Milk output has continued to fall as poor returns drive more farmers from the sector.

At the end of the quota year last month, milk producers had delivered 13.463bn litres to processors.

Adjusted for butterfat at 4.03%, this rises to 13.632bn litres –  but still nearly 500m litres below the Charles Holt/ Farmers Weekly profile.

Compared with last year, the end-of year shortfall has widened by 174m litres.

Charles Holt of the Farm Consultancy Group said that while the shortfall looked significant, it had to be seen in the context of recent years.

“Even in the 2000-2001 quota year, which saw foot-and-mouth disease hit the industry, milk production was only 27m litres less than this year.

“And production did bounce back within two years – the industry exceeded its quota in 2003-2004.”

A lot could change if this year’s silage season delivered, Mr Holt said. But he added that cows were starting from a lower production base after wet and cold weather in February and most of March.

But with a 1.5% increase in quota under 2003’s CAP reform, and given the number of producers forced out of dairying, reaching national quota this year looked “quite a battle”, Mr Holt said.

Output reached 1152m litres in March. Adjusted for butterfat at an average of 4.08%, this rises to 1177m litres – 44m litres below profile.