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FG 175: A closer look at the changing face of the British dairy industry

The dairy industry has seen huge changes over the years which include herd development, genomics and other technological advancements.


Farmers Guardian charts some of the most significant milestones...

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FG 175: A closer look at the changing face of the British dairy industry



ORIGINATING in south-west Scotland, the Ayrshire breed was first recorded on an official basis in the 1870s.


The classic Ayrshire was recognised as the ‘ultimate, economic’ dairy cow, noted for her strong udder formation and femininity.




GUSTAV de Laval patented the world’s first cream separator.




DESPITE there being no definitive type for black and white cattle when the British Holstein Society was first launched in 1909, the Friesian quickly became the preferred breed and one which would be used as a model for future breeding decisions.


It was selected on the back of a member trip to Holland. The society was renamed the British Friesian Cattle Society in 1914, and the importation of bulls continued to be influential.




THE first milking machine with pulsating vacuum was introduced.

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FOLLOWING the First World War came the great agricultural depression.


The dairy industry was fragmented – there was no co-ordinated means of selling milk, and while some of the purchasers, particularly in London, amalgamated and got larger, farmers were very much selling and transporting milk at the price of whatever the purchaser wanted.


Prof Liam Sinclair, principal lecturer in dairy at Harper Adams University, says: “It resulted in a lot of unprofitable times and a lot of people lost money and left the industry.”


The Government provided several different schemes to try and provide more of a framework towards milk pricing, but they were often not adhered to.




THE world’s first rotary parlour was installed on a farm in New Jersey, USA.




THE Agricultural Marketing Act of 1933 was established to place agriculture on a basis of economic equality with other industries.


It brought with it the Milk Marketing Board, which gave structure to the sector and allowed it to become more of an industry, rather than just individuals having some cows and selling milk.




THE advent of artificial insemination in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a gamechanger in genetic selection.



POST-war years saw the introduction of milking parlours, and about that time frozen bull semen for use in artificial insemination was also introduced.




TAKE off of the first herringbone parlours. In 1967, foot-and-mouth disease prompted many farmers who lost their cows during the outbreak to switch to Holstein cows.




WHEN the UK entered the European Economic Community there were a number of incentives for farmers to leave the industry.


Between 1970 and 1980, the number of dairy producers fell from about 100,000 to 56,000.




SHOPLAND Edleet Ruth 6 (owned by Les Smith, Dennis Smith’s father - see in the field panel) was the first, and remains the only cow to be classified the perfect 100 points.




THE Friesian overtook the Dairy Shorthorn and the Ayrshire in popularity, and by 1979 there were more than 200,000 female registrations per year.




THE UK hit its peak milk production of 17 billion litres – the most it has ever produced.



MILK quotas were introduced, which had a large effect on the UK dairy industry.


Quotas caused a big reduction in the number of farmers and, while milk yield did not really change, herd sizes decreased and farmers were only able to produce about 89 per cent of what they had been doing.


Up until 1990, the only real change to the industry was the number of farmers who quit.




BY 1988, records showed 76 per cent of UK dairy cows were parlour milked.


Throughout the 1980s, however, there were still a number of cows which were hand-tied and milked.




IN 1990 cow numbers started to decrease quite rapidly – and the trend is still ongoing today.


The 1990s saw a development towards a better system of being able to select cows based on their profitability index.


Prof Sinclair says: “That caused quite an increase in what farmers could select for milk production and subsequently helped fertility.”


1993 saw the end of the Milk Marketing Board and, in 1995, the registered number of UK dairy farms was 35,741.





THE industry welcomed the introduction of genomics, which has allowed farmers to select animals more intensively and faster based on their DNA profiles.




MILK producers protested on the streets over the low milk price.




MILK quotas disappeared and farmers were stimulated to increase milk production again. The number of registered dairy farms in England and Wales fell to 9,914.




THE first robotic rotary parlour was installed in the UK.




COMPARED to 1973, milk production has about doubled, herd size has increased by a factor of about four, and the UK is home to six or seven times fewer cows.


There are currently 8,610 producers in the UK.


In the field: Dennis Smith, Exeter

In the field: Dennis Smith, Exeter

DENNIS Smith, Exeter, 66, recalls some of the major changes he has seen in the dairy industry.


Mr Smith has been farming on his council holding for 30 years and his Oakroyal herd of Holsteins has been recognised with achievements such as several Master Breeder awards, and in 2018, it took the Holstein UK Premier Herd title.


Mr Smith says: “When I got the farm I already had cows and I needed somewhere to keep them. The cows came first, then the farm.”


Mr Smith says the herringbone parlour and the introduction of cubicles were the start of the move to a new era.




Mr Smith says: “The herringbone parlour caused improvement in type because cows which could be milked in abreast parlours and cow sheds were no longer suitable, such as those with wide front teats.


“Breeding had to change. The herringbone parlour allowed us to milk many more cows, faster. I would say it nearly halved the time spent milking. It is something we take for granted now.”


Mr Smith went to work with Holsteins in Canada at the age of 19.


He says: “I really appreciated the Holsteins for their great udders and excellent bone quality.


“Ben Cooper, who was one of the first people to import bulls and females from Canada, imported a bull called Normead Reflection Sovereign and showed its daughters at the Bath and West Show. The udders on these cows were so much better than we were used to.


“Udder texture is something we take for granted these days, nearly all cows have great udder texture now but back in the 60s they had fleshy udders. Flesh and milk do not mix, the moment you fill them up with milk the udder starts to give.”


For many dairy farmers, Dairy Shorthorns and Ayrshires had been replaced with British Friesians, but the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 1967 prompted many farmers to restock with Canadian Holsteins instead.


Mr Smith says: “Now we are in the robot age, if I was to continue farming I would definitely be investing in a robot. Not only to save labour, but for the care of the cow.


“All cows milked with robots are relaxed and frequent milking takes the pressure off their udders.


“I am not worried about the future of dairy. Go to any show and there are so many keen youngsters.”

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