IP Dairy Farmer - February 2021

Posted on: 09/02/21

It’s only two days since my January article landed on farm, and already there are umpteen interesting and jaw dropping comments on Red Tractor and its assessors for this article.

At processor level several set out to achieve Red Tractor’s minimal standards at farm level, in fact a few are guilty of defending low farmer standards! Others, for example Arla, Muller and First Milk, have decided that Red Tractor standards are a low base line, and have introduced their own standards in a bid to uphold and protect the industry’s reputation. Note that I am very aware that these higher standards come at a higher cost, which some farmers estimate to be as much as 2.5ppl.


Red Tractor is the biggest UK Dairy Farm Assurance brand, but it’s in stormy waters and the best analogy I have is that it’s no good bragging about having the biggest and most powerful water pistol if your house is burning down. One farmer stated that in our post Brexit world it should be rebranded as something like “British Farming”, with a clear unmistakable new logo. Others sadly said it’s not fit for purpose, thus agreeing with me.


During my “I can’t believe it’s not The Semex conference” webinar last month one comment stated that Red Tractor appears to carry credibility and weight in pigs and poultry and is held in high esteem by most retailers. The question was “How does it evolve to have the same credibility in dairy or is it too late now processors have successfully introduced higher standards with their own schemes”. A good question!

Next came a question on the flip side of those higher processor standards, as to whether retailers and processors are optimizing the marketing of their dairy standards to consumers. Let’s face it, half of eggs purchased are free range and sold at a premium. Why not in dairy? I get the impression that one or more of our processors might soon get fed up and pull out completely of Red Tractor, just as Sainsburys did.

Another farmer commented that most of his peers have no problem with standards so long as they are relevant, achievable and consistent. The consistency reference was a knowledgeable and targeted shot at the very variable on-farm assessment scoring, which for me is looking like being farmers’ main grievance. There were, however, two farmers (from the same general area) who felt their Red Tractor audit was comprehensive and gave its assessors a big thumbs up. So, it’s not all negative.


But the star response came from a small processor who pays for the audits, who was sent an audit invoice with a note saying, “Once you pay, we will send you the certificates”!

One of their farm’s audits was queried following the processors’ own independent audit, which detailed stratospheric bactoscan and SSC counts, BVD, serious pneumonia and welfare issues, with bird droppings everywhere, holes in every building, a pool of slurry at the parlour entrance and more. This report was supported by the local vet. The Red Tractor auditors commented “Oh yes, we were most surprised by your audit report” which they had sight of before they carried out their inspection. The sub-contracted auditor subsequently agreed to return for an unannounced audit. But days before the audit the farmers confirmed they were preparing for the visit! When questioned about this the managing director of the sub-contracting firm responsible confirmed that for legal and travelling distances they had to ask the farmer when the “unannounced” visit would be convenient! 

Several weeks later the processor contacted the assessors to enquire how the “unannounced” audit went. The response was that at that follow up inspection (only weeks after the initial inspection) several non-conforming failures had been found, but she was pleased to report they had all now been corrected. HOWEVER: by this time milk collections had ceased the cows had all gone! The processor stated that in his view the assessors were liars and bullsh*ters, because the farm sold all the cows once the processor stopped colleting the milk, so no revisit or non-conforming remedy was required or actioned! Sadly, correspondence concerning the incident with Red Tractor received little more than an acknowledgement. Such falsified virtual audits are unacceptable. But it’s the second such horror story I have received details of.


Whilst some poor performers are being suspended, Red Tractor certainly shies away from showing the red card. There are a number of reasons for this, but for sure retailers want to go further and quicker with dairy standards and weed out the poor performers, whilst the Farming Unions hold things back and progress at a much slower pace, often in a veiled attempt to protect farmers at the bottom.


The biggest issues are farms’ general appearance, and animal husbandry. If any of us walk on a farm we know in 30 seconds the likely animal condition, state of the parlour and the feed. These are the key areas which could let down the whole UK dairy image and brand. Too many of Red Tractor’s standards are simply commonsense, and annoying tick boxes for clip board extremist assessors to get excited about. For what it’s worth I conclude that alongside the reluctance to somehow get the worst performers out of dairying the variation in quality of auditors is a serious millstone around Red Tractor’s neck, and difficult for them to monitor. Is it down to the fees the certification bodies delivering RT audits charge to processors and the level of auditor remunerations charge for the audits or is it the caliber of the assessors who, with respect, are often quoted as semi-retired people who want to keep a toe in agriculture?


Finally, English Entitlements for the 2021 BPS claim are trading again, and it’s a bit of a no brainer for anyone who has more claimable land than Entitlements. And yes, starting this year the amount paid per hectare is declining to zero by 2028, however, although for a “typical” farm the payment per hectare has dropped £40 in a year from £230 to this year’s £190 it is still great value. You can buy top-up entitlements for £100 or less, and in the next seven years claim £763 or a shade more from your investment - a return you can’t ignore. Having resisted getting involved in SFP claims, this year we have decided to throw our hat into the ring, having realised some agents are charging eye watering amounts on claims which require minimal input. If you are in the market, try us out!


Comments to ianpotter@ipmsltd.co.uk