Dairy farmer’s bid to shake up the milk business

THE Waveney Valley was traditionally a thriving dairy region, its rich marshlands providing an ideal source of nutrition for the herds of cattle which, at one point, almost all farmers in the area possessed.

Today, the picture is more complicated and the pressure on margins has caused many farmers to rethink and sell up their animals to concentrate on more lucrative agricultural activities.

But a few Waveney stalwarts remain, among them Jonathan Crickmore, of Fen Farm, Bungay, who farms around 880 acres on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, and also raises some beef cattle. The farm’s arable land is used to grow feed for the livestock.

As the name of his farm suggests, his land is prone to flooding, and the April downpours have reduced the fields to a muddy quagmire.

For a while, he is forced to bring his herd back under cover, then a higher field, until the rains desist, but finally, the weather clears and the cattle can return to pasture.

There are around 850 head of cattle to look after. He is supported by Graham, his father, and farm workers Kevin Riches, Michael Frost and Lewis Rushmer.

Jonathan loves dairy farming. That - and his pumpkin-growing hobby - are a constant preoccupation.

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But making it pay is a struggle, and one which occupies much of his thoughts and energy.

He is working his way through the yard concreting lengths of it having already brought large areas under cover in order to help comply with legislation over the storage of manure. The rooves prevent the rain turning manure into slurry and the concrete floor means he can collect it more easily, and pile it up, in accordance with regulation, on his fields.

He’s selling, on a small scale, his own unpasteurised milk at the farm gate from a shed designed by wife, Dulcie (the couple have a baby boy, Arthur).

His next project is his maturing rooms, where he plans to create one of the UK’s only unpasteurised brie de meaux soft cheeses. He has been on courses, and is already making it on a small scale to test it out. He has an old milking parlour already earmarked for the task, and he talks enthusiastically about his plans to breathe new life into it, and reduce his dependency on the milk processors.

It’s a vote of confidence in an industry which this year was dealt another blow when processors sent farmers into a spin by dropping the farm gate price of milk within days of each other.

The price of milk - and where the marginal profits go to within the milk chain - has been souring relations for many years.

Despite the setbacks, Jonathan has continued to invest in the business and does see a bright, although challenging, future for it. He has been installing new fencing and new solar panels on the roof - a sign of his determination to continue.

The solar panels have been a particular - and almost flukish - success and he can hardly believe his own luck.

He had them installed in February by a company based in Framlingham, expecting a reduced subsidy: the price of the panels had dropped following a controversial Government decision to cut the feed-in tariff as part of its austerity measures.

But then a court battle resulted in a temporary reprieve and as a result, the panels, which he thought would take nine years to pay off, are likely to have paid for themselves within four and a half years. It was a flukish turn of events, but very welcome.

His aim is to make producing milk cheaper in order to make the farm more viable. With feed and fertiliser costs rocketing, he has his work cut out.

“I thought it was too good to be true,” he says. “But on the nice days we’re getting free electricity.”

He added: “It’s brilliant though. It’s really exciting to see the numbers going up. It costs us about �14,000 a year in electricity and money we’ll get back for the solar panels should pay the electricity bill and leave money over to pay the solar panels off.”

Jonathan is full of ideas. He would like dairy farmers to take the bull by the horns and work together more, through some kind of a national co-operative. He sees that as a means of taking control of their destinies, and no longer falling prey to sudden price drops.

For Jonathan, the nub of the financial problem for dairy farmers is rising input costs.

“I think where people have really been hit is the feed costs have rocketed in the last few years and that’s why the dairy industry as a whole has been under real pressure with supermarkets resisting putting it up in price and actually put it down as a loss-leader. It’s really damaged the dairy industry over the last 10 to 15 years.

“A lot of people have got fed up. The amount of dairy farmers that have shut over the last 10 years is huge.”

Jonathan has not been immune from the pressures.

He supplies Dairy Crest, which dropped its prices by 2p a litre. His cows annually produce about 2.2million litres, so at a stroke, his bottom line has dropped by about �44,000.

“The problem is you can’t plan anything. �44,000 can take the profits out of dairy farming just from four days’ notice and you can see why dairy farmers get fed up. We were ticking along quite nicely there.”

He adds: “I bet the majority of people don’t know what milk costs in a shop, but they buy it anyway. We are just talking 2p. No one would notice 2p on their milk.”

Right now, it’s the processors and the supermarkets who hold the power, he says.

“It would be a different story if every dairy farmer in the UK handed their notice in on the same day. You would soon have the power back in the dairy farmer’s hands,” he says.

In his view, the industry needs to look at ways of branding milk better, adding value through processing and start to export milk.

“There’s an absolutely collosal demand for milk in the world and why are we pulling our industry backwards by reducing our prices? It’s mad. We have got such a great climate for making milk. Why are we not making more of this industry?”

On the farm, he wants to change the make-up of the herd, and shift it away from the Holstein, a big milk producer which lacks some of the hardiness and versality he would like to see in his stock. Montebeliard is one of the breeds he has been looking at as an alternative. It’s as much to do with his own welfare concerns about the way the breed has been going as anything else, and shows the importance he places on ‘doing the right thing’. It’s a modern outlook, and shows his awareness of the importance of public perception in farming.

“The Holstein cow has got to the point where the cows produce so much milk that grass alone is not enough.

“The way the dairy industry has gone more and more cows spend more time in yards having a high energy diet. With that come other problems. Their bodies are under pressure and I think it’s really gone too far.

“My opinion is the cows produce too much milk,” he says.

“What we are working on now is to have a cow that produces less milk but the animal is a stronger animal and is going to live longer because at the end of the day, it’s better to have a cow that lives longer and gives less milk. I don’t think it’s a good image for the public to have - cows that are in yards all year round.”

Jonathan’s dairy has an 18,000 litre capacity. About 24 hours after birth, the calves are separated from their mothers and kept in their own pen with individual shelter until they are strong enough to enter a small communal pen with other calves. They are gradually weaned off milk and onto calf pellets. Male animals can be fattened for beef, while females can join the dairy herd.

It’s disappointing to him that the UK doesn’t have a healthier dairy industry.

For Jonathan, dairying is “more than just a job, it’s a lifestyle”, and, as the farm sits on marshland, it’s a natural and practical fit. Done well, it’s more profitable than the alternatives, he believes.

“I think in the long run it will come out good,” he says.

But farm gate price drops are taking their toll: “I think that’s one of the big reasons why people are fed up with the job. I think the average dairy farmer age is 65. Younger people don’t want to come into it. It’s a tough job. It’s not easy on those really frosty mornings trying to de-frost a milking parlour. I think you have got to be a little bit mad to be a dairy farmer.”