Suffolk Show Countdown: Crisis-hit dairy farm gearing up for Suffolk Show 2016

John Smith with his Ayrshire Champion-Any Other Dairy.
Champions at Day two of the suffolk show.

John Smith with his Ayrshire Champion-Any Other Dairy. Champions at Day two of the suffolk show. - Credit: Archant

An Essex dairy farmer battling against the odds to keep going in the face of low milk prices says he is looking forward to competing at this year’s Suffolk Show – in spite of the state of the industry.

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now really suffering as a result of the global milk crisis, despite a considerable increase in yields and efficiency. - Credit: Su Anderson

Last year John Smith, of Wigboro Wick Farm, Clacton-on-Sea, enjoyed a rare moment of cheer in what was a difficult year for his own dairy farm and the UK industry as a whole after his Ayrshire and Jersey cows took reserve and third place in the supreme dairy interbreed championship at the show. Each had triumphed the day before in their respective Any Other Pure Dairy Breed and the Jersey championships.

He is hoping to compete again this year with his Jersey cow Kinder Amity Molly 2 and Ayrshire, Acton Navigator Heather Honey. He also has a champion heifer, Holstein Tabitha, which he is hoping to take this year.

“We are looking forward to going. It will be a nice break,” he said.

“I don’t know how, but we are going to try and trump last year. I think our cows are looking even better.”

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now really suffering as a result of the global milk crisis, despite a considerable increase in yields and efficiency. - Credit: Su Anderson

The Smiths invested about a million pounds in new milking facilities for their 250-strong dairy herd not long before the milk price crashed last year. The family had no option but to either renew their plant or get out of the industry, explained John, but the business was left with a headache after the price of milk, along with other commodities, plummeted to well below the 28p a litre that they were expecting.

“The milk price is still shocking,” he said. “It’s even worse than it was. We are now at just 21.5p a litre and we are one of the lucky farmers. There are so many farmers as low as 14p.”

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John is a member of dairy firm Arla, a European farmer co-operative with around 3,000 British members which produces a range of products including Cravendale milk and Lurpak butter, and this has insulated him slightly from some of the worst effects of the dairy crisis.

It means he has a guaranteed price for his product, although this is much lower than it was, and the situation continues to be very challenging for the business.

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now

Dairy farmer John Smith's family put in a new dairy unit last year at a cost of £1million but is now really suffering as a result of the global milk crisis, despite a considerable increase in yields and efficiency. - Credit: Su Anderson

“We are still struggling. We are struggling to pay the bills. We take each day as it comes. We have had to sell some cows where they are not profitable,” he said.

“We have got rid of 14 in just two weeks and another seven in the next two or three weeks.”

Each cow has been assessed on its productivity. Farm labour has been cut to the bone which means longer hours for John, who works from early morning until 7.30pm, while his father, Philip, does a last check on the herd at 12.30am. His mother, Christine, has also been called on to help out. She is involved in running a children’s nursery, and her income from that has been vital in helping to keep things going during the crisis.

The family has taken out a loan to help it through the crisis. Luckily, feed prices are also low at the moment. An expert goes through their costs with them every six weeks and they look for ways to keep them down, said John.

“We go through absolutely everything – it does worry me,” he said.

But he added: “If we pulled the plug that would be even more stupid.”

There are hopes that things may start to pick up towards the end of the year, but until then, it would be “survival of the fittest”, he predicted, with some dairy farms, particularly smaller ones, calling it a day.

“I think if you start doubting what you are doing, that’s when you are in trouble,” he said. “We are hanging on in there.”

On Wednesday, John took part in a protest march in London organised by Farmers for Action aimed at highlighting the plight of the industry. (see page 3)

National Farmers’ Union dairy board outgoing chairman Rob Harrison said the next few months would be extremely tough for the sector.

“We desperately need help from the Government and the European Union who must both do more to ensure a sustainable future for the dairy sector and help make tools available for farmers to manage volatility,” he said.