Tuesday, 19 October 2010


What ho! What news? Wat Tyler! What?

Listening to Farming Today on BBC Radio 4 each morning at 5.45, as you do . . . what? Yes, that's right, 5.45am. Why? Well, I haven't actually farmed since 1986, but old habits die hard and it's good to keep in touch. Besides, farming is just gardening, only bigger.

If you try milking me you'll get a nasty surprise!

Anyway, as I was saying: –
Listening to FT, one of the few programmes in which BBC journalism seems to have kept its cutting edge – and no, I'm not being sarcastic, we live in the post-Hutton Whitewash era, remember – I was struck by the bizarre and positively La-la-land nature of a couple of the stories.

First, the Irish one.
I gather that some government bright spark in Dublin has discovered that the Emerald Isle isn't so named because of green precious stones in its rocks but rather, because it grows better, lusher grass than anywhere else - apart from Kentucky where, apparently, it's blue. This is hardly surprising, since it rains every dam' day, in Ireland. And what eats grass? Why cows, of course! And Bingo! Up pops this absolutely brilliant idea. Cows make milk, you see, as well as eating grass.

So Ireland has decided that it will step up its production of . . . yes! Well done! You're there! Milko!!! The government aim is to increase Irish milk production by a staggering 50% and thus, with this new-found, tuberculin-tested, brucellosis-free white gold, the troubles of the recession and economic Euro-ruin will simply surf themselves away to bliss on a tidal wave of rich, double dairy cream. Brilliant!

And ye-e-e-t. Just a couple of minuscule little cautionettes occurred to me as I lay in bed, cocking an inquiring eyebrow at the wireless. First, doesn't Ireland already have the highest per capita milk production on earth? And doesn't she already have, thereby, a massive surplus of dairy products to dispose of? And is not the Western World increasingly resistant to the White Stuff, particularly as butterfat has this slightly annoying tendency to clog up people's arteries and stymie their hearts?

Oh, and another little questionette: Ireland's neighbours, the British dairy producers,are already dropping OUT OF BUSINESS at the rate of approximately two farms per week, partly because the current cost of producing a litre of milk is around two pence higher than the average price paid by the processor who in turn is being squeezed by the supermarket which flogs milk as a loss leader.

What will they do with the even more massive Irish surplus, I wonder. It's an awful lot of stuff, even for buttering up Brussels officials as much as they do.

Can you run cars on cream? Or will those vast lakes of cow-crap end up having more value as a potential source of natural gas, than Kerrygold butter? Maybe they could use that and stop burning 7.5 million tonnes of peat, each year, in their power stations?

Got your tulips in yet? If not, it's time you did.
Nothing to do with farming, but this is a gardening blog!

And just before we finish our milk, FT has been covering news about planning applications, in Lincolnshire, to build massive, intensive dairy farms at Nocton Heath (for 8,000 dairy cows) and at South Witham for 3,000. Plans for the former are temporarily withdrawn, but I believe will be re-submitted. In response to these grandiose farm schemes, one of the BBC producers has been to see even bigger - much, much bigger - intensive dairy operations in Indiana USA.

I have to admit to horrendously mixed feelings about all this. Having been directly involved in agriculture, for a very long time – both in the feed industry, and as a farmer – and having seen lots of livestock operations of all sizes, both in Britain and in other parts of the world, I'm unable to take a simplistic view.

The townsperson's notion is that cows will happily munch grass in fields, and that will be turned into pure natural milk. But in the real world, the worst cases of animal neglect, abuse and downright appalling husbandry that I ever saw were almost always on small, under-capitalised family operations. On one or two of such apparently fairy tale grass farms, I've seen superannuated dairy cows prostrated with oedema, or with quarters agonisingly inflamed with mastitis, wallowing hock-deep through a mix of mud and dung, twice a day when they come up for milking.

When, in such a herd, you spot a couple of Jersey or Guernsey cows, among the black-and-white Holsteins (And it's pronounced HOLSTINE for Gawds sake, NOT, repeat NOT HOLSTEEN) you know that they've been bought in because their butterfat is higher, and will lift the herd's average. And that means the herd's overall nutrition is marginal, and the Holsteins are 'milking off their backs,' ie, emaciating themselves to provide what they've been bred to provide.

That is bad husbandry. That is animal cruelty. And yet, it's likely that on such a farm, calf mortality will be high, the bank will be unhappy to cover the year's fertiliser bill and the poor bastards who work 16 hours a day, running the place are probably earning less, for their family, than a kid who does 20 hours a week skivvying at Pizza Express.

