Mik production ‘in free-fall’

A very mixed week with rain most days, some of it heavy, made the decision to cut the maize a tricky one. I hung back until Wednesday, saw that it was clearing up with a good forecast for Thursday, and took the plunge; organising the harvest for the next day.

It rained a bit in the night, but the challenge was on to cut 120 acres of maize silage before the heavy rain forecasted early on Friday morning materialised. Thursday was indeed a very nice sunny day, perfect for the job in hand, which started very early in the morning. No breakdowns and the expected disappointing yield saw Milford in by lunchtime, and Tillington all finished by late evening.

The Milford crop was especially poor, and the average across the total 120 acres was no more than two thirds of what we would normally expect. Worse than that, many of the cobs on the maize plants were low down due to the plants being short, and a great many cobs therefore slid underneath the forage-harvester table, rather than being presented for the rollers, which means that our fields have many cobs lying in the stubble. Many farmers will be as disappointed as I have been when their crops are harvested I’m sure, and although the quality should be good, but we will have to wait for the analysis to be sure. The maize for the bio-plant will not be ready for another week or so, but again will be poor; the wettest summer in over 100 years taking its toll.

We are pretty much up together as far as the dairy farm is concerned, with good quantities of grass silages; not performing to analysis so far I hasten to add, and with two thirds of the expected maize yield in the clamp, we do at least have enough for the winter, but I’m sure we will be eating into our carry-over silage yet again at some point next year. Milk production will hopefully increase now as the maize is added to the diet, and I could do with another 2 litres per cow per day in order to be back on prediction. Maize silage does three things for us generally; it increases milk yield, gives us a much firmer cow pat to deal with, and it is very good for cow condition, due to the energy content, cow condition in early lactation being vitally important in order to get them back in calf.

Milk production nationally is still in free-fall, and is very unlikely to recover this winter as feed prices remain very high, silages not performing well, with an acute shortage of maize silage. The incentive to produce more milk is further diminished by the poor treatment of dairy farmers by dairy companies and the milk price cuts, which added to the misery of a very poor summer. Both trust and confidence are low, and it will take a great deal of work by all concerned to re-build this industry. Prices will need to rise further next year if production is to be maintained, never mind increased.

Dairy farmers were further depressed by the Labour Party Conference and the RSPCA last week, as key individuals in both organisations sought to take advantage of the difficult decision taken by government to cull badgers in the worst bovine TB ‘hot-spot’ areas. Mary Creagh who is Labour’s Shadow Defra Secretary, has single handedly ensured that the farmer and country vote will be denied Labour at the next general election if she is still in post. Ms Creagh is looking to get support at the expense of the countryside, by announcing that the next Labour government would be ‘minded’ to abandon any badger trials in England if they came to power. No firm promise then, just provoking the situation, hoping to get political advantage.

Furthermore, she has taken this decision in the last 12 months, moving away from her initial stance although the evidence shows that the original trial areas are delivering lower infections to cattle. Ed Milliband who had a good Conference, should worry about this; he cannot afford to alienate large groups of voters, and when the badger cull is working, we will be very quick to remind him of the Labour Party stance at the most difficult and delicate time, for purely political and opportunist reasons. This is a serious mistake by Mary Creagh.

The new Chief Executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant, is even more worrying. This is an organisation which sometimes loses its way and forgets what it should be fighting for. Farmers have generally been ambivalent towards the RSPCA; wary of a few overzealous inspectors, generally supportive when cases are brought against those who bring our industry into disrepute. Now Gavin Grant is playing a very dangerous game as he starts to lobby against the trial badger cull in ‘hot-spot’ areas; campaigning to persuade consumers to boycott milk from the farms involved.

This hard line approach shows that Gavin Grant is willing to take a considerable gamble in order to try and raise more funds for the RSPCA, tapping into the unease felt by people who have not had the full facts in this very complex issue explained to them. It also shows that he has little understanding of the dairy industry.

The RSPCA is also embroiled in a huge row at Ramsgate, where sheep destined for export were deemed unfit to travel, but on unloading some sheep fell into the water, two drowned, and then 41 sheep were allegedly shot! Given that any sheep loaded for export would have been inspected by a specialist veterinary surgeon, the question is how did the sheep become lame so quickly, and were they so lame that they had to be destroyed?

Farm Minister David Heath has ordered an ‘immediate review into the unacceptable events at Ramsgate’, and we will need to wait for the facts to emerge. The RSPCA were heavily involved throughout, and farming leaders are questioning their actions; demanding a ‘robust enquiry’ into the RSPCA’s role in what happened.

Defra added to our misery last week by controversially announcing that consumers should eat less dairy products. There is concern in Defra’s own dairy team about this guidance and how it was phrased, but in their ‘Food Statistic Pocket-Book’ which compares the amount of food bought by consumers (in 2010) against the healthy eating ‘ideal’ of the ‘Eatwell Plate’ (which recommends guideline amounts for five food groups). Defra concluded that consumers are buying too much milk and dairy foods, and need to reduce the amount bought by 30%!

Dairy experts warn that Defra’s methodology of matching purchasing data against ‘Eatwell’ guidelines is unsound, and that such a change in people’s eating habits would be detrimental to their health. At a time when money is tight, it beggar’s belief that a government department would advise against buying some of the best value, most healthy foods on the market.

The good news is that the long awaited ‘Dairy Industry Voluntary Code’ (on milk contracts) is now published. This document is the first step in re-balancing the fairness of the supply chain, making milk buyers give a month’s notice of milk price changes, and allowing farmers to leave much earlier if they do not agree or accept the change.

A small change, but a significant one for dairy farmer confidence.

Gwyn Jones