Super Dairy

Several weeks ago three farmers announced plans to take British dairy farming into the future.I nearly fell off my chair when I heard the scale of their plans. Nocton Dairies proposed to milk over 8,000 cows and produce up to 250,000 litres of milk per day on their £50 million super-dairy in Lincolnshire. To put this into perspective, at last count there were around 16,000 dairy producers in the UK with an average herd size of 112 cows. When I was a full-time farmer I used to milk 80 cows a day, which makes this proposal 100 times bigger than me! There is no doubt about it, this new farm is unprecedented in scale and ambition and I take my hat off to it.Not surprisingly, the plans have received condemnation from the animal welfare lobby up and down the country. As a former farmer and chairman of the important Animal Welfare committee in the European Parliament, I take welfare extremely seriously and in this instance cow welfare is my number one concern. But I have to say I think many of the welfare lobby concerns are unfounded – the project specifications have helped to put my mind at ease. There will be 24-hour veterinary cover on the farm and 80 staff looking after the cattle. The dairy is designed to a level above and beyond the highest environmental and animal welfare standards required by EU law. The cows will be housed in large, open sided light and airy sheds and they will be bedded on clean sand and have access to grazing. Done properly this could be a showcase for the future. Already Nocton have announced plans to attach a public visitor centre to the farm and provide training facilities for the UK dairy farmers. They also plan to set up a website featuring educational tools, live webcams of the cows going about their daily lives. They will also publish the results of monthly health and welfare audits.They want to show how modern animal welfare, cow management and modern milking technologies can work and that should be commended. For decades we have been finding new and better ways to manage our cows and this is just the next step in that progress. This could well be the future. But that is not to say I don’t have fundamental concerns. In an ideal world, I would want Nocton Dairies’ 8,000-strong herd to be split between 100 family farms. Each family farm would have 80 profitable cattle grazing on the land. It wasn’t too long ago that we had those family farms up and down the country. The image of dairy cattle roaming our lush green pastures was a reality and farms did make a profit. But how quickly things change. The number of UK dairy farms has halved since 1997. On average, 26 farmers leave the industry every week and one in ten farmers say they will leave the industry within 2 years. Milk production has fallen to its lowest level in 37 years and farmers cannot make any money. Meanwhile, retailers’ share of the milk price has increased from 6 pence to 16 pence in 10 years, with no return to farmers’ pockets. I don’t blame or criticise the vision of Nocton Dairies – they are reacting to a changing market place – but for a West Country man I am devastated to see small-scale farmers struggling to survive. They are the lifeblood of rural communities in Devon and Cornwall and we will lose them at our peril. It all comes down to farmgate prices of course. If farmers are paid enough money to invest and grow then the industry will survive and thrive. Otherwise, even Nocton could struggle. One aspect of the Nocton application I support wholeheartedly is the plan to install an anaerobic digester which will produce 2MW of power from the farm waste. They say 2MW will be enough to power the dairy and over 2000 homes while the by-product ‘digestate’ will be used to fertilise the land. Good, logical, forward thinking. Nocton will also source much of the forage for their herd from local farms. Another positive step. As is their plan to process and sell the milk locally. Nothing as ambitious as Nocton has ever been attempted in Western Europe and it is exciting to see Britain leading the way. But I place several provisos on the Nocton plan. It must not herald the end of family farms. It must not mistreat the cows. And it must not tarnish the dairy industry’s public image. The industry must be fully aware that it receives a lot of public cash and therefore must be answerable to the public. That is why it is the industry’s job to explain the merits of the Nocton project and educate about the twin need to maintain our family farms. Photo: Neil Parish visiting a local farm