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Expanding with Confidence – a toolkit for the UK dairy industry
Britain has lost half its dairy farmers since 2000 and while herd size and milk yield per cow have risen over the same period, production is floundering around a billion litres short of where it was 10 years ago.
The NFU’s recently published strategy for the dairy industry identifies markets for an extra 4-5 billion litres of British milk. But the question remains – where will this milk come from?
Our competitors in Europe are gearing up for the 2015 removal of quotas and the UK seems ill-prepared. It is clear much of the milk we need will have to come though herd expansion.
But as herd sizes creeps upward, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure adequate nutrition and rest for the cow as she walks further to pasture twice daily. We are therefore seeing a migration toward more specialised systems with either a grazing or housing focus. The choice will depend on climate, land availability, milk contract, capital and so on, and it is up to the individual farmer to decide. However, there is no doubt that the route of longer housing cows, in particular, has led to campaigning by animal welfare pressure groups, confusion among the public anda lack of confidence among planners and regulators.
To free up farmers to expand in the way best suited to them, a stronger evidence base is required to prove housed cows can have exceptional welfare and live in conditions they prefer.
Those farmers looking to expand need to work to gain what is known in Australia as ‘social licence’. This can only be achieved by being respectful of societal demands.
We must recognise that diversity of system and scale in the UK remains important, and that traditional small scale farmers play an important PR role for the whole industry; we need to find a way to recognise this financially and supply them with much needed investment.
The unfamiliarity the public, regulators and planners have with evolving farming systems is a huge concern, but the industry is largely to blame for perpetuating images of black and white cows in green fields. A concerted effort is needed to educate all about new ways of dairy farming.
If we seriously want to capitalise on opportunities heading our way, the time for transparency and accountability is now – we let this chance slip by at our peril.