IP Dairy Farmer - February 2020

Posted on: 03/02/20

Back in 2010 the Irish Government set a target to increase its milk output by 2020 by a whopping 50% from 4.9 to 7.5 billion litres. The plan was called The Food Harvest 2020. Now it really is 2020, and the Irish have smashed that target, and increased volumes to 8 billion litres (+63%) in 2019, and it is still growing now. The 2020 figure is likely to be near to 70%.

Close to half of the extra milk has resulted from improved yields and not from extra cow numbers. Six years ago I wrote that for a herd with 66 cows to grow 65% required fewer than five extra cows to be put on per year, plus the improved yield. And that how the maths has panned out.

Recently milk volumes on a monthly basis have been lower than last year, so the growth is being tempered in these low volume months. It will be interesting to see what happens when the milk year gets in full swing towards peak milk. With all of the added processing investment they should be able to handle it, though.

But will we? We only just managed in the flush last year and there’s lots of talk among GB farmers about the wet winter and whether spring will be early or late. But the world is a global village and competition from low cost producers like the Irish with increased production, and a fall in world demand for dairy products, will dictate world prices and eclipse any dramatic weather periods.

What happens in Ireland really does matter to what happens here. For example, and bringing in Red Tractor (RT) standards again, the retail giant Sainsbury’s ditched both the RT and Fair-trade Assurance Standards, and this allows Sainsbury’s to use the strap line “product from UK and Ireland” on its cheese. Thus, it allows it to build a wall of cheap Irish origin cheddar cheese.  It’s a nifty dodge, which undercuts British farmers’ compliance to RT standards. As one reader commented “The hypocrisy across the food sector is astonishing!”.

I advocate that RT exposes such practices, where possible. Clever RT promotion could highlight those retailers who play with a straight bat - for example the likes of Aldi and Lidl who insist on RT Assurance. The rub is these two retailers are thriving and growing, while Sainsburys continues to slide downhill on a financial and especially on a reputational basis. Next time you visit a Sainsbury’s see if you can find any quantity of RT Assured cheese, and, if you do, please email me photos.

Sainsbury’s as a respected brand appears to be withering on a vine under drought stress. Tomlinson’s and Arla’s Llandyrnog factory are both victims of Sainsbury’s, and Medina is also seriously wounded after only two years of involvement with the retailer. We also know Muller’s situation. As far as UK dairy is concerned, therefore, involvement with Sainsbury’s has left some processors looking up to see the tip of the sword of Damocles at their throat. AKA the sword of Sainsbury’s.

Long-term relationships with processors should lead to mutually beneficial partnerships – but these are words the Sainsbury’s dairy team don’t have in their vocabulary.  I wonder if any dairy processors or suppliers can step forward and claim to make sustainable profits from Sainsburys. I doubt it.

As regular readers recall I have taken a keen interest in livestock standards and animal activists in the USA. The USA has “The FARM Program”, which promotes an established Wilful Mistreatment Protocol that investigates credible evidence to determine if any mistreatment of animals has occurred.  If necessary it places sanctions on participating farms following an investigation. To be reinstated in the FARM Program the farm must implement a comprehensive list of actions to include what’s called an Animal Care Continuous Improvement Plan, involving a vet and independent auditor.

If anyone witnesses animal abuse of any kind on a dairy farm they can report it immediately to the dairy farm, local police or the Program. They even promote a confidential snitch line which accepts anonymous tip offs from farmers and industry via a hotline. FARM encourages dairy producers to adopt the See it? Stop it! Program, which is an initiative providing those who work around animals with resources and guidance to immediately report instances of animal abuse, neglect, harm or mishandling. Additionally, the FARM Program conducts independent, on-site audits or on-farm investigation of alleged animal care issues. This is designed to demonstrate to customers and consumers that the US dairy industry holds itself to the highest standards, takes the best possible care of its cows, and abuse of animals is not tolerated.

Today’s consumers are more interested than ever before in how their dairy products are produced; how safe and wholesome they are; who’s producing them; how the animals are treated, and the impact production has on our planet. We are under attack from numerous anti-livestock farming organisations and our media is jam packed with stories promoting their agendas and alternative foods messages.

My view is we need a top farm assurance scheme everyone can back and rely on, and the onus is on Red Tractor to deliver that. And I can understand Red Tractor being nervous over the promotion of the dairy farmer standards that are practiced by most, for fear a few of the worst performers will let the side down.

Last month’s article spurred several readers to e-mail me. One captured the thoughts of many: “There are too many sh1t hole farms, most of which are RT approved, and many more spot checks must be done by milk buyers and auditors,” it wrote.

Red Tractor’s goal has to be for every dairy farmer member to meet every standard, every day. There is a lot of work to do here and it is mainly the bottom who need dragging up. Until they grasp this then processors will continue to forge ahead with their own enhanced standards. All I suggest is each of you tells your positive story about the care you have for your animals. All of us need to stand shoulder to shoulder and stand proud.

A couple of e-mails also asked me whether I knew of Red Tractor’s policy on dairy cow show teat fixing (aka cheating). It appears at least one 2019 show winning cow’s owner is singing like a canary as to how many hours milk she has been carrying and how he “fixed” her without detection. Well, Red Tractor are clear that in the case of teat sealing and fixing membership of the scheme would be withdrawn, which means their milk would not be picked up by their processor.

Many sponsors appear to expect the shows to enforce the rules and procedures required to prevent sealing of teats.  For at least two of our main shows the claim is their show rules and procedures are comprehensive, but the policing seems far from robust. In addition, the RPA have confirmed they would also apply a financial penalty to BPS claimants caught cheating. I’d like to think this will mean an end to the practice. Somehow, though, I doubt it, as cheats will always be cheats!