Farming Thinking

How supermarkets ruined dairy

15th May 2018

Ruthless supermarket pricing, overproduction, and changing tastes have put the dairy industry under pressure. We take a look at how this happened and what the future holds for dairy.

Nothing epitomises the corrupting effect of the supermarkets like the decline of Britain’s dairy industry. Around 60,000 dairy producers have gone under since the 1970s. Supermarket price wars have squeezed the margins on milk to breaking point. Despite the fall, Britain’s dairy farmers actually make more milk now than they did a quarter of a century ago. This combination of falling prices and oversupply has had terrible consequences for animal welfare and the environment.

The growth of the mega herd

Necessity is the mother of invention and dairy farmers have been nothing but creative in trying to scrape a living producing milk. Traditional grass-grazed, low-input farming has been slowly replaced with mega-sheds, robotic machinery, and carefully tailored protein diets.

The effect on milk production has been huge. In 1970, a traditional dairy cow would produce around 4,000 litres of milk a year. Today, an intensively farmed dairy cow produces double that, around 8,000 litres of milk per year.

Almost two-thirds of dairy herds are now grazed almost entirely indoors.

Mega herds might have kept milk cheap but the quality of life for these super cows is questionable. Around one in five cows now never see the light of day. Only one third of dairy farmers still follow the traditional system of all-summer grazing. A large number of cows in Britain are now housed, fed, and milked in the same shed.

Intensively reared dairy cows are worked extremely hard. Milked three times a day, and fed a combination of grass and soya protein to keep their bodies going, infections are all too common in the herd. There is around a 50/50 chance of them getting udder problems, meaning farmers require the regular use of antibiotics to keep production going.

Intensive dairy farming is an environmental menace

Mega dairy herds regularly pollute waterways, land, and rivers with slurry (a combination of manure and water). The Environment Agency, a government agency responsible for protecting the environment, now responds to around 700 pollution incidents on farms each year. Dairy farms are the biggest culprit.  

Worryingly, the growth in mega dairies has matched the rising number of reported pollution incidents on farms. Average dairy herd sizes increased by 30% between 2006 and 2016 while pollution incidents involving dairy farms grew by 45% over the same period.

A heavily polluted river caused by a nearby dairy farm in Sussex, and documented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who have found dozens of instances of manure pouring into waterways.

Polluting farms are regularly fined. In June 2017, the biggest dairy in Wales, Cwrt Malle was fined £45,000 on six different pollutant charges. For a farm with 1,800 cows and an annual turnover of £6.3 million, these fines are nothing more than a rounding error.

Patrick Holden, an organic farmer and head of the Sustainable Food Trust, argues that the lack of appropriate fines for polluting factory farms amounts to false accounting. The replacement of farms with factories has in large part been made possible by “the failure to put an economic value on intensive farming”, says Patrick.

Milk in the age of digital transparency              

Medical studies in the 1970s linked whole milk to heart disease and switched many off drinking milk entirely. Milk consumption has been falling steadily, from an average of five pints a week in the 1960s to 3 pints today. The number of people eschewing diary altogether is growing fast. There are now 3.5 million vegans in the UK, spurring competition for milk with dairy-free alternatives like soy, nut and oat milks.

The digital age of transparency is proving problematic for the dairy industry, and milk in particular, whose production methods can turn off consumers. The fate of dairy calves in the herd, for example, has attracted media attention. Taken from their mother shortly after birth and then reared in small hutches for several weeks before joining the main herd, the pictures and videos online of dairy calves can be pretty traumatic.

The fate of dairy bulls is often darker. They have no value for dairy farmers and there is very little demand in Britain for veal. A report from BBC’s Countryfile in 2017 estimated that anything from 10,000 up to 100,000 dairy calves were being shot at birth by dairy farmers every year. While many industry experts have since rejected the claims, saying the number is much lower, the damage was already done.

Is there a realistic alternative to mega dairies?

In organic systems, the cows are not worked as hard. One of Berkeley Farm’s Guernsey cows produces around 5,000 litres a year, compared to the 8,000 litres in factory-farmed systems. Organic dairy ensures cows are outside for at least 200 days a year, feeding on chemical-free pasture, and only using antibiotics where absolutely necessary. Berkeley Farm is a dairy farm who decided to go organic for commercial reasons and although there were difficulties at first, the decision ultimately put them on a sustainable financial path.

Ed Gosling, who runs the organic dairy Berkeley Farm in Wiltshire, UK.

Berkeley takes a different approach to bull calves from the mainstream, rearing them until three months before selling them to another farmer who spends a further two years raising them for meat. “It is this care and attention to the animals’ welfare that the customer is paying a premium for in the milk” according to Ed Gosling, the Farm Manager at Berkeley Farm. Berkeley say they lose around £50 for every bull calf they rear to three months of age.

The dairy ideal

Some dairy pioneers have chosen to go much further. The Calf At Foot Dairy was started with the intention to “make the world a better place for dairy cows.” The mico dairy sells pasture-fed, raw whole milk from dairy cows that are allowed to keep their calves until the end of their natural weaning age. The care and attention to animal welfare is reflected in the price of the milk, which is anything between £3 and £5 a litre, compared to 50 pence per litre at the supermarket.

The Calf at Foot Dairy is challenging mainstream dairy by allowing calves to remain with their mother until the end of their natural weaning age.

The Open Air Dairy is another pioneering dairy farm using high-welfare as a unique selling point to drive a higher price. It is the only large scale dairy in Europe that milks cows out in the field as they graze, theoretically allowing the herd to be on pasture for all 12 months of the year.

Do enough people have the money and conscience to pay more for milk?

If the smaller, ethical dairies are to succeed then there needs to be a large enough number of people willing to pay more for their milk. This is not as fanciful as it might sound. Sales of organic food and drink are in their sixth consecutive year of growth, totalling £2.2 billion a year, and dairy products claim the biggest share of that spend at 29 per cent.

The transparency of the internet age could create a bigger market for higher-welfare, and organic milk.

Should customers decide it’s important, the evidence suggests that there might also be some flexibility in household budgets for people to pay for sustainable food. After the USA (6.5%), the British spend a smaller share (8.7%) of their household budget on food at home than any other country in the developed world. The Germans spend a bit more (10.6%), while the French spend a lot more (13.6%) on food. Put that alongside the growing number of consumers with a conscience and ethical and sustainably farmed dairy products, including milk, might still have a very bright future.

Interested in reading more about dairy then try these other Farmblog stories:

You can also buy the highest-quality, organic milk and cheese at

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