Saving Scotland’s dying traditional dairy industry

As farmers take the fight for fair milk pricing to supermarket aisles, Dani Garavelli asks what can be done to stop the traditional dairy industry dying out in Scotland

As farmers take the fight for fair milk pricing to supermarket aisles, Dani Garavelli asks what can be done to stop the traditional dairy industry dying out in Scotland

Dairy farmer Bryce Cunningham has been milking his 120-strong herd since dawn. Even in this high-tech era, it’s a labour-intensive process which he carries out in batches, with military efficiency, but no barracking. When it’s their turn, 30 or so docile Ayrshire cows file into the milking barn where they stand in two rows back-to-back, their tails swishing, oblivious to their own heady aroma.

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Cunningham, wearing thigh-length wellies, a full-length apron and disposable gloves, sprays each of their udders with disinfectant and wipes them before attaching the teat cups by hand. When the flow of milk begins to dwindle, the teat cups automatically detach. Cunningham then hurries through to the byre, where the cows have spent the summer due to waterlogged fields, clears away piles of excrement, and walks up and down throwing out fresh sawdust like rice at a wedding. Having freshened up their living quarters, he gives the cows a friendly pat, whistles softly, and says “come on, girls”, prompting them to file back through to eat and rest, as he hoses down the milking barn ready for the next batch of bulging udders. 
At some point, his mother Lynn arrives to take pails of freshly-produced milk up to the dozen or so calves that cur­rently need feeding before heading off to her day job with a agricultural haulage firm.

The whole operation can last more than two hours, and the cows are milked four times a day, though Cunningham pays someone else to handle the midnight session. In between milkings, he has to attend to a myriad routine chores and to wade through a mountain of paperwork. If something unexpected happens – as it did this morning when a calf escaped – it can put the whole day ­off-kilter.

Running West Mossgiel Farm in Mauchline takes long hours of arduous, dirty work and there are no days off. There are rewards, of course: the sense of fulfilment that comes from breathing clean air, the view over lush Burns country and watching your herd thrive. But no-one would do it for the money. For all his efforts, Cunningham is currently losing £200 a day.

His is the plight of many British dairy farmers. A confluence of events – a sudden glut, cheap imports, the end of the EU quota, and, particularly, the fierce supermarket price wars – means they are now being paid less for their milk than it costs to produce it. Both the cost of production and the amount paid varies from farm to farm and is vulnerable to circumstance. For example, at West Mossgiel, being forced to bring the cows indoors has meant more overheads this year in the form of feed, straw and electricity. The NFU estimates that nationally it costs around 30-31p per litre to produce milk, but that farmers are being paid an average of around 23.6ppl (down from 29ppl a year ago). Cunningham has calculated that his milk costs around 24p a litre to produce, but he receives just 15ppl from the independent milk supplier who buys it from him and sells it on.

The gap between the two figures is causing a crisis; in the past decade, the number of dairy farms across the UK has halved to 10,000. More than 200 have closed since the start of the year. In Scotland, 19 farms have shut down since January, bringing the total to 982, the lowest since records began in 1903. Dumfriesshire was the hardest hit, with the loss of seven farms and 667 cows.

According to John Armour, food policy manager of NFU Scotland, Scottish dairy farmers are particularly exposed because so many of them – 350 – sell their ­produce to First Milk, which has 
faced severe financial problems (although the government recently agreed to pump more than £300,000 into one of its creameries to try to alleviate its ­difficulties).

If nothing changes, Cunningham says, West Mossgiel Farm could also go under within months. Except that, as the father of a four-month-old son, Arran, he is determined not to let that happen. “About three weeks ago, I was sitting at the breakfast table looking at my wife and Arran and I knew we couldn’t go on like this,” he says. “I had to do something. I want to keep the farm going, and to be able to pass it on to him, if he wants it.”

Energised by this new resolve, the young father has joined a group of farmers across the country who are raising awareness of the problems affecting the industry. With milk being sold for as little as 89p for four pints in some shops (compared with £1 a year ago), they feel their product is being undervalued by the government, retailers and the consumer. In the past few weeks, they have targeted the big supermarkets, particularly Asda, Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi, which (unlike Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose) haven’t had agreements in place to pay a sustainable price to farmers.

Down south, this has involved cows being paraded along the aisles of an Asda store in Stafford and the blockading of a Morrisons distribution centre. In Scotland, Cunningham helped organise stunts in Morrisons in Kilmarnock and Asda in Kilmarnock and Ayr. On particular days, they bought all the milk on the shelves, giving it away to customers outside. After the first Morrisons protest, some of those who took part were given parking tickets and issued with a threatening letter, but the public was supportive. Indeed it was a mysterious donation in a brown envelope left on Cunningham’s kitchen table that paid for the first protest.

Direct action does appear to be having an impact. Early last week, Morrisons agreed to produce a new brand of milk at a premium price, with 10p a litre going back to the 3,000 British members of global co-operative Arla. The move was greeted with a degree of suspicion and the sense that it wasn’t fair to shift the responsibility for the treatment of farmers on to individual consumers.

