For dairy producers, size does matter

With a public sympathy for small family dairy farms, a suggestion was made yesterday that some method of keeping them in business – possibly with financial inducements – should be considered.

Ironically, the idea came from Amy Jackson who first hit the headlines in 2010 as the public relations support for the bid for a 8,100 cow dairy herd in Lincolnshire.

Speaking at a seminar on large-scale livestock production – with the provocative title of Does Big Mean Bad? – at the Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh, Jackson said this was not a change of mind.

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In response to a comment from NFU milk policy guru George Jamieson, to the effect that the industry needed producers of all sizes, she said the reality was the public viewed milk production as a family business and consideration should be given to providing these businesses some sort of monetary reward.

However, she insisted, large-scale dairies were needed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the UK was a major importer of milk products. This year, milk production will again be below the quota level and she estimated the shortfall would require the output from 1,000 average scale producers to fill the gap, despite there being both an increase in yield per cow and a doubling of the cow numbers in the average dairy herd in the past 20 years.

She estimated there were now about 20 herds in the UK with more than 1,000 cows being milked, one third of those in Scotland. This is still well behind the scale of dairying in the USA where less than 4 per cent of dairy farmers are now producing more than 60 per cent of the total output of that massive country.

Jackson, who has used her Nuffield scholarship to look at large-scale dairying here and in the USA, said that many larger units had higher animal welfare regimes, with more professional back-up and management time. Most welfare problems occurred on smaller units where there was pressure on investment.

She also said large scale dairying units were not responsible for driving out smaller scale producers, although the bigger businesses often benefitted from economies of scale and that they were both sustainable and acceptable.