Mega-dairies 'carry high risk'
"Mega-dairies" which keep thousands of cows for milk are financially high-risk, campaigners trying to stop their development in the UK have said.
The claim by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is being backed by Dragon's Den businesswoman Deborah Meaden who said the large-scale farms were based on "unsustainable principles and high-risk economic guesswork".
Campaigners have opposed mega-dairies in the UK, in which herds are kept inside in large units to produce high yields of milk, since proposals were put forward for an 8,000-cow farm in Lincolnshire.
The WSPA said analysis of intensive mega-dairies said they were less financially stable than smaller, pasture-based systems, undermining the belief that the only answer to the economic crisis facing UK dairy farmers was to "get big or get out".
Dairy farmers are struggling to turn a profit in the face of high costs of feed and fuel and low farmgate prices for milk paid by supermarkets and processors are leaving the industry in droves.
A report by the WSPA said intensive mega-dairies - seen by some as the solution to the problems facing UK farmers - have high costs in terms of feed, labour and other inputs and make only a small margin on each litre of milk, making their money from the large number of cows producing high yields of milk.
They can make higher profits than more traditional dairy farms in good times. But there is a limit to how much yields from cows can increase, and the dairies are vulnerable to price hikes in inputs such as cereals used for animal feed or to falls in the price of milk, which could push them rapidly into the red. They are also likely to compete with traditional dairy farmers for contracts to supply milk, threatening the survival of more members of the industry.
The WSPA, which opposes the development of mega-dairies on animal welfare grounds, are putting forward a "third" option for farmers instead of getting big or getting out. They claim that dairy farmers have a more realistic chance of turning a profit from smaller herds which rely on the cheap feed option of grazed grass, and with robust breeds of cows that produce less milk but live longer and are healthier.
Neil Darwant, a dairy farm manager who co-wrote the report, said: "Evidence is emerging that the pasture-based systems we have today are both efficient and competitive - farmers do not need to turn to mega-dairies to survive.
Ms Meaden said: "The British dairy is in crisis. Ordinary farmers are being railroaded into thinking that bigger is better and they must go intensive to survive. With this report WSPA and I firmly contest that belief. Not only is it wrong for farmers, the countryside, consumers and for cows, it is based on unsustainable principles and high-risk economic guesswork."