8,100-Cow 'Super-Dairy' Threatens (the Image of) British Farming

Image credit: Tony the Misfit

Think of the British countryside and your brain will most likely conjure up images of hedgerows, rolling hillsides, and small(ish) family farms. While Britain too has seen its fair share of "get big or get out" type pressure on farming, it has so far resisted the worst excesses of concentrated feedlot operations and mega-ranches. Yet while the average herd size in America may actually be shrinking due to the Great Recession and high corn prices, in the UK plans for a gigantic mega-dairy have many farmers worried for their livelihood.According to Tom Levitt of The Ecologist, the plans for the 8,100 cow mega-dairy by Nocton Dairies Ltd would, if given planning permission, constitute the single largest dairy in the country—producing over 250,000 litres of milk per day. And while early opposition has mostly been confined to the usual suspects of animal welfare groups and environmentalists, many farmers are beginning to get worried too—only these guys seem more concerned about their image than anything else:

"David Cotton, vice-chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), said the industry faced a 'dilemma' over the consumer reaction to industrial-style dairy farming. 'How much do we want to tell the public about dairy farming? The image they have at present is of cows being kept in fields all-year round when in fact most spend the six months of winter indoors.'"

Apparently research has shown that consumers would think twice about buying milk from cows that spend most of their time indoors. So it seems Mr Cotton is worried that the big guys will draw attention to how the rest of the industry operates too. To be fair, it's not just image that the farmers are concerned about. There is also a very real worry that such gigantic operations will shift the balance of power in the farming industry, forcing dairies to either get larger and larger, give up entirely, or to adopt a boutique model of farming for "niche markets" like organic consumers. The trouble is, organics doesn't want to be seen as a niche market anymore, at least not in isolation from the larger industry—the health of which is vital for overall farming sustainability:

"Phil Stocker from the Soil Association says while this may create a big point of difference for some dairy farmers, such as organic ones, it would also 'drag down' the majority of 'middle farmers'. He said small and medium-sized non-organic farms would be not be able to compete as the industry was pushed down a 'never-ending spiral of ever greater efficiency' to reduce milk costs. Without these smaller farms the opportunity for new entrants to come into dairy farming will also be lost and with it the next generation of farmers."

So it seems nobody is happy about the move to ever larger dairies—except perhaps the mega-dairy owners themselves. Interestingly, most farmers that Levitt spoke to don't blame Nocton Dairies for going big. It is, they say, the inevitable consequence of pressure from supermarkets and consumers for ever lower prices.

Something to chew on next time you get a pint of milk.

More on Sustainability and Dairy Farming
Great Recession Plus High Corn Prices are Changing the American Diet
Study Finds Meat and Dairy Create More Emissions than Miles
Waitrose Supermarket to Sell Only British Milk

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