Within days, however, all of the supermarkets that had been targeted upped their offers: Asda, Aldi and Lidl agreed to pay farmers at least 28ppl for milk, while Morrisons agreed to pay 26ppl. This is a victory, but the figures are still less than the NFU says it costs to produce a litre of milk nationally, and none of the agreements extend to cheese and other dairy products, so the lobbying is likely to continue.

Forcing retailers to pay more is not the campaigners’ only goal; they also want to remind consumers of the value of milk and to make it easier for them to buy British produce. Some farmers believe there should be fresh TV ads – remember the Gotta Lotta Bottle campaign of the 1980s? – with the cost shared between dairy companies, the government and trade associations such as Dairy UK and DairyCo.

“We have lost the knowledge of milk we had 20 years ago,” Cunningham says.

Though all the talk is of overproduction, the UK is only 81 per cent self-­sufficient when it comes to dairy products. The fall in the value of the euro makes it cheap to import butter and cheese. “A few years ago it was cheap to import meat, but then we had the horse meat scandal,” Cunningham says. “We need some imports, but we should make sure they comply to the same standards imposed on British produce. And I would like the supermarkets and the government to promote British dairy produce before imports and not the other way round.”

At the very least, more could surely be done to make it easier for consumers to find British goods on supermarket shelves. British farmers have to jump through hoops to qualify for the Red Tractor label which guarantees standards and provenance, yet the logo is underplayed by both producers and retailers. Though it is fairly common on liquid milk, you have to search hard to find it on butter, cheese or yoghurt.

More broadly, the industry needs to reconnect Britons with the countryside; where in France, consumers still understand the relationship between the land and the food on their plates, fewer people here are interested in how their comestibles are produced.

Though the public does seem sympathetic about the milk crisis, farmers are still sometimes dismissed as greedy landowners living it large on European subsidies. Cunningham is about as far from that stereotype as it is possible to imagine. With his youthful features and his vaguely hipster beard, he would not look out of place behind the counter of a trendy coffee emporium (if it weren’t for the muck). Two years ago, he was working as a mechanic for Mercedes. He came back to West Mossgiel Farm, next to Mossgiel Farm, where Burns wrote some of his best poetry, when his father fell ill with cancer and he has been running it with his wife Amy, a nurse, since his father’s death last year. The farm is rented not owned, so it is difficult for him to raise the capital for big investment projects.

When Cunningham’s grandfather moved into West Mossgiel in 1948, he had a milk maid, a bottler and a dairyman for a herd of just 28 cows. He would leave his milk at the bottom of the road in metal canisters to be picked up by horse and cart and delivered to market.

The farm gradually expanded and, when his father took over, he became well-known for breeding Ayrshire cows which were capable of giving similar milk yields to Holsteins. Today, Cunningham’s cows produce an average of 32 litres a day or 1.2 million litres a year. And he knows them all: the grumpy ones, the placid ones, the ones prone to jostling others out of the way at the feeding trough. He knows their pedigree names and their lineage. He shows me a photograph of one of his grandfather’s favourite cows, Cora, at the Ayr Cattle Show. “We have seven or eight of Cora’s [descendants] out there now,” he says. The welfare of the herd is a top priority. Many of the cows wear electronic collars which keep track of their chewing (as rumination is linked to health) while monitors in the milking barn alert Cunningham to any sudden decline in production.

The collars also detect whether a cow is in season; a red light flashing in the milking barn means a green light for the bull.

One way for dairy farmers to become more profitable would be to turn their farms into huge industrial units as they have done in the US. “But that’s what we want to avoid,” says Cunningham. “If you are factory farming a cow, you lose the contact. It becomes a cow; and that’s it. From a commercial point of view it would be possible, but animal welfare would be terrible.”

Instead – buoyed up by consumer interest – he plans to start selling milk direct from the farm. Because it is illegal to sell raw milk in Scotland (though not in England) he has struck a deal with a nearby ice cream maker to pasteurise his produce; it won’t be homogenised, though, so the cream will rise to the top.

From tomorrow, customers should be able to turn up and buy his milk at the farmhouse. Eventually, however, he hopes to invest in a vending machine. The purpose of this new venture is two-fold; to add to his income, obviously, but also to give the general public a better insight as to how dairy farming works.

The challenge when it comes to educating the public is that the problems faced are so complex and far-reaching. “From the cow to the customer, from the grass to the government, there is an issue in every single sector,” Cunningham says.

Imagine, though, what would happen if dairy farms disappeared. Our landscape would be transformed. Green fields now dotted with grazing cows would lie untended. And we would be forced to drink milk that had been transported hundreds of miles across Europe.

Judging by the reaction to the farmers’ campaign, consumers do care. They just need to be persuaded to keep putting pressure on retailers and the Scottish and UK governments. “I don’t want to make a fortune,” says Cunningham, “I just want to be able to give my family some security. How can I explain why it’s important to me? It’s the whole thing. It’s my father and grandfather’s cows, it’s the land, it’s my whole life. I am determined to save it.”