Bad science can create mayhem for the farmers

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

IT WAS quite a week of weather last week; snow, ice, gales, and tornados! There were also reports of ‘thundersnow’, which occurs when thunder rumbles through snowstorms with lightning cutting through it to dramatic effect.

Last week’s weather and thundersnow came from very cold air from Canada and Greenland, sweeping over the Atlantic which is quite warm, creating the right conditions for the event. I was up in Glasgow for a couple of days, and it was very cold up there with snow arriving as the plane took off for Gatwick airport where it was considerably warmer on landing.

I was speaking at the ‘Semex Conference’ in Glasgow and a very well organised event it is; celebrating its 25th anniversary, it was sold out for several weeks. With NFU President Meurig Raymond and David Handley of Farmers for Action kicking off (literally), we were off to a fiery start with David Handley really giving it to all in the industry for not making sure dairy farmers had a proper price for their milk, and to dairy farmers themselves who failed to stick together and fight for their industry.

His strongest remarks (and I mean strong) were reserved for First Milk Co-op and in particular it’s farmer directors who he thinks very little of; he put it in a much a stronger and personal way! There were some of them in the audience and some serious debating took place for several minutes until the Chairman eventually brought it all under control. David Handley announced that he will be selling up and leaving the dairy industry in March after witnessing his colleagues turning from ‘Prince’s to Paupers’ in 18 months. It was a powerful speech, delivered with no notes and in 30 minutes he never faltered once.

After that and a cup of coffee the conference settled down to more technical and positive papers for the rest of the day and indeed the next day, where The Princess Royal attended and addressed the Conference.

A variation of papers from scientists, vets, market analysts, and myself followed, the highlight of which was a paper from a young sports guru at Loughborough University who has the science and data to show that milk is the perfect drink for recovery after exertion during sports. It is not only the perfect drink in terms of its make-up and balance for long distance sport but for short duress such as body-building or explosive sports activity as well. We need to promote this in a big way.

First Milk Co-op’s woes have been in the media all last week and at DairyCo’s HQ last Monday there were 5-6 calls waiting all day as the comms: team struggled to keep up. We have put together a help package for those who find their business in serious trouble after the announcement to postpone payment for two weeks as well as the milk price cut. First Milk will direct them to DairyCo and we will provide professional help to analyse and advise on how to cope.

There are many dairy farmers out there now who are wondering how they will survive and need some help to get over the next few months.

Whilst the world market is responsible for the price of milk to crash so spectacularly, many dairy farmers find it extremely frustrating that the 7% of milk traded across the world mostly from New Zealand sets the price. A drought in NZ could send prices up sharply, and such a small percentage of milk traded guarantees volatility.

Many are also pointing the finger at retailers for under-valuing our product and using it as a sales weapon for many years. Everyone needs milk on a daily basis and it pulls people in if you can offer it cheaply.

Its far worse with cheese, where retailers are making very large margins as the buying price is linked to that world price, and processors who made mature cheese with very expensive milk a year ago are losing a fortune in some cases.

Retailers are in fact now being accused of putting hundreds of suppliers at risk of going out of business as they continue their price war. The number of food and drink manufacturers in significant distress leapt by 92% in the last 12 months to a total of 1410 of which 1240 are small and medium sized businesses.

It is predicted that more than 100 will fail this year, as supermarkets call the shots and given that 3.6 million people work in the food industry someone ought to be keeping an eye on what is going on.

Asda and Sainsbury’s have started the New Year by announcing £450 million of price cuts to staples such as eggs, bread, and coffee.

Morrison’s who sacked its Chief Executive last week is part way through a £1bn campaign of price cuts, whilst Aldi and Lidl lead the way with Tesco (starring Drastic Dave) completely overhauling its entire business. Where will it end? In tears for many I’m afraid.

A leading bee expert and researcher at the University of Sussex, Norman Carreck, claims that the scientists who tested crop pesticides on bees in the laboratory which led to a ban on some of the most important pesticides in the cereal farmer’s armoury, gave them vastly too much in too short a time; totally unrealistic when compared to what bees may encounter in the field.

He compared it to the effect of a bottle of whisky, rather than being consumed moderately over a month or so, being drunk in one session with predictable results.

It is imperative that we do not have bad science in our industry, not only as it causes mayhem for farmers, as in the failed rape crops last autumn, but because people are losing faith with science in increasing numbers as it is, with plenty of active groups denigrating what they do not ‘believe’ in with some success. Producing food is a very important occupation and it is about time someone recognised that between poor science and de-valuing our products, we are heading for trouble as farmers and food companies go out of business.

I sat next to Imah Saled at the Semex Conference dinner; he was also speaking at the conference and told us about his dairy herd which is the largest in the world. Nadec dairy in Saudi has 65,000 cattle in total, 35,000 milking cows on 100,000Ha (250,000 acres). They milk three times a day, producing between 1.5 and 2 million litres of milk per day (depending on time of year)!

They have 6,000 employees from 30 different countries with 1,200 needed annually to maintain turnover. There was no dairy farm in Saudi until 1975, but they have made tremendous progress since then considering that during the day, temperatures can reach 50degrees in summer and the annual rainfall is three inches.

As irrigation is not sustainable in the long term, vast tracks of land are now bought in other countries (such as Africa) with fodder and feed for the dairy cows being shipped in; animal feed is subsidised in Saudi (otherwise the economics would not work).

Although shade and computer controlled sprinklers are in operation, heat stress is a big issue for the cows as the reduced temperatures are still around 30 degrees Celsius. 450,000 tonnes of feed is needed for the farm and they find that in the summer it is more difficult to get the rations balanced correctly for the cows as intakes are impaired by the heat.

They are going to expand by a further 15,000 cows this year.