By Pamela Mason
Can milk sold in a supermarket be local? The answer is both yes and no. Hardwick Farm near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, which I visited in the spring, produces milk for Tesco. So when people in Monmouthshire buy milk from Tesco labelled with a Welsh dragon, some – an unknown, and anonymous – portion of the milk could have come from Hardwick Farm or one of the 80 other dairy farms in Monmouthshire that have a Tesco contract.
Hardwick Farm is a family-run dairy farm about a mile from Abergavenny. Farmer David Jones has 150 milking cows – so not a large herd by modern standards – that produce a total of 4000 litres of milk a day. He milks with robots which allows the cow to decide her own milking time and interval, rather than being milked as part of a group at set milking times. The milking unit consists of a milking machine, a teat position sensor, a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application and removal, and a gate system for controlling cow traffic. The cows are milked for 10 months a year during which time they are housed in a barn where the robotic milking machine is located. When the cow decides to enter the milking unit, a cow ID sensor reads an identification tag on the cow and passes the cow ID to the control system. The cow’s teats are automatically cleaned, the milk cup is applied to the teat which is followed by milking and finally teat spraying.
This system removes the need for manual labour in milking and the cows are milked up to four times a day. This method of milking has become increasingly popular and the price of a robotic unit is currently about £100,000. The cows at the Hardwick are fed a silage mix of 50:50 grass and maize, all of which is grown on the 500-acre farm. The ratio of feed consumed to milk produced is similar to that with a traditional milking parlour, with increased efficiency lying in the reduced labour. The only addition to the feed is a 3 per cent protein concentrate. The farm also grows wheat and rape seed for sale off the farm.
The milk is collected from the farm by the dairy processor, Muller, then taken for processing and packaging at the Muller depot in Bridgewater, Somerset, some 74 miles away. Milk prices paid to farmers have fluctuated during recent years from around 38 to 18p per litre, reflecting the investment put in to the industry when prices were high, the consequent increase in production, followed by a fall in prices. Tesco bases its payment to farmers, which is currently [April] 28.7 pence per litre, on the cost of production, which includes feed, fertiliser, fuel, veterinary costs and depreciation. Tesco updates the prices every three months and farmers submit invoices to an independent consultancy to allow an average price for milk to be calculated.
Tesco, like many milk purchasers, is starting to ask questions about antibiotic use. Antibiotic resistance is increasing and farmers have a contribution to make in tackling this issue, particularly by reducing the use of antibiotics critical in human medicine. At Hardwick Farm sand is used as bedding. Sand does not support the growth of bacteria such as E. coli and Strep uberis that cause mastitis, thus reducing the need for antibiotics.
David thinks that Brexit could provide an opportunity for dairy farmers. The UK has the second largest net dairy deficit in the world, behind China. This trade deficit is largely driven by cheese imports, which made up around half of the value of the UK’s total dairy imports in 2015. The UK also imports significant quantities of infant formula, butter, yoghurts and buttermilk while exporting milk and cream. This deficit could possibly be reduced by making available more of the British milk supply for home consumption at the expense of imports, but this is dependent to some extent on milk prices. David thinks Brexit will not cause a problem for dairy farmers in the short term. In the longer term, however, if farm payments are retained in Europe but not in Britain this would make it difficult to maintain standards of animal welfare. For now, he seems happy with his Tesco contract.
During the recent BBC TV Milk Man series of programmes, Gareth Wyn Jones also discussed Welsh dairy farmers who have contracts with Tesco http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dzwzc.
Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.