Taking Stock of UK Dairy Farming in 2019

Throughout February the dairy industry has promoted the positive aspects of dairy under the hashtag #Februdairy.  This was, at least in part, in response to the negative press that dairy has received at the hands of vegans, including the shocking revelation that a list of dairy farms to be targeted for abuse exists.  As if having to contend with bTB and prices so low that many dairy farms have already gone out of business weren’t enough, our farmers are now being persecuted for feeding us. The #Februdairy campaign was one that I was happy to support, mainly from my perspective as a cook but also as a long-standing protector of endangered foods.  One of the advantages of a month-long focus on one single aspect of food and farming was that I discovered several new producers and initiatives.  What follows is a summary of my findings over this month.

Milk – nutritious and affordable

The Campaign Mission4Milk was launched on 22nd February to continue the work of promoting the health benefits of milk post #Februdairy.  Dairy is now widely seen as fattening and dairy-free is a phrase all too frequently seen as a positive.  Yet rickets, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Britain, is again on the rise, and milk is one of the main dietary safeguards against this.  It is as near a whole food as we can get and personally, when I am struggling to get my young nephews to eat a balanced diet, I heave a sigh of relief that they will always drink milk.  The fact that it is so cheap (too cheap) makes it one of the best sources of nutrition for those on very limited incomes.  Whilst I have concerns about the effectiveness of blanket marketing of dairy products (see below), these attributes remain tremendously important.

Grazing as protection against the effects of climate change

The highest temperatures ever to be recorded in February occurred this year and most farmers were able to turn their cows out to graze.  Whilst one incidence of unusual temperatures is not proof of global warming, the subject did get a lot of coverage this month.  School children went “on strike” to highlight their demands for climate change to be declared an emergency and a book, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, was published stating that things were much worse than previously thought.  This brought the role of grazing in land management into focus.  Despite last year’s drought and predictions of similar this year, the UK climate is still one of the best in the world for growing grass.

Two-thirds of UK farmland is down to grass, much of it unsuited to growing any other type of crop.  Grazing it with livestock is the only way to convert grass into food for human consumption.  The degradation of our soil and its inability to hold water can also be restored by effective grazing, broadly termed “mob grazing”, which has is much more effective than random grazing or just spreading slurry.  The land and air quality can be further improved by Silvopasture – planting trees and hedges.  Far from being bad for the environment, grazing should be considered part of the solution

Whilst nearly all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly grass-fed, the amount of time spent grazing outdoors varies considerably, in addition the health benefits of grass-fed diminish considerably in a pretty short time of grain feeding.  Two organisations to look out for are Free Range Dairy whose Pasture Promise label guarantees a minimum on 180 days a year outdoors, and Pasture for Life, which certifies 100% grass fed meat and, for the first time this month, cheese.

The Ethical Dairy

Animal welfare is the first objection to dairy raised by vegans.  They believe that milking animals for the benefit of humans is an abuse of those animals and there is probably nothing that can convince them that dairy cows are very well looked after and happy.  However, there is one aspect that dairy farmers themselves are uncomfortable with, and that is what to do with the bull calves.  Finding someone to take them can be difficult and some farmers have to give them away but there is a slowly increasing market for veal and for some farms this is a profitable diversification.

An increasing number of micro-dairies are even affording to keep the calves with their mothers until they are ready to be weaned.  Obviously, this reduces the volume of milk available for sale, but people seem prepared to pay for it (up to £3.90 a litre) and Radio 4’s Farming Today programme recently discussed how this approach could be upscaled.

Marketing

“Business as usual won’t convince Millennials to consume dairy” is the title of an article by micro-dairy and beef farmer Alex Heffron, the full text of which can be read here: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/business-as-usual-wont-convince-millennials-to-consume-dairy/

It expresses perfectly the thoughts that had been gathering in my own mind.  As someone with a passion for food who can afford to pay for it to be produced in the way I prefer, I needed to question whether micro-dairies will remain a niche market or whether in fact they provide a way forward for dairy farming.

