Amy Jackson - Removing the barriers to large scale dairy farming
I've been involved in the farming industry most of my adult life, first of all studying at SAC Auchincruive (when it was still in existence!) for an HND in Agriculture then taking a post-grad course on farm management in Aberdeen. Aside from various farming jobs including lambing, harvest etc between school and college, I spent 15 months in Canada working on dairy farms near Guelph in Ontario before getting involved in the auction and cattle-breeding businesses back in the UK.
I moved into agricultural public relations about 15 years ago and have since worked for wide range of client in the industry as well as a number of non-ag clients including Cadbury, Gillette and Kraft. I set up my own PR business several years ago and have since been working with a heady mix of clients in construction, environment, farming, food chain and industry.
I now live in Oxfordshire with my two dogs in a rambly cottage, all of which need constant attention!
Or so it said on a car sticker in Modesto yesterday...
It's pretty tough for Californian dairy farmers at the moment. They have the lowest milk price in the US - around $15 per cwt this summer (20.5ppl) with feed costs alone averaging £10.75 (14.7ppl). And for those who think they get an easy ride on regulation, think again. They have a bewildering array of regulation to meet, from the federal EPA to state and regional water and air boards, some requiring daily record keeping. Their costs for keeping on the right side of the enforcers is reckoned to be among the highest in the country. Despite this, as in Wisconsin, I've been impressed at the communication between farmers and their representative bodies, and those who regulate them. A fantastic organisation called California Dairy Quality Assurance Programme (CDQAP) is a collaboration between universities, regulators and farmers, which aims to increase compliance and reduce impacts. An NGO called Sustainable Conservation is working with these organisations as well to look for opportunities to reduce envirnmental impact but in ways that are economically beneficial for farmers. Definitely room for a more constructive approach in the UK I think.
Last California visit tomorrow - a 1600 jersey farm north east of San Francisco. Then off to New Zealand to for a week's worth of visits before Christmas....
Lots of time has passed since my last post. Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Holland and France.....and now in the USA.
California is not always sunny, I've found. And Wisconsin isn't always cold in December. Following a whistle stop tour of Israel and Europe, I've been exploring family and 'mega' dairies in the US and have found that it's not as straightforward as one might think...
Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana were an eye-opener. Luckily hitting an unseasonal warm patch, I have been touring farms and farming organisations. Fair Oaks is an impressive set up in Indiana. 32,000 cows, heading towards 40,000 cows shorly, it's an operation showcasing agricultural production at its largest. From the bus tour to the calving 'stage', it doesn't shirk from showing farming as it is, large scale. I asked about how the farm handled messy calvings or stillborn calves in front of the public - apparently they show them as they are, all part of the experience. They are about to open a pig farm demonstrating all the types of sow housing available, from straw pen to sow stall. Risky? Possibly, but a development they're committed to, alongside an orchard, fresh produce and potentially a future egg laying unit.
Further north at Rock Prairie, 20-year-old TJ Tuls is in charge of several thousand cows at the family's latest venture. Still based mainly in Nebraska, they found the ideal site near Janesville, WI, and opened the new farm last year. Working with neigbouring farms is critical as the dairy farmers often just have a couple of hundred acres for the site itself and co-operate with neighbours to buy feed and spread manure. However, this is beginning to change with escalating feed prices necessitating a greater level of land ownership to increase self sufficiency.
Very few cows graze in Wisconsin. It's too cold in the wionter and too hot inthe summer, and cow welfare is difficult to manage as a result. However, welfare has been pretty spot on everywhere I've been, from large (8,000) to small (400). Regarding envirnmental issues, it strikes me that there is a far better working relationship between the regulators and the farmers. The Dept of Natural Resources in Wisconsin seems to have an ongoing constructive dialogue with farmers - do we have this with the Environment Agency in the UK? I think we could all benefit - environment included - if we did.
What about large farms pushing small out of business? When you delve into the meaning of this, it's not about getting the best contracts with the best milk price - there is uniform pricing in each state. It's about smaller farmers struggling to continue because their chlidren don't want to dairy farm any more. There are easier ways of making money. So that's where large farms step in to fill the gap. There has been a huge loss of dairy farms across the US in the past few years.
Several days, many miles and probably quite a few toll violation notices later (top travel tip - check how tolls work in each state because they differ), I'm in California visiting the EPA, sustainability NGOs and small and large farms alike. Currently in the University city of Davis, in a coffee shop, catching up on emails. It's been lovely and sunny in San Francisco but very murky today. Heading off shortly for a meeting with Dairy Cares in Sacramento before driving south to Modesto for a day on farms tomorrow courtesy of Western United Dairymen.
It's been an interesting few days so far. I've been looking at the role of anaerobic digestion as a new income stream for farmers and in this process, it's become increasingly clear that the dairy cow is at the centre of a new type of susainable farming. She can consume arable byproducts better than any other type of animal. She produces manure that is better than other manures for biodigestion. And the digestate nutrients are essential to farmers in increasing soil fertility and reducing reliance on artificial fertilisers. The solids in the digestate are being used by many as bedding or a replacement for peat in garden compost. So, I asked Californian family farmer Larry, who has 1700 cows on a mixed dairy/arable/wine grape farm, the other day, if the cows go, as his sons want, what fertilises the grape-growing and arable ground? He shrugged his shoulders. He sees the dairy enterprise as critical to the efficient operation and balance of the farm overall.
We shall see what others say over the next few days....
Now is not the best time to be asking dairy farmers to help me by filling in a survey....but views are very much needed!
There are 20 questions and it should take about 15 minutes. I will share the results on this blog in due course!
Follow this link https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8VVNV99