Thoughts on the Mega Dairy

Arable crop farming is by its very nature, seasonal and annually repetitive. I have now been compiling this diary for more than a year and should really be looking back to make sure that I don’t go over the same things as last year. But of course that is inevitable in the general sense. The detail is never the same but the activity is.

It’s June as I write, so we know that the wheat will be on ear by now and that we need to keep it and the top flag leaf clear of disease in order to maximize the area of the plant that can ‘see‘ the sun. Photosynthesis will fill the grain with the starch that will become flour. We want plump, ‘bold’ not shriveled grain. The recent rains have come at a good time to ensure that there is enough moisture in the soil to facilitate this. At this stage, we have done all we can to help nature and we must wait for her to take her course in the ripening process over the next 8 weeks or so leading up to harvest. It is always a salutary reminder that whilst farmers can do much to tweak their crop’s potential, once the grain is sown, it is sunshine and rainfall, or lack of, that are the main determinants of harvest yield.

In this period the grain store will have been thoroughly cleaned and fumigated to ensure there are no insect pests which could spoil the stored grain after harvest. A break away from the farm, and forward planning are on the menu in preparation for the very busy period from mid July until the end of October.

In the May issue, I promised to comment on the planning application at Nocton in Lincolnshire, for the huge dairy unit for 8,000 cows. The Nocton proposal has raised some heated debate that actually has wider implications than this particular one. Issues of animal welfare, environmental care, provision of ‘cheap’ food and the shape of the countryside all raise their heads.

On a very simple level, as an ex dairy farmer, I would make the following points about Nocton.

Cows that are not looked after well will not produce good lactations, will have poor fertility and a short productive life. It takes at least 2 years and more commonly 30 months to raise a dairy heifer calf to a point when she starts milking. The investment that sort of time scale needs cannot be compromised by poor welfare and management if you want to stay in business, whether you milk 50 or 8000 cows.

The Nocton unit will be large enough to employ a full time vet which will mean timely preventative and emergency health measures.

A non grazing routine will mean all year round housing but this does not mean cramped conditions. There will be exercise areas and plenty of fresh air. Contented cows will be a priority. The practical logistics of moving 8000 cows around grazing fields and in for milking twice a day would be counter productive. Food will be brought to the cows ( called zero grazing ) rather than cows walking to fields in summer, but this is the case for all dairy herds in the winter in the UK.

When we had 140 cows there was nothing better on a summer morning at 4.30 am ( once roused from slumber of course ) than fetching cows in from the field for milking as the sun rises, but it took at least 40 minutes to do so. However the same cannot be said in a wet autumn when each cow has to wade through a muddy gateway with the ensuing problems of dirty cracked udders and damaged feet. The image of 8000 cows going through gateways doesn’t bear thinking about!

Environmental issues, in particular pollution, are another big concern. The Environment Agency should and will have strict guidelines that will need to be adhered to before the unit is built. Dirty rainfall runoff from hillside grazed land can pollute watercourses, so the issue is not a simple one of size alone.

Small dairy units are much less likely to produce milk profitably because of fixed overhead costs being higher per cow. Gradually those herds are disappearing as they become relatively uneconomic for the capital and time investment involved.

Cheap food has become regarded as the norm and right of ‘the man in the street‘. As a general rule I believe this will only come from larger efficient units. The economic influences that cause manufacturing plants to get bigger are the same for farming, and already are in operation for cereals and horticulture.

It is perfectly valid to have a contrary point of view about small farms and scale of operation but you cannot have cheap food and a profitable agricultural sector like that.

It is interesting that there seem to be a move towards part time, small holding or self sufficiency allotment type units. A reconnection with the countryside and growing or rearing your own food as a reality or aspiration is clearly on the agenda for many. But that is a personal lifestyle choice rather than an economic decision. Do you agree?

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