I have been fully behind Farmers for Action in their efforts to force a fair price for milk.  However, I believe that a system that has seen milk reduced to a mere commodity will inevitably see it traded as such.  Under this system there is no reward to the farmer who takes better care of his land or animals, whose milk might taste better or be more nutritious.  It all ends up, literally, in the same pot, with organic being the only significant differentiation.  Below are three extracts from Alex’s article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but these points explain why I have concluded that his approach is right.

…I think the dairy industry needs to look at what’s underlying consumer concerns. Why is it, for example, that older generations say dairy is good for them, and younger generations say that it is bad for them? What’s happened in the last couple of decades that’s led to such a wholesale change in opinion? Dairy is still the nutritional food source it always was – after all, northern Europeans are very well adapted to consuming milk thanks to a chance genetic mutation thousands of years ago.

…Identity can lead to trust – or lack of it. If your milk is packaged in a bland, plastic bottle and you don’t know what farm, region or even country that it’s produced in and there’s no information about how it’s produced, then it’s hard to trust its provenance. I think farmers underestimate the importance of provenance, as they take knowing where their food comes from for granted. The general public are wanting to know more about their milk, as well as other foods. The dairy industry’s mass marketing campaigns for a nebulous product are missing the point.

…There are two basic issues that face farmers and they’re both intertwined. They’re paid too poorly, and they’re undervalued and under-appreciated. This is inevitable in a commodity market. The rebranding and re-localisation of milk is an essential first step towards addressing these issues. Farmers will feel better about the work they do, and rightfully get paid more for it. There is a revolution in dairy waiting to happen and some innovative farmers are already starting to reap the rewards. Those who are investing in bottling their own milk, producing their own cheese, yoghurt or kefir, and connecting with their customers are getting a head start in a completely uncontested marketplace. It can be done on the individual farm level or in co-operatives, but it won’t be achieved in supermarkets. This is a chance for farmers to take back some of the power from large corporations.

Unique Selling Points

To market your own milk you need to have a “unique” selling point.  In addition to the health and welfare angles discussed above here are some more things that people are willing to pay more for:

  • Breed – Most of the early adopters of direct selling have traditional dairy breeds. Several of these sell their milk raw. They have also been the most likely to have the alternative of selling their milk to a cheesemaker who will pay a higher price for the suitable fat structure.  There is a shortage of milk suitable for cheesemaking as Francis Gimblett found when he started his Surrey cheese business three years ago.   Of the 23 farms within a 30-mile radius, most couldn’t supply him, either because their contracts with the big dairies wouldn’t allow it, or the milk quality wasn’t good enough for making cheese.  When people can really taste the difference, they are far more likely to remain loyal to a brand.  There are fewer options for those who followed the high-yield path provided by Holstein, but it has been done!
  • Glass Bottles – Concern about plastic has led to a rapid rise in those who would like to buy their milk in a glass bottle, or even their own re-useable vessel.  Glass bottles stand out on the shelf.  A vending machine can give both options.  Josh Hares runs a 200 head herd of Holstein Friesians at his farm near Wells and the decision to install a vending machine as well as finding a market for his bull calves enabled that farm to turn things around following a long period of bTB.  Full article here: https://www.fginsight.com/vip/vip/making-dairy-pay–17994
  • Diversification – sorry to use the word, but I’m not talking Yoghurt not Yurts here!  I live next door to the headquarters of Yeo Valley Dairy, who made their name selling yoghurt when it was still a niche product.  Today’s equivalent would, I think, be Kefir.  Only a year or two ago it was only to be found in a health food shop but now even Arla are doing it.  Those really interested in health want a pure product but the price paid reflects that, e.g. Daylesford Organic Milk Kefir sells for £4.99 for 500ml via Ocado and their flavoured Kefir, via their own shop, for £3.99 for 250ml.  Ice Cream has proved another popular route to getting value from your milk and there is still plenty of potential for good butter, of which we are still a net importer.

You can see Suzanne’s #Februdairy tweets on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie

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