Good two way communication counts for a lot and unfortunately in this case it has been as rare as hens’ teeth. There have been regular vague promises over quality payments but nothing emerged. It galls me a bit to be selling milk averaging around 4.5% butterfat, yet with no quality bonus.
Things have now become somewhat clearer with the publication of new contract terms, albeit rather on a take it or leave it basis which is probably going to cause a lot of headaches once the detail is fully taken on board by producers. In fairness, farmers are given until April 2015 to sign new contracts, or get on their bikes – so there is time to absorb the main points. But I do fear a number of farmers will still put the paperwork behind the clock on their mantelpieces and get a big shock come April. These changes come to a head now, in a problem shared with most buyers, in that they appear unable to handle that eternal natural phenomenon, the Spring Flush. When this comes in mid-late April very few are equipped to handle the surplus milk which fast becomes a serious problem for them. A few of the larger processors have access to DMP/cheese/butter plants to absorb surpluses but for many it is tricky. So it becomes a big problem for farmers too.
The answer our buyer has come up with is to work out producers’ individual annual production and then divide it equally through every week in the year. Unfortunately, there is no acknowledgement that we producers too have seasonal high and low months and using those as the basis on which they will pay their headline rate each week of the year. Beyond that, any under or over production will be paid at the effective spot market price (arrived at by their own formula) so there will effectively be either additions or deductions on all milk over or under this daily output figure. I fear more deductions than additions.
All farms are different for countless reasons and while it will suit some to calve around the year, for others it simply doesn’t. In our own case we decided long ago, in Milk Marketing Board days, to take a price hit to make the most of our spring grass and calve in a two block system around November and February, with almost every cow producing hard from March until August, mainly from grass. The rest of the year production was fairly static but the real peak has been April/May and June which, I accept, is a problem for buyers – but it’s not a new one! Our buyer has accepted our production profile until now. Also in the past they have been quite generous in not applying penalties if we have had a short term quality or hygiene blip, as most producers do from time to time, which has been appreciated. With the way prices are slipping producers need such support, or many will be out of dairying very quickly and the processors will likely follow.
What is a little ironic is the fact the buyer, quite recently, put a lot of effort into recruiting dairy farmers from large tracts to the west to increase their milk field. Now, within little over 18 months, they are saying “if you don’t accept our new contract, goodbye.” So it seems a good many are again looking round for yet another new buyer, while not a few will presumably drift out of milk production. Already UK producers number a little over 10,000 and will soon drop under 10,000. It shows how farming and rural life has changed when you realise, only as recently as 2002, there were some 24,900 milking herds. Most villages had one or two. Now one has to travel quite far to get to the next dairy herd and further demands like these will doubtless exacerbate the speed of losses.
Interestingly in 2002 there were some 2,227,000 dairy cows* and in 2012 (latest figures) 1,812,000 – which shows how many small herds lingered into the early 2000s.
Harvest looked a breeze in July but with the return of changeable conditions all came to a stuttering halt after Goodwood week. Barley, which dropped by almost £60 a tonne last year, has again as I write come from £140 a tonne down to below £100 creating much depression. So to forget that, I was fortunate to spend a few nice days mid month in the Alps where, after some shucky haymaking weather, the main summer task was in full swing. The crop quality of the hay was so dry as to not need long to make and they set too with great vigour, gathering it in about two days.
Much of this work involved cutting with an old Allen type reciprocating push mower, on hillsides I would not happily do anything other than ski on. Then a day or so was spent hand forking/raking it to accessible areas to be raked and gathered loose for static baling. Doubtless every bit will be used during the coming long Alpine winter but I think litres from home produced feed would be very minimal. There was a huge amount of maize growing in the low land, a crop which looked exceptional. From edge to edge it stood uniformly around nine feet high with cobs filling fast and will certainly be top quality whatever the hay is like.
Swiss farmers’ effort is certainly worth the high subsidy the government pays them to keep Switzerland looking so good. As always it puts us to shame in its tidiness.
*Dairy Co statistics