There has been a dairy herd at North Mead Farm for 54 years, averaging about 50 head – but it now numbers just 16 cows, as ill health and unrealistic prices are forcing Helen Webb to sell up.
Milk prices have fallen repeatedly in recent weeks, with Arla starting cuts that spread to all processors, with Dairy Crest yesterday announcing a 0.324ppl drop in two of its contract prices.
“I can’t do what I used to do,” says Mrs Webb. “We just don’t get paid enough for milk. It’s amazing how much work farmers put in to get a few pence back.”
The next step for the farm is not yet clear: “We’ve still got a few beef left so we’ll play about with them. I’m hoping that someone will offer me a job – I don’t want to be an ornament somewhere.”
And it’s that work ethic that she says is undervalued. Say what you like about energy costs, feed and maintenance, the work put in by farmers, all day, every day, is little recognised by a public isolated from the real source of the food they take for granted.
“If the public actually came to a farm for a day they’d go back half dead. Physical work is no problem, but there’s got to be the reward. And with milk prices as they are, that just isn’t there.”
Mrs Webb, who turns 52 this year, works solo on the farm, with occasional help from her nephew.
“I broke my hand recently and that made things more difficult. I had to get people in to help with the work but the cost was just too high.”
The latest price cuts have taken place against a backdrop of falling retail prices, though processors say this has little to do with their cuts. Instead, they blame global markets, with Dairy Crest pointing to a further £40/tonne drop in the price of cream in April.
The North Mead is a good herd of Holstein Freisans. When two of their “wonderful” home-bred January-calved cows went up for sale at Frome livestock market in late February, they produced “tremendous bidding” to top at £2,200 twice. Their third and fourth lactation cows realised £1,790 and £1,500 respectively. Last week, more “super” examples sold to £1,800.
“It’ll be sad to see them go,” said Mrs Webb, whose uncle, Ken, also gave up his dairy herd nearby six years ago. “I handle them twice a day and you come to know them as individual cows. We’re a small farm, so we know them all. They do their very best for you and they can’t do no more. We’ve still got a few left, which’ll be dried off and sold. The people who bought them got some excellent cows and I hope they have a good future with them.”
Despite Mrs Webb’s experiences, Frome auctioneer Trevor Rowland says few other farmers will be looking to quit dairying in what are “good times” for farming. “Prices are slipping but they’re still about 30ppl, and I know farmers who were operating when they were 24ppl, so they’ll keep going. But if prices keep slipping when winter comes, things might change. The rains pushed feed costs up but it was a good autumn for silage. We’ll see what happens”.
By Simon Copp