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A new ministry for dairy

At the Dairy in a Day conference, a dairy promotion plan was introduced and updates were provided on antibiotic use and milk prices

17 April 2018, at 4:37pm

A three-year strategy to protect the place of dairy in the UK is being funded from the production levy. The consumption of milk and dairy products is falling. Extensive market research has confirmed that more than half of the people contacted do not think about the value of dairy products to them. Younger people are consuming less dairy and young mothers and primary school teachers are a particular target for information about the production and benefits of milk. Taste and emotion are considered controlling factors. 

Circulating positive messages to promote dairy 

Over the coming weeks, messages will be promoted by the Department of Dairy Related Scrumptious Affairs. These include “Yoghurt for cultured individuals” and “Buttery crumpets for breakfast in bed or in the bath (you weirdos)”. Such messages will not be promoted on TV as such, but via on-demand services and on the London Underground. The use of social media will be harnessed to deliver positive outcomes and combat anti-dairy messages.

The Dairy in a Day conference delegates listened to the strategy outlined by Rebecca Miah (AHDB) and Simon Ashby (NFU) with interest. The budget is £1.2 million per annum and the delegates were anxious that the money would be effectively spent, although the means were a little baffling to those farmers who struggle with poor broadband and low mobile phone connectivity.

It was also a shock to hear about some of the tweets circulated on social media. The farmer’s wife who posted a picture of her daughter and herself drinking milk received messages calling her a murderer for giving her daughter poison. It was pointed out that although the extreme views are in the minority, they are very vocal and attract attention. 

The circulation of positive messages will allow people to be better informed and offered a source of education. Promotional items are available from AHDB Dairy, including posters and cups, and supporting information is hosted on the website www.tellitlikeitis.co.uk. Despite the few extreme responses, all involved with the industry are encouraged to post positive images of farm and countryside including pictures of happy cows and videos of farmer experiences. 

The opening speaker was due to be Nigel Gibbens but he was struck down with flu, leading to quips about birds, flu and vets. Slides had been forwarded by the Chief Veterinary Officer and these were presented by Andrew Butler (NFU) but he was not able to expand on the topics. The opening slide emphasised the reputation for world class quality enjoyed by British food and drink. Dairy exports have increased and high standards of animal welfare, traceability and sustainability will allow demand to increase further from overseas markets.

An action plan for antibiotic use

The use of highest priority critically important antibiotics (CIAs) is falling, although all antibiotic use in cattle is showing an increase in volumes administered alongside a fall in the number of treatments. Considerable work is ongoing at veterinary practice level to monitor antibiotic use. Emphasis ongoing is for improved diagnosis of disease problems at an early stage, the implementation of realistic biosecurity and a targeted use of vaccination. The need for endemic disease to be controlled by a local group of farmers, not just individuals, and understanding how some diseases spread quickly and others slowly requires sound cooperation between vet and farmer. After Brexit, the UK is committed to having mechanisms in place to ensure that animal health, plant health and animal welfare are protected. 

Lisa Morgan (Bristol Vet School) was supported by two dairy farmers, Bryony Symms and Geoff Ash. They described how the action groups of six farmers in each group had influenced the uptake of improvements to the application of the technical knowledge driving the modern approach to antibiotic use. Both farmers emphasised that it is not easy to accept the observations of the other farmers, but visiting each farm and being guided by the university staff, it became apparent where improvements were possible and practical.

Moving away from critically important antibiotics has not proven a problem and increasingly, anti-inflammatories are administered first. Uptake of teat sealant and a switch to a targeted dry cow antibiotic for some cows has been effective. The management of calves has changed considerably with greater emphasis on colostrum administration, a fall in non-specific illness and a realisation that pneumonia vaccines were not being administered correctly. The benefits of being part of a group with technical direction were well founded but both farmers were critical of their vets. They felt that veterinary practices needed to be more proactive in pushing less antibiotic use and no use of CIAs. 

Richard Simpson (Kingshay) reported on a survey of 45 herds participating in a health manager programme. Antibiotic use was assessed within six categories. It was found that there was a wide range of usage within each category, whether it be the use of intra-mammaries or injectables. Examples of costings for a case of mastitis showed that vet and medicine accounted for 28 percent of the total, with losses in production and culling significant economic factors at the herd level. 

The speaker emphasised that the costs of veterinary time and medicines should be seen as an investment. Within the health manager programme, a reporting service is available to demonstrate antimicrobial stewardship with the herd performance compared with targets. The data collected forms part of the Red Tractor requirements for an annual antimicrobial use audit with the farm veterinary surgeon.

Milk price volatility 

The current and future volatility with milk and managing the price risk was addressed by Chris Gooderham (AHDB), Richard Counsell (Stable) and Phil Cork (Crediton Dairy). The price of butter rose to an all-time high value of over £6,000 a tonne and still remains high today. Large quantities of skim milk powder remain in stores but manufacturers are unwilling to use product that is over six months old and liquid milk price fluctuates (and currently is falling). When setting a price, the processors are looking at the milk pool and not the individual herd situation. Autumn calving herds account for 8 percent of the milk produced, with 92 percent of production from herds calving all year round. 

If the age old saying of “up horn, down corn” is true, it would enable the insurance risk to be spread across agriculture. In forecasting a future price it is necessary to understand the risk of a price fall but it should be possible to insure for a period of time against a price drop at a cost of pence per litre. If the price goes up, there would be no additional fee. Farmers are encouraged to think of the value of certainty and uncertainty.

One small dairy with 70 producers and 1 percent of UK production has offered flat milk price contracts to farmers as a first step to engaging with stronger milk price predictability. The dairy collects around 100 million litres per annum and offered a maximum of 10 percent of the milk at 28ppl in October 2017, at up to 30 percent of the herd supply for two years. The dairy processes the milk as 60 percent UHT and 40 percent flavoured milk. Of the 10 million litres made available, 16 producers contracted for a total of 8.5 million litres. The initiative generated considerable discussion among farmers and it helped them to manage risk and consider future trends within their industry. A closer understanding of how the dairy industry operates has proved helpful to both milk buyer and milk purchaser.

Following a 16-year apprenticeship with Beecham, Richard established a project management and development consultancy and writes regular contributions for the veterinary press.

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