A golden age for milk?
Are we about to see a new golden age for dairy farming? It seems a daft thing to say as farmers turn out in their hundreds to blockade the big dairy processing plants. But if the shock of price cuts marks the end of milk being viewed as a low-value commodity instead of a healthy food, the angst will have been worthwhile.
Since historic times grassland and grazing have been the basis of milk production in Britain. This was no accident. Grass is both the best and the cheapest feed for cows. And with its mild, damp climate, Britain is just about the best place in the world to grow it. Which means UK farmers could be producing the best milk in the world if they chose.
Sadly many have been persuaded to adopt US-style production systems with cows housed for much of the year and fed on cereal grains and soya. This is unhealthy for cows and unhealthy for people drinking the milk. It may make sense in America where thereâ€™s no great tradition of grass-based milk production. But for UK farmers to set up housed herds in competition with 10,000-cow US farms looks very much like an own-goal.
Even at current prices, pasture-based milk production is the most profitable. This is why many young farmers setting up new dairy farming businesses today are opting for grass-based production. Farmers like Tom Foot and Neil Grigg who have established a new Dorset dairy farm where the cows stay out on grass for much of the year. The yields per cow are relatively low, but the high quality milk is earning a good price at the local cheese factory.
With much of the US grain belt gripped by drought, maize and wheat prices are likely to surge this summer. This will make pasture-based production even more profitable than it is now. And itâ€™ll mean more of the worldâ€™s food grains get fed to people who need it rather than to the livestock of rich western countries.
In London for a business meeting yesterday I called in at Starbucks in Islington for my morning coffee. As I sipped my cappuccino I wondered about the milk contained in it. Iâ€™d like to think it was nutrient-rich milk from pasture-fed cows, but I knew in my heart-of-hearts it was probably the other sort, the inferior commodity sort.
A couple of years back I had a phone call out-of-the-blue from the marketing director of Starbucks Europe. Having put high-quality Fairtrade coffee in all their stores, the company was now interested in introducing higher quality milk (many coffee chains spend more on milk than they do on coffee). I put the Starbucks exec in touch with a pasture-based dairy farmer in the West Country and subsequently met him to discuss milk sourcing.
I was happy to do this, but where was the UK dairy industry? What were they doing to reposition British milk as a high-value food rather than a low value commodity in competition with the worldâ€™s industrial-scale producers? Imagine that coffee shop in Islington having its walls adorned with timeless images of cows grazing lush British pastures. Imagine those same images in all the Starbucks stores across Britain â€“ and the Costa stores and CafĂ© Nero too.
The supermarkets and processors have forgotten that the modern dairy industry was founded on grass-fed milk. In the early 1900s most city milk was produced from â€śtown dairiesâ€ť. It was pretty grim stuff, produced from cows kept in urban sheds and cellars and fed on brewery grains and other wastes. With the coming of the railways this dire product was replaced by fresh milk from cows grazing pastures in the British countryside.
It was this change which led to the great expansion in milk production, particularly between the wars when consumers â€“ as now â€“ were keenly interested in food and health. Recently the dairy industry has been trying to turn the clock back; taking cows off pasture and putting them back in sheds. Theyâ€™ve even started feeding them the modern equivalent of brewery grains â€“ the grains left over from the wasteful conversion of wheat into ethanol for biofuel.
Hopefully dairy farmers will soon seen their recent price cuts restored. But thereâ€™s a lesson here for all those friends who have supported them â€“ the Womenâ€™s Institute, the Countryside Alliance, Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the rest . To really flourish dairy farmers need to reposition their product in the market place. Itâ€™s not a cheap, global commodity. Itâ€™s a real and distinct British food â€“ one we can all be proud of.
For more on grass-based dairy farming see our film on Pasture Promise TV: