented: "That is a good bonus, worth some trouble.

"I do not want to talk down the Red Tractor standard, which is a good one.

"But anything which offers farmers another way of earning a bit more for milk is of interest."

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He said most dairy farmers were already recording lameness and mastitis for one purpose or another – not least because good animal health was good business.

But the M&S scheme took the idea a stage further by paying farmers for the trouble of being independently checked.

He said the promise of a link between M&S payments and M&S store prices was also a significant development, which would put pressure on bigger retailers.

CW 1/5/10