BFTF is sure that you have all heard of children who think that milk milk comes from ASDA, not from cows.
Perhaps this article can help to correct any such misconceptions by providing an insight into the life of one of Britain's Dairy Farmers.
The farmer in question is 2005 “Farmer of the Year” Award winner Andy Guy who, together with his other half Sue, run a specialist dairy farm with some 110 cows on around 80 hectares near Southwell in Nottinghamshire.
As part of the LEAF network (linking Environment and Farming) they are champions for farming and have had visits from groups as diverse as Anglican Bishops and School children.
BFTF kicked off the interview by asking Andy for a little more information about LEAF. He told us that
“LEAF is a charity which promotes environmentally responsible farming and so it’s a farming system means that we try to consider the environment with everything that we do on the farm”
Andy then went on to describe the type of cattle that he had on the farm.
“We keep about 100 milking cows, pedigree Holstein cows, that’s the black and white cow that you’re probably familiar with...”
At this point BFTF jumped in, sure from it's primary school education that black and white cows are in fact called “Fresians”, but Andy explained that
“A Holstein is a development on from a Friesian. A Friesian is more of a dual purpose cow. It produces quite good beef but quite good milk, but in these days of specialisation farmers have improved the breeding over the years and created almost a new breed and that’s the Holstein cow, which is really a specialist milking cow”
Now thoroughly confused, BFTF asked whether the cows we saw wile driving up and down the Motorway were Fresians of Holsteins? Andy patiently explained that
“Mostly these days they’ll be Holstein cows … still some Friesian cows about … they’re not a rare breed or anything like that … but mostly they’ll be Holstein cows these days”
Having got that cleared up, the conversation moved on to how the cows spent their time...
”During the winter we keep them in the building. When the grass stops growing and the ground starts to get muddy and that kind of thing you can imagine 100 cows going through a gateway or getting to a water trough it makes a pretty good mess so it’s a necessity really to keep them in but actually they’re quite soft as well and I think they really appreciate it once the weather gets really wet and windy. They don’t mind cold but they don’t like rain and wind so once the weather gets really grim in probably late September or early October they’ll be housed for the winter and we’ll provide them all their dietary needs and things in the farmyard."
And what might these housed cows be eating ?
“In the winter they eat silage which is basically pickled grass and that makes up probably three quarters of their diet and the rest we balance up just like you and I do they need a balanced diet so they have to have all the right amounts of protein and energy and that kind of thing so we balance it up with other sources of protein and energy so they’ll get a little bit of soya and whole crop wheat silage which is silage that we’ve made out of wheat during the summer time, sugar beet pulp, that kind of thing. All natural vegetarian stuff - The days of feeding them fish meal and meat and bone meal and things are long gone … we’ve learned from mistakes in the past”
BFTF wondered whether this was the case for all farms and were told that
“It’s illegal and barmy to feed them anything but wholesome vegetarian stuff nowadays so you could be confident that any of the milk or dairy products that you’re buying in well any shop in the UK, as long as it’s come from UK sources anyway, is produced to those sort of standards. - The UK dairy market now is pretty well regulated and nearly all the dairy farmers are producing to what’s known as the national dairy farm assured scheme and your listeners will be familiar with the little red tractor logo I suspect and that’s what we need to produce to in order to meet that tractor logo standard so nearly all the producers are working to those standards now, you can be confident that if it’s bearing that symbol then it’s responsibly produced these days.