On the other hand, it is intensely worrying to see vast, intensive livestock operations where the animals appear to be nothing more than parts of the machinery. They're components, just like the electric motors and slurry pumps. But the welfare and hygiene at such places is usually pretty good. It has to be, because if anything goes slightly wrong, animals can die like flies and massive financial losses can result.

The American operation described in this morning's programme has a huge and elaborate visitor centre which cost $millions and has attracted a good deal of public approval. But over here, I've heard very little in favour of big dairy units and a great deal of adverse comment from all the usual pressure groups.

Gosh, I'm being boring.

But let me leave you with this thought: to feed the expanding population, we will have to double yields of practically every agricultural commodity by 2040. And that growth in output must come on top of phenomenally rapid growth in farm efficiency already achieved since the last World War. So the throttle is already half way to the floor. Will there be enough ooomph to feed everyone?

Perhaps those Irish milky boys have got a point, after all!

I'm listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams The Fen Country having just bought a massive compendium of his work on 30CD, all in a box for £40. You can't say fairer than that!

This day in 1976 In my first year of farming, I was struggling with the wettest autumn on record, after the driest summer. By 18th October I had only drilled a quarter of all my winter cereals. Not an encouraging start.

This week's film was Madeleine - living proof that even the mighty David Lean was capable of directing an absolute turkey. The protagonist, played by Lean's wife, Anne Todd, looked older than her years and was cold as a slab of raw salmon. Nice minor part played by the indomitable André Morell, though.

Milk, anyone? Bon Appetit!


  1. Of course to produce more milk they will need more cows and the level of carbon emisssions will increase due to cows other output so Ireland will fail to achieve its carbon reduction targets.

    In case you are interested they are doing something on Countryfile next weekend where they are visiting the US to look at cattle etc

  2. The Irish will produce cheese - Irish cheddar, thus reducing cheese prices further.

    As you say, there are good and bad points to huge farming operations. I'm not sure we'll ever produce food in the huge scale ways that the US does (and nor do I think it a good idea). There's some research going on at the moment which is beginning to suggest that if given the choice, dairy cows are more than happy to stay indoors throughout the year. I suppose the key thing is choice, which the cow will not necessarily have in the huge unit mooted in Lincs.

    Food security is an interesting and worrying topic. "Natural" breeding will only take us part of the way. Genetic modification? Even that isn't going to feed us. Sorry, what a dull comment.

  3. When I first read your title, I thought immediately of the upcoming elections. Hubris and politicians go together like cows and Ireland (apparently).

    Not many cows here, and can't say I blame them.

    Christine in Alaska

  4. "Let them eat veal" as Marie Antoinette didn't say but Vicki from The Archers definitely did.

  5. I need to weigh in here as someone who has lived in California and seen the cows as machine parts type of dairy and beef farming as well as here in Tennessee where the cows are free to roam pastures with plenty of acreage. The stench of Coalinga, CA, the 24 hour lighting, the cows crammed as tightly together as their mass will allow in filthy mud does not make me want to sample their products. My small town in Tennessee is surrounded by dairy farms which sell their milk to the Mayfield dairy just down the street. It is the highest in quality and taste, due I believe to the happiness of the herds and their natural diet. I would be hesitant to be so negative about a milk production increase, as opposed to say, oil or petroleum products.

  6. Frances - thanks for your input. On yesterday's FT radio programme, Wisconsin dairy farmers voiced their opinions which coincide with yours. I got the impression that they fear that giant production units will drive people like themselves out of business unless there is some kind of government intervention.

    That interested me because I presumed such rural folk would be staunch Republicans, and yet their arguments resonated with our more interventional European Common Agricultural Policy.

    I couldn't imagine such folk voting for Obama, but maybe they did.

    Arabella - veal? How could you! I'm glad a abandoned the Archers all those years ago.

    Christine B. - I'd love to be in the US, right now. Your politics is a fantastic spectator sport and the antics of the Tea Party is getting lots of comment here. Hope the Midterms go well for you, but I fear they probably won't

    Happy Mouffetard - thanks for the balance. I agree about food security and there being no plausible solutions to the increasing problems yet. Food and sustainability - huge dilemmas ahead for all of us.

    Patient G. I believe the Countryfile and FT people travelled together to the US, since their programmes come out of the same stable.

  7. I wonder if you have come across this yet - since you are on a sustainable food post.


    His books and posts are often interesting. Talking about food production from the peasant farmer's point of view, not the big chain supermarket.

  8. Ah ha! Not only will the Irish produce cheese, but today their Government announced that they would give it away!