Milked for all we’re worth: a personal view of the dairy industry

Farmer's daughter Kate Patten explains the effect that falling milk prices really have on dairy farms and those who depend on them.  

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The fall of milk prices are just statistics for many people, a sad piece of news in the press. But for farming families like my own, these statistics are enough to strip us of our home, our business and our way of life. Devastating consequences for any family, and a real possibility for many dairy farmers in Britain. Currently, the ‘farm gate’ price (the initial price for milk paid to the farmer) doesn’t even necessarily cover the cost of production, and with supermarkets selling milk at bargain prices and on special offers, the meagre percentage of that amount that farmers receive for the milk they produce is ever decreasing. 

‘Can’t you just sell directly to the suppliers?’

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The theory often proposed to me is that farmers would get paid more for their product by simply cutting out the middle man and selling directly to suppliers. But for most large companies such as supermarkets, this would mean having to deal with hundreds of smaller family farms instead of one supplier. As a corporation, this would mean that large industrial farms would be paid higher prices for their dairy products because they could produce enough milk to be worth dealing with. Family farms would be swept aside as an inconvience and extra paperwork.

‘It’s only a few pence, does it really matter?’

A few pence less a litre adds up to thousands of pounds worth of loss in a year. A 1p cut for a small farm of 80-100 milking cattle can add up to a drop in revenue of around £6,500 over the year, a death toll to a business already working within small margins. With welfare costs such as feed and bedding increasing, the cost of keep per cow is overtaking profit made from each animal. There are no limitations on how low milk prices can drop, and at the rate they are falling British dairy farming may become simply a page in a history book.  

Unlike other industries, a farmer cannot simply go on strike. It’s true that farmers sometimes protest outside factories, memorably blocking Wiseman’s entrance with their tractors last October. But their animals still need constant care, and without an income from their milk, no matter how small that income might be, that care would not be possible.

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For many farmers, this is a situation seemingly with no way out. 

Dairy cows