Having got an outline of the way he cows were looked after, it was now time to turn our attention to the milk. BFTF first asked for a little introduction to how the market had changed from the days of the Milk Marketing Board,
“It’s changed a lot since those days, the milk marketing board was a monopoly and was operated by the government since, well really since the 1930s and it was brought in to produce a stable market and a regular supply of wholesome milk and dairy products. It was brought in for a good reason but these days monopolies are not really the thing that any government supports, that’s not a party political statement, any government would work against a monopoly I think, and so the market was deregulated and nowadays there’s lots of people and lots of companies buying milk from dairy farmers and processing it and selling it on to the supermarkets, but supermarkets are making up probably something in excess of 80% of the market place now. They sell retail most of the milk and dairy products so it’s a slightly out of balance market I think, we’ve got four or five big supermarkets buying all of the milk from thousands and thousands of small farms and unfortunately that does have an impact on the dairy farmer. It’s very difficult to negotiate a good price with such a big organisation like that.”
Moving to a sustainability point of view, BFTF asked how comsumers could support dairy farmers in such an unfair market?
“The biggest thing you can do is vote with your feet, or at least with your purse anyway. If you’re buying liquid milk then it’s nearly certainly to come from British farms because it’s very difficult to transport it very far, but you can make a big difference when you’re buying yoghurts and cheeses and things like that and if you make sure that those are British produced and they’re either carrying the little red tractor logo or they say on the label that they’re produced in Britain from British milk then that makes a difference and sends a message to the supermarket because ultimately what the supermarket wants is to sell products, they don’t actually care very much whether it comes from Brazil or Venezuela or New Zealand or England.”
Andy felt that this kind of action really did make a difference, saying that
“at the end of the day I think what the supermarket is most interested in is what goes through the till at the checkout - They don’t care what you buy as long as you buy so Buy British “
Touching on another topical...er....topic, BFTF asked about organic milk and it's alleged benefits,
“Of course. Well organic is another farming system and it’s a strictly regulated farming system, there’s a rule book that goes with it and the result of the rules that are applied to farmers means that output from farms is generally lower than it would be under conventional techniques and therefore produces a more expensive product at the end of the day. Now we’re not organic and we’re farming in a way which we believe is environmentally responsible and the welfare of our animals is very high on our list of priorities so I think ultimately it all depends on why a consumer or a buyer wants to buy organic products. If they’re buying them for environmental or welfare reasons well I personally don’t believe that organic milk is any better than my own. My milk is wholesome, there’s no antibiotics in the milk that we sell ... no residues or anything like that and it’s a wholesome product, but at the end of the day it’s up to the choice of the consumer isn’t it. If they want a product that’s produced in a particular way and they understand what those rules mean then I think they can buy that product, it’s a free market isn’t it?
And what is Andy's view about "Food Miles"?
“Food miles really don’t work do they if you’re going to import an organic product all over the world especially if it’s something that can be produced perfectly well in this country. It’s different if you’re importing mangoes or something that doesn’t grow here, but if we’re talking about milk and cheese really it should be produced here shouldn’t it? My own feeling, we don’t buy organic products ourselves because we’re consumers of course as well, we don’t buy organic products because I don’t really feel that they’re better than the conventionally produced products.”
Moving to something completely different, BFTF asked Andy to tell us a little more about the history of the farm. Andy began his response by explaining how things were before the war,
“there were four or five people working here still using horses on the land, they had dairy cows actually, we’ve always had dairy cows as long as the family’s been farming here but back before the war there was about 20 dairy cows on this farm and they also had beef and sheep and goats and geese and all sorts of things, a real Old McDonald sort of thing. And over the years it’s gradually specialised more and more in what it does best really. The soils and the climate that we’ve got here suits dairy farming quite well and is less appropriate for arable farming and producing potatoes and that kind of thing. The soil is a heavy clay so you can imagine that trying to dig root crops up in a wet autumn.”
Andy then went on to tell us about how the amount of milk produced by the cows had changed. . .
