26 September 1997

Facing assurance

confidently

Farm assurance and how to cope with milk prices down 10-15% and many margins down 50% or more dominated thinking at this years European Dairy Farming Event which attracted nearly 15,000 visitors. Yet despite the challenge ahead the mood was one of determination to succeed rather than pessimisson. FWs livestock team report over the next nine pages

DAIRY producers will have little to fear from the introduction of formal farm assurance standards.

"Most of our members are already doing what is needed," NFU milk and dairy products adviser, Julie Smith, explained at last weeks European Dairy Farming event, after the launch of plans for a national dairy farm assurance scheme for England and Wales.

These had been developed in consultation with all sides of the industry, said Dr Smith. NFU had headed a working party including the Dairy Industry Federation, British Cattle Veterinary Association, and Milk Marque (representing the UK Federation of Milk Producer Organisations).

The initial proposals are based on the Milk Development Council/NFU framework code of practice for dairy farms, published jointly at last years Dairy Event.

Dr Smith said the aim was to maintain and increase consumer confidence in milk, milk products and the production systems used.

The UK industry had an enviable record on animal welfare, milk quality and safety, with most farmers achieving the high standards demanded by government and milk buyers. But it was important farmers also demonstrated their diligence in terms of food safety and animal welfare, she said.

The idea is that a national scheme will replace the plethora of individual codes, to provide a common standard with which everyone is agreed. It is then proposed that trained assessors will carry out audits on farms to check whether or not the standards are being met.

Dr Smith stressed the code sought to meet consumer concerns while being achievable by farmers.

Standards set out in the national code would differ from those in other codes; rather than adopting rather arbitrary standards, assessment would focus on addressing real issues affecting cow welfare and milk quality, she explained.

Central to this would be accurate and meaningful records which producers would have to keep. "The emphasis of our assurance scheme is really record-keeping. We will ask farmers to look at the health and welfare of their cows and, if records show its not to a high standard, or improving on previous levels, they should question whether facilities on farm are suitable," said Dr Smith. She did not expect the records needed to require much more information than that which was already being kept on many farms.

Accurate records would be backed by routine veterinary monitoring of herd health.

Vet assistance

Richard Sibley, national secretary of the British Cattle Veterinary Association said this could require no more than the routine vet visit for some herds; others may need more vet assistance and there would be an extra cost. "But the financial benefit of reducing lameness and mastitis should more than offset this," he said.

Provided records showed that a mastitis problem, for example, had been tackled and incidence had fallen then that should satisfy the code.

Farm standards would not seek yes and no answers and would not concentrate on whether facilities measured up to a set of structural criteria such as cubicle dimensions.

"If cubicles are too small, cows would suffer and that would show as increased lameness and mastitis incidence," said Mr Sibley.

If accepted by NFU members and milk buyers, the scheme will be put to the retailers and – provided it meets their needs – the next step is to create a force of inspectors. These would be trained to the same standards to ensure they interpret the scheme in the same way.

"It is likely the inspectors will be employed by the milk buyer," said Dr Smith.

Financing for the inspectors had yet to be decided but she believed that the cost would be less than 0.03p/litre.

She accepted that some dairy companies could insist on bolt-ons over and above what was required of the scheme, but hoped that if the base-line standards were set at the right level, the add ons would be superficial requirements only.

"We wont remove other schemes, but well have a base-line standard seen to operate through an inspection procedure."

NFUs Julie Smith and BCVAs Richard Sibley: Designing a scheme to reassure consumers about the high quality and safety of milk on farms.

DAIRY ASSURANCE

&#8226 National dairy farm assurance standards.

&#8226 More comprehensive record keeping needed.

&#8226 Routine herd monitoring by vet.

&#8226 Independent auditing on farm.