ON… AND WHERE TO NOW?
Theres been huge
progress and change over
the last 30 years of dairy
Dominic Naylor, farming
consultant with Strutt &
Parker, gives his personal
view of the last three
decades – and the future
THE dairy industry has seen some monumental changes in the last 30 years. Apart from the introduction of milk quota in 1984 and the disbanding of the MMB 10 years later, technical developments over the last three decades have been vast.
For some people this development, encouraged by successive post-war governments attempts to feed the nation, is one of the factors in the troubles faced by farmers today. I disagree. The increase in mechanisation and in our understanding of the dairy cow has resulted in production records being beaten year on year.
British dairy farmers can pride themselves that their farms are now more efficient than ever before. They may not be any better off, but to play down the technical achievements of the last 30 years is to do them a disservice.
It is only by looking back at those achievements in correlation to the agricultural situation at that time, that the importance of research and development can be seen. By viewing just the fourth quarter of the last century, a clear cycle, not only in agricultural economics but also in our husbandry fashions, can be seen.
Agriculture in the 1970s was an industry which reflected the governments policy of cheap food and high inflation. It was not unheard of to sell a second-hand tractor after three years of use for more than its original purchase price.
It was also a time of great change in the dairy industry. A farmers weekly article from Feb 6 1970 highlights the mass exodus from the industry of milk producers in the previous 10 years. Warning that the number dropped from 127,000 milk producers to just 85,000, the article predicted "those remaining in milk are keeping more cows – the cows are producing more milk".
The trend was set to continue and one which has gained momentum in the current agricultural crisis. Units were indeed getting bigger and this meant a need for a change from the labour intensive shippen to the yard and parlour.
The unthinkable ratio of one man to 100 cows became possible with a system which kept the lying and sleeping area completely separate and brought the cows to the dairyman rather than vice-versa. The yard and parlour removed much of the drudgery and relative hand-to-mouth existence of milking cows.
On larger farms, dairy herds as major enterprises in their own right were replacing subsistence herds of 20 to 30 cows. The drudgery problem was now being tackled, a factor which has guided technical innovation ever since.
Yet, while the last 30 years have seen changes to dairy farms which would make them incomparable to the way they were 100 years ago, it would appear that many of the problems facing British dairy farmers today are no different to the problems faced by previous generations.
In an April 1970 edition of farmers weekly, headings such as "Government accused of let-down on milk" and "Government accused of failing to understand the problems of the British dairy farmer" are as appropriate now as they were then.
One report stated "a policy document handed to the government last year by the unions and the Milk Board showed clearly that to increase incomes producers had to get a bigger share of their own manufacturing market at realistic prices."
The high inflation years of the 1970s led to the over-production of the 1980s. We are all aware of the impact of the introduction of milk quota in 1984, but to remember the 1980s for this reason alone is to disregard the leaps and bounds with which the industry moved forward.
As never before, dairying became a science. Whatever your thoughts on the butter mountain and milk lakes of the early 1980s, their existence was a reflection of the ability farmers had to increase milk production from their farms.
The way in which we fed cows began to be assessed and in particular the forage portion of their ration. Most dairy producers had already moved from hay to silage as the main winter fodder and the development of silage-making techniques led us to the double chop method, with dry matters typically in their low teens.
The resulting effluent led to the first questions on its effect on the environment and slow wilting techniques were adopted, dry matters increased alongside nutritional value, with a corresponding increase in milk yield.
Headlines of the day warned of milk output on the up and up. Despite government dairy conversion schemes and "golden handshakes" in the previous decade for those wishing to leave the industry, milk production increased year on year and the butter mountain and milk lake became by-words for the incompetence and excess of the Common Agricultural Policy.
The introduction of milk quota in 1984 was as a direct result of that over-production. Its negative effect on individual producers will never be forgotten, but for the industry as a whole it shifted the emphasis from production to margin.
The positive consequence of production quota was that research and development into feeding the dairy cow and breeding for better cows began apace. The downside was that dairy farming had now become a rich mans game and possibly one of the reasons why today the average age of a farmer is now 58.
The 1990s continued much in the same vein as the late 1980s, with farmers looking at all production costs and attempting to find a margin under the umbrella of quota.
On an individual level, dairy farmers and herdsmen increased their technical knowledge of the cow and things such as DIY AI and routine vet visits became the norm. More and more skills were developing on farm and veterinary treatment, for instance, became more preventative than curative.
Feeding the dairy cow was revolutionised by the appearance of feeder wagons on farms up and down the country. Complete diet feeding or TMR replaced many in-parlour feeders. However, these are expensive pieces of kit their virulent spread can be considered as a direct result of the increase in milk price.
This milk price was set to reach dizzy heights with the deregulation of the MMB in 1994, the consequences of which are cruelly felt today. Milk prices of 28-29p/litre gave the impression that this sector of the agricultural industry was on a high, yet looking back many costs of production were just as high.
The euphoria of milk prices at this level meant that the old adage of "make do and mend" was left on the scrap heap. The security and comfort of the old Milk Marketing Board was soon forgotten by the promise of ever higher milk prices by the newly formed dairy companies.
Apocalyptic forecasts of the pre-Board days in the 1920s when there were no guaranteed price or markets were ignored as dairy farmers individually moved from being price makers to price takers.
The past – and how it affects the future
It was fascinating to read the first issue of farmers weekly from 1934. Flicking through subsequent issues with the benefit of hindsight filled me with a sense of inevitability in our current crisis. It also demonstrated the cyclical nature of agriculture and, in particular, so-called new ideas.
Never again will I dismiss so arrogantly calls by the older farming generation that the so-called "new fangled idea" or technique is nothing new. Perhaps that is another reason why the industry is in so much trouble. We never seem to learn from the mistakes or innovations of our forefathers. We are rightly obsessed with the current milk price and restriction of milk quota, but should we not be concentrating on those issues we can affect?
Certain themes have always been part and parcel of agriculture and maybe our obsession with these prevents us from looking to the future. Indeed, the first page I turned to in that issue of farmers weekly from 1934 had the following heading "Problem of finding money."
I believe we could also learn from industry outside of agriculture. We are not alone in being victims of the price maker, although our lack of co-operation means we rarely become anything but.
As with the manufacturing sector, which likewise suffers with troughs and peaks, the need for research and development is essential. We must continue to find ways of taking the industry into the 21st century, not just at a technical level but also with regard to personnel.
One trend which is noticeable from reading the farming press over the years, is that not only is labour on farms diminishing year-on-year but it is getting older. We must reverse this trend, and thereby continue to ensure that youthful enthusiasm and innovation are encouraged. At the same time, learning from previous experiences will serve us well over the next decade.
Finally, it is encouraging that the few young farmers that are coming through see co-operation at a local and national level as the key to future success. *