"Before the war they were producing maybe 3,000 litres per cow and now they average nearly 8,000 litres per cow, so a dramatic difference and a lot of that probably in the last 20 years, that’s the biggest change. Farmers have been able to understand genetics as well much better and breed for better cows. We’re not talking about genetically modified cows this is natural breeding and natural selection. And then there’s technology and being able to feed these cows. A cow producing 8,000 litres of milk is really working like an athlete, she’s working hard, and it’s the technology that has allowed us to feed the cows properly and analyse the nutrients that are in her diet and that kind of thing and you can make an analogy with an athlete maybe, say, Paula Radcliffe running a marathon, she doesn’t do it on fish and chips and Mars bars, she has a very carefully controlled diet and our cows are much the same these days. Cows are much easier than people they don’t like variety, they like the same thing every day so that makes life a bit easier.
BFTF then asked about the lifespan of the cows and were told that. . .
“Well it varies of course. The oldest cow I ever heard of was 27 years old. We’ve got several teenagers in the herd, that’s not unusual at all. So they have a calf each year and they need to have a calf in order to produce milk, just like any mammal, so as long as we can still have a calf and we can produce wholesome milk from the cow then we’ll keep her in the herd and keep going. That’s one of the nice things about dairy farming actually because you get a real relationship with the cows. It’s 100 cows and to the untrained eye they all look the same but we get to know the characters and we know who each cow is and how she’s going to behave and what she’s going to do so it’s quite nice to build the relationship with the herd like that."
Calves was something that BFTF wanted to know a little more about so we asked for a little more info. .
“They stay with their mums for the first two or three days I guess on this farm until they’ve had their first milk that gives them all the antibodies and things to set up their immune system and by that time by the third day mum’s producing a lot more milk than the calf needs so we take mum away at that point and she joins the herd she’ll come back to the calf at night time and look after the calf at night maybe for the rest of that week. At the end of the week we take the cow away, she’ll go back to the herd and we’ll start feeding the calf milk manually. It’s still whole milk, it’s coming from the cows but it’s maybe not her mum’s milk, it’s just surplus milk from the milking herd and the cow joins the rest of the herd and they’re gregarious animals so they’d rather be with the herd than just on their own."
We had head a lot about the work farmers do to protect the environment so BFTF asked whether his work with LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) was related to this?
“We’re all the time with every farming decision we’re not just thinking about the commercial aspects of the business, those are the principal influences because we have to make a living, but we try at the same time to consider the implications for the environment and society around us all at the same time. The result of that is the careful management of hedgerows and the margins around our field, which is where most of the wildlife and wildflowers tend to live. It influences the way we manage those parts of the farm and the net result is quite dramatic, we’ve got I think 67 species of bird visiting our farm. We’re not a big farm we’re 200 acres, which is a relatively small farm but 67 species of bird on the farm and something like 23 butterfly species as well. It’s quite gratifying to see that thriving at the same time as our commercial farming operation."
This all sounded very impressive so BFTF asked how this compared to an ordinary farm?
“I think that’s a little bit higher than you’d expect on some farms. I think certainly in the East Midlands most of the farms are much larger than ours and most of them actually don’t have livestock on them, they’re arable farms and so that limits the amount of habitat and the variety of habitat that you have on a farm. With a livestock farm like ours we do grow crops so you get all of the bird species and insect species that live in crop habitat but we’ve also got the grassland, we’ve got red clover growing on the farm and lots of other opportunities in the hedgerows and trees and that kind of thing, so we do get a bigger variety on a farm like ours than you would on a specialist arable farm.”
Lastly, BFTF asked for a little more information about the types of visitors they had had on the farm,
“We’re open all year round, it’s absolutely free. As long as you can get a group, we’d like to have a minimum of ten people, that sort of thing. No maximum, so if all your listeners want to come they might have to come in shifts but we’ll share them all round. We’ve had a huge variety of people. We get everybody from the W.I. and the local primary schools, to a bunch of bishops from all around the world. They were in sandals and all sorts of things. It was quite bizarre! You’re very welcome to visit us and you can find out more from the LEAF website (www.leafuk.org).”
This post is based on a BFTF interview with Andy on Radio Dawn 107.6FM in 2009, which was also subsequently used as the basis for an article in the Invitation Magazine.