For most of us who produce milk, or those of us who produce about 80% of the milk, we are in the grip of a recession. The only people who are in a position to quantify the damage that is being done to our industry are those who supply us, people like banks, feed merchants and all the many others that supply our inputs.
There’s plenty of anecdotal stuff about cows for sale and bills not paid, but because there are thousands of family businesses affected it’s not easy to get an overall view. In a very similar position, but easier to quantify, is the steel industry, with 4000 jobs at stake and losses of £1 million a day on one site, and which are there for all to see.
So it’s affecting us all as individuals and we will all have individual solutions. That’s why the last two excellent articles in this magazine by Ian Potter are so important. We will all have, as individual businesses, different answers to the questions he poses, but the really important thing is that we ask ourselves those questions.
The idea of a long-term family ‘wish’ list is admirable and should be done before it’s too late. No one owes us a living as dairy farmers but neither do we, as dairy farmers, owe anyone an endless supply of cheap milk.
It’s fairly sure people will cease milk production for a variety of reasons. And there is nothing more forlorn, and a sort of monument to all this, than an unused bulk milk tank. I always used to think there was nothing more forlorn than a lambing shed after all the sheep had gone. All that focused activity for a couple of months and then nothing. Just a lot of paraphernalia littered about the place, empty aerosol canisters, broken syringes, a dead lamb slung over the gate.
The unused milk tank will be the dairy farmers equivalent of the empty lambing shed. Some people still have the old fashioned milk tanks with flat lids. These were probably, with hindsight, the best sort. You weren’t supposed to, but they were always very handy for putting things on. They were probably too handy, especially in the days when a dairy inspector turned up unannounced. Now, unused, they will make a really handy table, and there will be all that storage area underneath the lids where you can put naughty calendars and your very best spanners.
For those of us who moved on to cylindrical tanks, we were probably a bit hasty. I can’t see a use for one of them, unless you can sell it to a micro-brewery. Or you could cut the ladder off and go window cleaning. It wouldn’t take you far off the ground but it would be plenty high enough for me.
Of course, cutting edge farmers moved on to milk silos. I expect there will always be a market for these, as those that remain in milk inevitably get bigger. I’ve always had reservations about milk silos. I met a young dairy farming couple many years ago at a meeting, in Carlisle I think it was. He was telling me all about this great big milk silo he had. Which is the sort of thing we men do, if you follow my drift. And she says “have you any idea what it’s like if the silo is full of milk and you go to get a jugful for the house? There’s so much pressure there the jug is almost blown out of your hands and you get soaked through with milk. I only go for milk if I’ve got time for a shower and to change my clothes.”
There’s this woman in the village who has just had a baby, and she was telling me all about it. It’s surprising the things women tell me. It’s probably because they know I’m harmless. She is telling me she has too much milk for one baby. Ever the practical person (I was going to say ‘hands on person’, but I recognise I need to tread carefully here), so ever the practical person, I asked her what she did with it, the surplus that is. I also wanted to know how much too much she had but that could be more than she wanted to tell me.
“I have to milk it off,” she says. Sensing a commercial opportunity I ask her how much it’s worth. She says she has to give it to the baby unit at the local hospital. Sensing that she has my sympathetic ear, she says “You would think they would give you a decent price for it, milk is such a good, healthy, essential product.” I’m not going to tell you what we discussed next, but as regards milk I’ve got a good idea of just how she feels.