Robert Craig - Solutions to combat food chain dysfunctionality
Hi, I'm married to Jackie and we have four wonderful children. Ellie 13, Lauren 11, Georgina 10 and Jack 8. Home for the Craig's is in North East Cumbria where we live on the family dairy farm high up on the edge of the Pennines.
I've been an active and very busy dairy farmer for the past 25 years since finishing my formal education. Working primarily on our home farm, building the business from a relatively small family only business milking 50 cows, to 350 cows today employing several members of staff. Over the past 15 years I've embraced the simple, seasonal, low input grazing system of milk production more commonly found in New Zealand. Using this simple and yet highly profitable philosophy has enabled us to grow the dairy business to a stage where we have more time for our children and are able to be actively involved in other projects away from the farm. Much of my learning during the last 15 years has come form the on-farm discussion group route. It's from contacts made from the grazing network that lead us to joining together with another farmer in 2011 to jointly set up a second dairy unit on a local farm milking 500 cows. I've recently just completed two years as Cumbria NFU chairman, a role which I thoroughly enjoyed. The role involved building many strong relationships within the industry, with leaders and politicians locally.
Arriving in Lima-Peru, with 9 million people one of the most densely populated desert cities in the world.
Peruvian agriculture has developed substantially in the past decade, now Peru is one of the largest growers of Asparagus in the world supplying the USA and UK, all from irrigation.
Dairy farming has around 8000 active producers with herds ranging from a few cows to 2000 cows and all are confinement type systems where the main forage is predominantly maize silage is either bought in or grown on the farm.
The first morning we visited the processing plant of Gloria the largest dairy company in Peru, privately owned they buy milk from 6000 farms and make almost all dairy products, UHT, Yoghurt, Condensed milk, Cheese and are also involved in fruit juice and sugar production.
On a huge site on the outskirts of Lima they employ 1500 staff and process close to 1,000,000 litres of milk every day.
In the afternoon we were lucky enough to have been invited to meet the Government department concerned with water at the Ministry of Agriculture in Lima. While it’s clear there is potentially a major problem with the water supply for irrigation in certain areas of Peru, unfortunately there seems little up to date hydrological data for them to make accurate policy decisions.
The following day we visited three dairy farms close to Lima. All were house or semi housed using maize silage, alfalfa hay, soya and all were predominantly Holstein cows. One thing that really did stand out was the contrast between how they used new technology and still had large numbers of employees, labour is relatively cheap so it’s often cheaper to take more people on that to buy the new machinery. It’s common to see all the dry dung removal done by hand and for it to be bagged up for sale, while the feeding is done by the latest state of art mixing wagon.
The increasing cost of feed and labour is proving a challenge for most of the dairy industry in Peru, the milk price is too low for many who have little option but to buy in almost all of their feed sometime trucking it 700km. There appears to be little competition in the milk market and no real chance of this changing. For some the opportunity that the ever growing city of Lima will bring in the near future will determine if they stay in milk or move and sell their site for development.
From the green South we discover dairy farming in the dry North is very different!
Half way through our first week in Chile we drove 1000km back North to Santiago the capital. Now traveling during the daylight we could see what we missed on the way down. Fantastic scenery with the magnificent splendour of the Andes to our East and a combination of cereals and vineyards either side of the road as we drove. The further North we got the drier the farm land became until it looked very drought stricken and clearly any greenery be it maize or vines was due to irrigation. 33-C the temperature gauge was showing as we approached the city.
Our first day in the Santiago region was taken up with a visit to the Ministry of Agriculture in Santiago and some dairy farm visits.
In the Ministry we were greeted by various members of their research and knowledge transfer team and discussed how they are developing discussion groups to encourage farmers to adopt new technology and become more profitable. Easier with dairy farmers less easy with other livestock farmers. Following a quick trip up the small mountain which overlooks the city we enjoyed lunch in a restaurant at the bottom in the shade of the trees.
During the afternoon we discovered a not all Chilean dairy farms are grass based, visiting an 1100 cow intensive unit with cows in an American confinement style. This farmer Guillermo Jimenez O had left a career in academia to take on the family farm. On the land around his dairy he was growing maize for silage and Alfalfa which was being fed both fresh and wilted. The whole farm was irrigated from river water and treated waste water from Santiago which luckily was piped through the mountain downhill to the valley. The cows housed in covered cubicles were all extreme Holsteins and were currently producing 30,000 litres every day. The farm was struggling to make money and a higher milk price was needed if the high cost of the system and high labour was to be justified. There was a chance this farmer was going to set up another dairy further south near Osorno where he reared his heifers, this would a grass type system although he would try to do it with the same Holstein cows that he is currently farming.
The next stop was a neighbouring lady farmer on a small farm with just 24 cows, milked in a simple small shed on the road side. It’s clear that while this scale of farm was once very common in Chile very few small herds were now sustainable and the dairy company also had introduced new farm assurance type regulations that small farmers found difficult to conform to. Both farms were supplying Soprole a Fonterra owned dairy company and our guide was one of their farm liaison team with responsibility for milk quality.
A good start to our two week visit to South America, dairying in Chile offers great oppertunitys!
If I’m honest I’m not really sure what I was expecting my first impressions would be of Chile, several advised it was another New Zealand which didn’t seem possible, but on reflection imaging the beauty of New Zealand with several times the population and you’re not far away.
Travelling south following our arrival in Santiago to Valdivia a journey of almost 1000km during the night was challenging but a packed week of meetings and visits made this a necessity.
The first two days were spent in the amazing company of Ricardo Rios founder and majority shareholder of Chilterra. Chilterra, now milking 4400 cows using the same simple grazing techniques we use at home is growing faster than any dairy business I’ve encountered. The drive and passion of Riccardo was infectious and I for one could have stay longer. The business is not just milking cows but also building and manufacturing milking parlours and dairy buildings. Now with over 120 people employed it’s going to be a substantial part of the Chilean dairy industry very soon, if it’s not already. Adding to the 1100ha already owned Ricardo purchased a 3200ha of land six years ago and along with a handful of investors many of whom are from (New Zealand) has set about converting it in to 9 new dairy units that will take shape over the next three years, 150km of farm roads have been constructed and many more 100’s km of electric fencing. A strong advocate of the simple pasture principles Ricardo also has a refreshing futuristic approach to staff training, attainment and motivation, guiding and teaching employees their particular job and maintaining where ever possible a structure of equality throughout the team members.
Relatively high rainfall and cheaper land in the south of Chile would have to make this an area of great opportunity for highly sustainable milk production in the future