Britain’s dairy industry has barely been out of the news for the past couple of years. The price that farmers get for their milk has been the subject of great debate. On the one side stand the farmers who claim they are being paid barely enough to cover the cost of production. The counter argument put forward by supermarkets and milk processors is that the global price of milk has fallen because there is oversupply, while at the same time Russia’s ban on EU dairy products has hit the export market hard. There have been well-publicised protests and blockades as well as political moves and efforts from some supermarkets to improve their contracts with the suppliers.
The Traditional Method of Milking Cows
More cows, fewer farms:
But away from the headlines, what actually happens on a dairy farm and how does the milk get from the cow to become our morning pint? It seems obvious but lots of people don’t realise that a cow has to calf every year to produce milk, either by being put with a bull or through artificial insemination (AI). So it’s important that there are frequent visits from the farm vet and the AI specialist, the person who is still sometimes jokingly called the “bull in the bowler hat”. It’s the safest way to prevent illness, disease or fertility problems and make sure that the herd keeps producing milk.
There are just under two million dairy cows in the UK, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and it’s a figure that’s been on the increase in the past few years. That’s despite the fact that every year we lose more dairy farms. Between the beginning of 2015 and the start of this year, we lost about 300 dairy producers across the UK. In other words, there are fewer dairy farmers but the ones that remain have, on average, bigger herds.
Traditionally cows are milked twice a day; once early in the morning and again about 12 hours later. In many ways, that requirement hasn’t changed since the days of the Victorian milk maid, sitting on a three-legged wooden milking stool in the parlour. It’s a charming image but as well as filling pail after pail with milk, those hard-working women played a vital role in keeping the herds healthy. They would get to know each cow individually and because they sat within easy reach of the udders, they could spot problems or abnormalities instantly.
Bringing Milking into 2016 with Laser Technology
Milk of the future:
The idea of a robotic milking parlour was greeted with amazement 25 years ago. The thought that a machine could replace the work of a farmer seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Today, we barely blink at the idea of laser technology assessing the fullness of a cow’s udder and helping to attach the cluster, or an in-parlour computer identifying and registering every animal before measuring the yield at each individual milking. In fact today’s robotic parlours have roots in the 1920s and ’30s when automatic milking machines were quite common, using teat cups and a vacuum pump to draw the milk.
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