Gisleham: Farmer John Collen on a difficult decision to sell up the dairy herd

HOW we diary producers would like a bit of volatility.

While arable crops have had uncertainty over prices, at least they have fluctuated between barely break even to return a reasonable level of profitability.

Milk price to the producer has, on the other hand, flatlined at a level insufficient to cover the cost of production and, in our own case, has generated a significant loss. This despite a herd average of 9000 litres, with a significant amount produced from low cost grass food. Capital investment into the dairy herd has also been kept at the level to provide reasonable milking conditions for the Herdsman, and a comfortable environment for the cows, without over-stretching costs.

Unfortunately, despite this, we have still clocked up significant losses on the dairy herd and, regrettably, like many other milk producers in East Anglia, we have taken the decision to quit milk production on July 3, when the cows will be transported to the south west to be sold into herds suffering from losses of high numbers due to the TB eradication in that area.

The herd was established as long ago as 1945, and has grown through the generations from about 30 cows milked by hand to the 130+ milked today through a 14 x 14 Herringbone Parlour, which allows the whole herd to be milked in just over two hours.

The decision to sell has been even more difficult because of the human effect, not only on our family, but also with the herdsman, who has devoted most of his working life to this herd. This is even harder, as we have no alternative position for him and, therefore, for the first time in our farming business, it has been necessary to issue a redundancy notice. The trauma to our herdsman must be very high indeed.

None of this guarantees us profitability in the future and many decisions have to be made as to what to do with the 120 acres of grassland, which is in the environmental scheme to retain a diverse landscape and environmental area. Some of this could be returned to arable cropping, which might arguably be of increased benefit to wildlife by providing an alternative food source. Perhaps it could be retained as grass land to be used as feed stock for anaerobic digestion turning crops into energy.

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Maybe, someone else might be keen to hire the grazing for an alternative livestock enterprise. Or maybe we should consider a recreational use eg, horse paddocks, which might also give us a use for the buildings as livery stabling. Perhaps, we could create a lagoon suitable for irrigating the arable area, whilst also supplying a good fishing lake. Meanwhile, we shall turn all our energies into producing food for human consumption from our arable land.

The day the cows leave this farm will be very emotional, and I’m sure a few tears will be shed. However, in order to safeguard our entire business, the losses from the dairy herd needed to be curtailed.

The decision to sell, when taken, was difficult and made with a very heavy heart. But since then, as the price of milk to the producer has dropped a further 2p per litre, this, has, I believe, vindicated our decision.

At the time of writing, the British weather is also demonstrating its range of unpredictable diversity by alternating between floods and droughts on a regular basis. While this can be challenging, it is also one of the aspects which makes farming in England continue to be enjoyable enough to overcome the setbacks.