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GRAHAM TURNER: Farmers (and cows) pay the price for cheap milk

A personal view
A personal view

For more years than I care to remember, I’ve happily poured milk over my breakfast cereal and tucked in, free to think about the day ahead, listen to the radio or read the paper.

However, that all changed this week as milk moved to the top of the Turner family’s food agenda.

Of course, I knew that our dairy industry is in crisis – every time a supermarket reduces the price of milk, there’s an almost audible squeal from the farming community; the pips being squeezed a bit more. That happened again this week as ASDA cut the price of four pints (2.27 litres) to 89p.

ASDA – and the other chains that will surely follow suit – argues that it will ‘take the hit’ on its profit and farmers will continue to be paid the same price for their milk. And, like most people, I was probably happy to go along with that, but my mind was changed earlier this week when, by chance, I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4.

The Today programme spoke to a farmer who was clearly desperate about the situation in his industry, explaining how most producers were now being paid less per litre for milk (around 25-26p) than it actually cost to produce (about 30p).

The downward pressure was not just about the price, he said, but also the value which we put on the product. Consumers simply expected milk to be cheap.

It’s meant dozens of small producers going out of business every month, unable to make a living from their herds and it’s why some of the biggest milk producers are leaving traditional farming methods behind.

On top of the Today interview, I coincidentally read an article about the consequences of this pressure on dairy farming and how it’s led to an increase in the numbers of cows being kept indoors for their whole lives – zero-grazing.

A number of supermarkets are now selling milk from giant farms where the cows never see daylight and though I’m sure the people behind these ‘factories’ will claim that animal welfare is their top priority, it is clearly not right that a grazing animal should spend its whole life without seeing a field of grass or feel the warmth of the sun on its back.

There are other issues with dairy farming that animal pressure groups will point at, but this is one where I can make my own choice.

Of course, the labels on milk cartons will only say in the most general terms where the milk comes from and not whether the cows are zero-grazed. Perhaps that will come eventually, but in the meantime, I will accept that Marks & Spencer and Waitrose were telling the truth to the report’s author and only buy milk from herds which are grazed outside.