Many will give up dairy farming

Another fine sunny week, but it is noticeably colder at night, but this is absolutely what we (selfishly) want in order to try and make the most of the autumn.

The sunny days have brought out a vast number of lovely butterflies to feed on the Buddleia blossom on the farm, some of which is late. The birds are sweeping along the grass fields feeding on a plentiful supply of insects. I hope they are eating plenty of crane flies as they are everywhere at the moment, and we all know how their larvae (leatherjackets) eat the grass roots in the spring; killing large areas of grass if they are really bad.

We are not the only ones with a change of weather pattern this year, I hear from my Victorian dairy farmer friends in Australia that it has been very wet and difficult over the winter. The rain has almost filled the Dartmouth dam in Northern Victoria, which is the biggest and a very big dam indeed; during the drought years it has struggled to fill more than a quarter to a third of its capacity. It is many years (12?) since it was last full.

Arable farmers in East Anglia are beginning to complain that seed-beds are too dry and that an inch of rain is needed; these boys are vastly outnumbered by the arable farmers up north and in the west, who are desperate for dry weather as they have a long way to go before their harvest is in. Yields are really bad across the board, with costs sky high as extra combine harvesters are used to try and speed the job up. Pea growers are having a torrid time, and potato yields and quality are poor, with a lot of ‘blight’ around, which has caused many to spray off the crop and salvage what there is in the ground.

Our farms are just bursting with grass growth and we are about to take another cut of silage which will be fed to the bio-digester. The cows are in fresh paddocks, with some very good grass and docks (docks are enjoying the wet season too!), but unfortunately for them the cows are partial to fresh dock leaves at this time of year and clear them very effectively as they go.

We are taking advantage of this dry weather to inject slurry into the paddocks, and we will follow the silage cut with an application which will grow more grass to feed young stock, and maybe some sheep. The crazy NVZ (Nitrogen vulnerable Zone) rules are such that we cannot spread on sandy ground after the 1st of September and on clay after the 1st of October, regardless of weather and growing conditions. We can however spread in January!

The NFU is lobbying Defra in order to get some sense into this red tape nonsense, as wetter springs and dry autumns with good growth into winter makes a complete nonsense of such rigid rules. If a crop utilises the slurry and the ground is otherwise bone dry, where is the sense in this? When farmers have storage that is full to the brim after the worst summer in over 100 years, and they take the responsible approach to slurry spreading over that wet summer, where run off is real as well as leaching; to have an end date hanging over their heads regardless of the conditions, is just stupid.

Our maize is not so good, although it is not the disaster I see up and down the country, where so much maize looks no more than waist high.

The latest national milk production figures are showing us to be down almost 30 million litres a day, and with poor silage on most farms, terrible maize harvest to come, and the cost of feed well over £300 a tonne, the chances of production recovering before next spring is unlikely. Dairy Companies are now scrabbling to pay more, and although Jim Begg (Director General of Dairy UK) likes to talk of the free market, it is astonishing how they all move together, and at virtually the same rate. The spot price for milk, which is the price paid for milk traded between these companies, is now well over 40p per litre (10-15p above farm-gate prices), and some are importing fresh milk from Belgium, which again is well over the price they are prepared to pay British farmers.

There will be many, many farmers who will give up on dairy farming in this country over the next year, some will have better alternatives, some will decide that anything is a better alternative to losing money, and some will sadly go out of business. I expect to see casualties among the dairy companies too, as they are now in a difficult position as milk supply drops, the competition is as fierce as ever, and we can see that the price increases by some major companies put extra pressure on some of the vulnerable. All in all it’s a sad state of affairs, as major retailers have very good margins on dairy products, but processors and farmers have very little if any. With fewer companies competing for milk at the farm gate, it is unlikely to improve as far as the farmer is concerned, unless the Code of Practice really is going to bring about the change in the very DNA of these companies.

I attended the ‘European Platform for Responsible Use of Medicine in Agriculture’ (EPRUMA) meeting in Brussels last week, where I was appointed as the first independent Chairman. EPRUMA deals with not only farm animals, but horses and companion animals (pets) as well, looking to promote responsible use of medicines. There is huge concern over the use of medicines, and in particular anti-microbial resistance; blaming the agricultural sector is an easy and convenient reaction, whereas the problem is rather different. Farmers and in particular Veterinary Surgeons need to play their part, and of course there is room for improvement. Veterinary Surgeons looking after companion animals however are under far greater pressure to treat and attempt a cure, where the emotional attachment to the animal is far greater, and often cost is less of a problem, especially when pet insurance is so widespread.

We see in agriculture a big difference between countries, Scandinavia have much stricter rules than the Mediterranean countries for example, but not all those regulations are particularly successful or indeed correct. It is also rather easier when you have a very long, extremely cold winter and little in the way of challenge; compared to the searing heat of the Mediterranean, and North Africa to the South and Asia to the east in the way of disease challenge. Getting European countries to agree is not easy or straightforward, but the added tension of the Euro problem, where again it is seen as the North lecturing the South, calls for even greater diplomacy!

Glorious Goodwood; may I again thank Lord March for the most enjoyable Sunday at the race-track. The atmosphere, the cars, the racing, in particular the attention to detail which makes all the difference for those attending, is second to none. The ‘Silver Arrows’ were incredible! If anyone needed to find out what ‘enhanced customer experience’ really means, which brings the customer back to buy again and again; visit the ‘Revival’. It is easily the highlight of the motoring calendar.

Gwyn Jones