The rise of mega-dairies in the UK

May 20, 2016

The UK dairy industry is currently in crisis. Supermarkets have driven the price of milk down to as low as 23p – well below the production cost of around 28p – meaning that for the last 12 months about one small dairy farmer has been going out of business a day. This is suggested to have led to the ‘stealth’ rise of mega-dairies with 700 or more cows in the UK. Raising cows in these controlled conditions housing them in giant sheds and confinement units as opposed to in open fields can increase yields by up to 50% thus overcoming the price differential between production costs and retail prices.

There are no definitive statistics as to how many mega-dairies exist in the UK to date, with neither the NFU nor Defra holding specific numbers. However, an investigation conducted by the Independent has identified at least 50 confinement units and 20 CAFO-style (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) facilities in the UK with more expected to emerge in the future. The largest of these facilities can hold over 2,000 cows and the majority keep cows indoors throughout the year.

The rise of mega-dairies in the UK is of great to concern to many as can be seen through public outcry in 2010 in response to a proposed 8,100 mega-dairy at Nocton, Lincolnshire. This plan was subsequently abandoned after the EPA raised concerns over the potential that nearby water systems could become polluted even after Nocton Dairies suggested they reduce the number of cows to 3,770. Similarly, in response to these newly emerging mega-dairies across the UK opponents have claimed these facilities put water and soil at risk of pollution, compromise animal welfare and damage the quality of life of those living in close proximity to these operations. Ian Woodhurst of World Animal Protection has commented that in CAFO’s ‘cows face an increased risk of udder infections and lameness and… their natural behaviours are inhibited and restricted’.

Proponents of the mega-dairies have struck back claiming there is evidence to support improved livestock health through constant surveillance of the cows by herdsmen and veterinary staff. The NFU have also criticised the Independent’s coverage of the issue, their dairy board chairman Rob Harrison asserting that to link scale and housing to low welfare is ‘a lazy assumption with no basis in fact’. He goes on to claim it is in fact the quality of management and stockmanship that determines welfare standards rather than the size of the farm and also that it is in farmers best interests that their cows are well looked after.

The issues surrounding mega-dairies in the UK has proven very controversial and just this week Romuald Schauber, the head of the European Milk Board, hascalled for the removal of EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan over his alleged mishandling of the dairy crisis. Peter Willes of Parkham Farms Partnership has suggested that the dairy industry is ‘ultimately driven by consumer choice’ and currently consumer choice necessitates the use of CAFO’s to meet demand. However, others have suggested a number of consumers would be prepared to pay a higher price for milk produced on smaller, high-welfare farms so the issue remains unclear.