September 25, 2020

The UK dairy sector could replicate Ireland’s huge expansion

Farm expansion, animal welfare, and the future for small-scale producers was the focus of the recent Oxford Farming Conference’s (OFC) Bitesize Webinar held on Thursday 6 August.

The session, which examined the 1966 Conference theme ‘The Case for Expansion’, was chaired by OFC Director Tom Levitt; it was the third in a series of webinars that the OFC is hosting each month in the lead up to the first virtual conference in January 2021.

Mark Roach and Charlie Steer, Managing Director and Arable Manager respectively of Grosvenor Farms, joined Tom as panellists detailing how the business, which produces 90,000 litres of fresh milk daily and grow 6000-acres of crops, expanded to the size and scale that it is currently with more than 2,500 cows.

Originally working over four key units, Grosvenor started the expansion of their dairy unit in 2012. With work now complete, they have now doubled their output during this period and established themselves as Tesco’s single largest milk supplier.

“Expansion of the dairy has allowed us to look at the farm with fresh eyes. We have developed-out a world-class farming system and we’ve done that using resource-efficient farming,” said Charlie.

Although there are those in government and elsewhere, according to Mark, who believe agriculture is an inefficient industry, reliant on subsidy and a drain on the public purse, with a favourable Brexit, he believes that the future is positive for the UK dairy industry.

“UK dairy in the right regulatory trading framework, I feel, can be globally competitive. But we need to have a reasonably level playing field.”

The UK dairy sector could go further and match Ireland’s doubling of its dairy output, but it needs to avoid a supply chain only expansion that could see a price crash, said Mark:

“There is a possibility in the future that the four parts of the United Kingdom could have a totally different, fragmented agriculture policy and I think that would be to the detriment of the industry in terms of its growth and share of markets going forward. We need a coordinated approach across the industry to displace imports and grow exports.”

Contrary to general public perception, Mark said expansion of the farm had enabled them to invest in animal welfare benefits.

“We’ve seen a significant step up in all our animal health and welfare metrics we’re measuring. Fertility has risen 10%, mastitis rates are now below 10%, and we no longer use antibiotics for dry cows,” said Mark. “We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to build a brand-new dairy unit and we put a huge amount of research into how we were going to build the farm. You do not get high performance without high standards.”

However, he said expansion was not the only way forward for the industry and that smaller farms could be viable in the future too.

“I think it is more a case of how well you manage your farm, rather than scale. There are opportunities for all sizes to thrive going forward. It will be a competitive environment and we have to be good at what we do to develop our businesses.”

The 2021 OFC will be hosted as a digital one-day conference on 7 January 2021 and will celebrate its 75th anniversary since the first conference was held in 1936, with the cessations occurring during the war years. The next #OFCBitesize Webinar will debate the ‘The World, Its Food and My Farm’ on Thursday 3 September 12.00 – 13.00 and those wishing to register can do so here

The recorded debate is available to watch on the OFC website here