Lowestoft: Dairy farmer sells off his loss-making herd

A north Suffolk farmer has taken the painful decision to abandon dairy farming and sell his cows after making a loss for the past four years.

John Collen marked the end of 60-years in the trade yesterday when he auctioned off about 200 cows from the Rookery Farm, Gisleham – as well as axing two workers.

Mr Collen said his herd at the farm near Lowestoft, had been running at a loss and could not see things getting any better.

He said: “We have not been making any money for about three or four years, and last year made a very big loss and that was the decider.”

He added: “One way or another we have had a dairy herd for about 60 years.

“Sending the cattle away to be sold will mean the end of a way of life, and there is a sense of sadness on the farm.”

Mr Collen keeps about 120 milking cows in a herd which, including followers, numbers around 200. But tomorrow they will head west to Bristol to be sold at auction.

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The dairy business at Rookery Farm has always been a family affair and part of the business at White House Farm. Mr Collen works the arable side, helped by his father, Bryan, while it is his uncle, Neville, who has run the dairy for many years.

Yet, the farm is set to become another depressing statistic for the milk industry in Suffolk and East Anglia as a whole.

Mr Collen said: “It will be part of our history gone. This is really wiping 60 years of history out.”

Although milk volumes have increased in Suffolk since 2004, the number of dairies has declined.

Across East Anglia, the total number of dairies has fallen from 528 in September 2002 to 222 today – a fall of 58pc. Suffolk has seen a dramatic reduction – 61pc – over the last decade.

In that period, 47 of the 77 dairies operating in 2002 have disappeared.

Cambridgeshire now has just seven. Norfolk had 122 producers in 2002 and now has 59.

Although the mainstay of the business is the arable side – Mr Collen farms about 1,500 acres and contract farms about 1,500-1,700 acres – he has always kept the dairy, which is medium in size by industry standards, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

The Collens cattle graze pastures both in the Waveney and the Hundred valleys.

“We are absolutely one of the last in the Waveney Valley,” he says. “If you look around the Waveney Valley area you’ll see eight out of 10 dairies have gone in the last five years because it’s not sustainable.

“The price of milk is low. You either get out or you expand big time.”

With the dairy’s value dwindling, Mr Collen estimates that they would have needed to spend about �500,000 on modernisations and improvements to stay ahead of the game.

He added: “We were lucky if you like that we had the arable end, that we were able to offset the losses or the lack of income for a longer period.”

The Collen family started out as tenant farmers on the Somerleyton estate, but moved to Gisleham in 1962.