IP Dairy Farmer - January 2020

Posted on: 01/01/20

There’s no doubt Red Tractor (RT) upped its game in 2019, but not before time. It claims it now has teeth and that serious non conformers are immediately suspended.

However, it appears a number of dairy farmers continue to take the view that they wait for the audit to alert them to any failures, following which they need to correct them, obtain a pass, and then return to business as usual. In my opinion all dairy farms should aim to be audit ready 365 days a year, not just on inspection day because in reality, and despite is faults, RT is the best defence mechanism this industry has. Milk buyers have to be compliant 365 days of the year, and that brings me on to the role they play and whether some are letting down their farmers.

Some milk buyers appear to rely on the RT inspection certificate only, and fail to make their own regular spot check farm visits. Some of the adverse press coverage in 2019 could, in my opinion, have been avoided if processors had been pro active and didn’t just visit when they were alerted to a problem. i.e they had a fire prevention team not a fire engine.

One farmer has trumpeted to me how easy it was to get his “friendly” inspector to help him sort his medicine records during  his RT inspection. On that basis I suggest no inspector visits the same farm within a three-year period to remove familiarity. Another proudly informed me there was a non-compliance issue in the parlour and he sent in a photograph of his neighbours parlour to confirm he had done the work, and the certification body didn’t even realise it was a different parlour and he promptly got a pass! Now I accept some farmers are economical with the truth during inspections, but this is fraud.

Jim Mosely, CEO of RT, recently visited me to chat through its plans. But more on that next month.  However, after that informative meeting I concluded that RT needs to work bottom up. In other words it needs to lift the bottom farmer’s standards up, rather than bolster all dairy standards. It will have to include expulsions and for any who can’t comply they need to take a hard look at their business.

One long standing reader and customer of mine alerted me to a neighbour who has what can best be described as his ‘knacker paddock’ in front of the farmhouse, next to a major road and close to a public footpath. He commented that “over half of the cows which go into the paddock leave with their feet in the air with any perceived suffering very much on public display”.  When challenged over the image he was portraying, let’s say the neighbour’s attitude was such that the enquiring farmer was told to choose his own first word, because the second one was “off”.

 As most of you will realise for the past 11 years my office has run the administration function for The National Fallen Stock Co, where we regularly receive calls from the general public about dead farm animals. One recent call caused our eyes to roll, coming from someone who was following a farm truck with a dead cow on full display. The callers’ question was “I realise farmers lose animals, but is it right that they are transported in this way through our local town?” A photograph ended up on Faceache, and was a PR own goal. If only the farmer had covered it up this wouldn’t have happened.

I hope that close to 99.9% of you agree that both incidents do nothing to improve the credibility and integrity of our great dairy industry. Such incidents raise concerns amongst our non-farming friends (i.e our customers!), who are social media friendly and bombarded with anti animal farming propaganda. You don’t need me to remind you when it comes to animal issues they instantly appeal to consumer’s sense of compassion. The two practices above are simply reputationally indefensible. If farmers don’t portray the right image you can bet the animal rights activists will publicise their version! Please don’t sit back and allow any of your farming neighbours, family or friends to blink and drop their guard on their standards and let all of us down. Too often I hear comments of “I can’t believe farmer X passes his farm assurance. The place is a sh_t hole!”

Speak up, please, because more than ever livestock farmers need to maintain public support on a scale not previously recorded. As dairy farmers you all have to accept responsibility for the image you portray, and to market yourselves and NOT just wait for the milk tanker to arrive.

Back in July Arla fired the starting pistol on calves, announcing a ban from 1st January 2021 to its members euthanizing or slaughtering healthy calves until they are a minimum of eight weeks old.

The “every calf has a value” announcement went fairly smoothly, presumably helped by how far ahead of most competitors Arla’s milk price was in 2019. Now Muller has announced its route to tackle the same issue, with its solution having an identical start date. Good for it!

In 2020 Muller will pay a 1ppl premium under its herd health initiative to its Direct farmers,  for which one requirement is not to  euthanize healthy calves unless the practice is supported by a veterinary letter. This means any Muller farm under TB restriction should be able to obtain authority to euthanize, and still be eligible for the 1ppl. In addition, Muller Direct farmers are able to take unwanted calves direct to a slaughterhouse. Neither option is open to Arla farmers, all of whom have to meet the standard. Participation by Muller farmers is optional, though, and to tick the box they have to confirm their policy following which verification checks will be made.

Thus, the UK’s two largest processors have policies on calves, both of which participating farmers will need to adhere to by the end of next year at the latest. Others will no doubt follow, as the industry takes another giant step in bolstering its defences. I still believe both Ala and Muller will need to tweak their scheme rules, though. As previously highlighted by me the Arla initiative will be challenging on TB affected farms, not least because eight-week old calves will need to be TB tested prior to movement.

One of the issues the Arla unwanted calf policy raised with me by someone whose day job it is to defend this industry’s image is that many of these calves will always be low value. In addition, on a modern dairy farm most have to produce as much milk as possible, which means there simply isn’t the accommodation let alone available resources and labour / skills to care for the calves. In such circumstances retaining the calves would be “a worse scenario than euthanasia”. This point appears to have been addressed in the case of Muller Direct. Then there is the effect the extra beef will have on an already struggling beef market. The sustainable affects for this beef into the market is where retailers have to step forward with solutions.  Given that the UK imports 30% of its beef, there should be a big opportunity. Let’s take it!

Email: ianpotter@ipaquotas.co.uk