A need for dairy facts to be given to top Ministers

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ANOTHER sunny week, although we had a shower or two, and some hail, The ground is drying out fast again, but at least the silage fields have good growth on them, trapping any moisture around.

The wind has been chilly, and temperatures cold enough at night to turn my runner beans a pale yellow, which reminds me how early it still is, whereas it feels like summer after over two months of sunny weather.

Cutting grass silage two weeks ago has turned out to be the right decision and leaving a generous two inch stubble (between two and three inches as the ground is not that smooth around here!) has certainly worked.

Following the wet weekend ten days ago, the grass has leapt out of the ground, powered by the sugars in the base of the stem, and solar energy from the green leaves left behind.

The first leaf has shot up to a much greater height and size than usual, and this will now power the second leaf to a much larger size, with those two solar powering the third leaf to at least a third longer than the second.

That is how the ryegrass plant works, and it still gets me excited after all these years.

It is all about growing more leaves and bigger leaves, and it needs sunlight, water, and nutrients to achieve this.

We have been providing both nutrients and water by spreading dirty water on to the aftermaths for the last two weeks and this has now been completed.

We have also been spreading very dilute dirty water stored overwinter in our lagoon, on the nearest silage fields with the lay-flat pipe and spreader.

This is much more efficient as there is no running around on the roads, or loading up; it just pumps and spreads all day long, stopping only to change fields.

Some rain would still be helpful of course, especially for the maize, which has also suffered a little from the cold wind, but is otherwise growing strongly, as are the weeds which will be sprayed off this week.

I am planting out the sweet corn in the garden this week, which is not only delicious to eat, but just like the lawn (which is ryegrass and not lawn seed), is a very useful tool to monitor during the season.

We have plenty of grass in front of the cows now, as silage aftermaths will come into the equation before long, and the young-stock have plenty to eat as well; even at Tillington on the sandy soils. It is amazing how much less they need when the weather is kind, they just seem to live on fresh air.

n The NFU takes its dairy campaign to the city this week. Following our poster campaign in Westminster tube stations, NFU President Peter Kendall will be persuading MP’s of the need to get the supply chain to work properly.

Given Minister Jim Paice’s crass comments in the press last week, it is fairly obvious that there is a need for the facts to be given to MP’s and Ministers at the highest level.

Jim Paice accused farmers last week of ‘wanting it both ways, and if you want short contracts when prices are going up, you are going to have to accept it when prices are going down’.

Maybe the Minister needs to look at the figures a little more closely? If he did so, he would see the coloration between dairy farmer’s prices and the world commodity price as slightly different to the story told by the retailers and processors.

The price follows the market, albeit with a lag which is expected due to contracts (although some very silly contracts are entered into far too often by competing processors who read the market completely wrong), only for the peaks of world markets never to be reached.

We sure as hell hit the troughs, but never the peaks.

It is the failure to hit the peaks that causes the damage, and prevents re-investment on many farms as they struggle and emerge weaker from the troughs.

The exceptions are the direct retail contracts for liquid milk; there prices do not reach the peaks either, but neither do they go near the troughs, resulting in a much more stable environment for dairy farmers, in which they thrive.

Given the world market in dairy commodity of late, the farm gate prices of those in commodity products (milk powder, butter, cheese etc) should be far higher than those in the stable markets for liquid milk.

This has not and is not the case due to retail pressure and processor competition for British business (ignoring fantastic export opportunities with a very favourable exchange rate), which is keeping farm gate prices down.

We want proper contracts which would enable dairy farmers to negotiate a proper price or if that cannot be agreed, move to another buyer who is willing to pay that price.

The processors are responding to retailer pressure, not by insisting on better terms and prices, pointing to the global market, clear evidence of where the pricing should be, but by refusing to pay a farm gate price comparable to the market.

The question is, do we believe in markets or not? Looking to the future, where global demand is going to increase, which should be very good news for all farmers, volatility will also bring its own problems and risks.

If we fail to make money and invest during the peaks, then we will struggle to survive in the troughs, and that is bad for food security, animal welfare and the environment.

In order to improve animal welfare, lower our carbon footprint and increase bio-diversity, and produce food (which is our primary objective let’s not forget), we need to be profitable and re-invest in new technology, buildings and farming techniques.

n Before anyone gets worried about my comments and what that means for the retail price for food, let me assure you that there is plenty of money in the supply chain; it’s the way it is not distributed fairly and properly that concerns me.

Retailers, while telling you that they are ‘helping’ you through the recession, have in many areas increased their margins, and those paying the disproportionate price for helping the consumer through recession (which we all agree is important) are those already on wafer thin margins.

Processors are also squeezed by the retailers and their margins too are very small, but they are protected as they pass back to the dairy farmer what is left.

The galling thing is that at the retailer’s behest, the processors involve themselves in competition for business (which is healthy), but with the knowledge that they can always protect their margin at the dairy farmer’s expense (which is far from healthy), resulting in a less efficient sector, which has not looked to exports in any meaningful way.

This has got to change, as the amount of imported dairy products is massive.

Why are we importing vast amounts of Irish cheese into this country when we are more than capable of producing it ourselves?

One example of the failure of British Dairy to compete with its European partners; which must change if we are to have a strong, vibrant, competitive sector facing the numerous challenges of the immediate future.