UK farmers face dilemma over 'super-dairy' plans

| 21st September 2010
Cow being milked

Campaigners fear the proposed Nocton dairy will have a negative impact on animal welfare

Plans for an 8,100-cow dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire will ‘polarise’ farming in the UK and destroy smaller rural-based family farms say those working in the sector. Tom Levitt investigates

Plans for a 'super-dairy' are being opposed from within the farming industry, which fears the consequences of the 8,100 cow farm being given the go-ahead by the local authority.

Nocton Dairies Ltd is expected to shortly re-submit its plans for what will be the UK’s largest dairy farm, just south of Lincoln, producing up to 250,000 litres of milk per day.

Opposition to the 8,100-cow farm has grown in recent months, mainly instigated by outside groups like Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA) and World Society For The Protection Of Animals (WSPA).

They claim the welfare of the animals will suffer from being permanently housed indoors and subjected to a high-yielding regime. There have also been new revelations that the company behind the farm is even seeking taxpayers money from the local development agency to help meet its animal welfare and environmental standards.

However, away from campaign groups farmers themselves are also far from supportive of the mega-dairy plan. The Ecologist has spoken to a number of figures within the sector and discovered widespread unease about the plans. Most dismiss possible welfare problems but are concerned about the impact of the farm on the dairy industry as a whole.

Dairy scaling up

Intensive, indoor factory farm methods have long dominated pig and poultry production with the average pig unit housing as many as 5,000 pigs at any one time – the biggest units house upwards of 20,000.

However, the average dairy herd size is still just 120 in the UK. There are a few big ones, including some at 2,000 but the vast majority are still much smaller, family-run businesses based in rural areas.

David Cotton, vice-chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), said the industry faced a ‘dilemma’ over the consumer reaction to industrial-style dairy farming.

‘How much do we want to tell the public about dairy farming? The image they have at present is of cows being kept in fields all-year round when in fact most spend the six months of winter indoors.’

‘It does not fit the image for the market men,’ he said questioning whether the UK dairy industry as a whole wanted to follow this route.

'The 8,000 cow dairy businesses do exist in China and for them it might be the way to go to feed themselves. But biggest is not always necessarily best,' he said.

A recent MORI poll commissioned by WSPA found 61 per cent of people in Britain would not buy milk if they knew it was produced in large-scale indoor sheds.

The European Dairy Association (EDA) question whether the majority of consumers mind how their milk is produced. 'The general perception is that European consumers are more aware that milk is produced by cows and that they are part of our rural landscape. As such it wouldn't be possible for US style dairy farming but we don't know to what extent this matters when they buy milk at the supermarket shelf,' said an EDA spokesperson.

Death of rural farming

The dairy industry has other concerns aside from consumer reaction. A recent survey of farmers and industry figures found almost half opposed the scheme, citing amongst other issues the threat to smaller farm enterprises.

The company behind Nocton Dairies call it a 'flagship for the next generation of the UK dairy industry'. Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) vice-president Eifion Huws disagrees. 'You could call it progress but it is not something I'd personally like to see. For the smaller family farm it is going to be bad, they are squeezing them out.'

Huws says the rural community as a whole would suffer from dairy farms being replaced by large dairy units on the edge of towns (Nocton’s proposed site is close to Lincoln) and near the milk processing factories and supermarkets.

'It just adds to the rural decline. The dairy industry seems to be holding the countryside together in many places,' he said.

Dairy farming has traditionally been strongest in the south-west, north-west and Wales where the climate creates perfect grassland for cows to be fed and partly reared outdoors. Farming analysts still expect most dairy farming to continue in this way but also accept that competitive advantage could be lost and with it, the grazing of dairy cows outdoors.

Polarised farming

The worst-case scenario envisages a 'polarising' of dairy farming between giant intensive indoor units and the organic and partly outdoor ones.

Phil Stocker from the Soil Association says while this may create a big point of difference for some dairy farmers, such as organic ones, it would also ‘drag down’ the majority of ‘middle farmers’. He said small and medium-sized non-organic farms would be not be able to compete as the industry was pushed down a 'never-ending spiral of ever greater efficiency’ to reduce milk costs.

Without these smaller farms the opportunity for new entrants to come into dairy farming will also be lost and with it the next generation of farmers.

Most dairy farmers point the blame for this not on the farmers like those behind Nocton Dairies trying to scale up, but on supermarkets pushing for cheaper and cheaper milk. Britain’s largest supplier of fresh milk, Robert Wiseman Dairies, recently warned of new price wars in the dairy sector after both Asda and Tesco cut the price of milk.

Dairy farmer and activist David Handley from Farmers for Action (FFA) says 8,000 cow units today could well be 16,000 cow units in 10 years time. ‘Everybody is now trying to cut costs and unless you can control costs and go big by scaling up with cows you won't last.’

The National Farmers Union (NFU) says many farms have reached ‘bursting point’ where they lack the necessary investment to expand. It has been unsure about fully endorsing the Nocton super-dairy proposal. While the company may want more support from the sector's biggest power-broker, the NFU says it has to 'defend the integrity of the industry'.

'For them it is one individual proposal but for us it is much more,' says NFU chief dairy advisor Hayley Campbell-Gibbons.

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With planning permission for Britain's biggest dairy at Nocton about to be re-submitted, The Ecologist travels to California to examine intensive milk production - and finds factory farms, conflict, intimidation, pesticides, pollution and small-scale farmers driven out of business...
UK farmers face dilemma over 'super-dairy' plans
Plans for an 8,100-cow dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire will ‘polarise’ farming in the UK and destroy smaller rural-based family farms say those working in the sector
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Super-sized dairy farm plans put on hold
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