‘We will be emotionally drained when it is all over’ – milk crisis ends Norfolk family’s four generations of dairy farming
- Credit: Ian Burt
The continuing milk price crisis has forced a Norfolk farm to make the difficult decision to sell its dairy herd – ending four generations of family tradition.
The ongoing milk price crisis is often expressed in cold economic terms – the inevitable result of global supply and demand, of productivity and consumption.
But for the individuals facing up to the stark realities of an unprofitable industry, the impact can be emotionally heart-breaking as well as financially ruinous.
Dairy farmer Ava Barrell and her son Tim are being forced to sell the farm's Gemini herd in Shipdham, near Dereham, because milk prices have slumped to a level where the business is losing £160,000 a year.
It has been an emotional decision for the family to draw a line under four generations of dairy heritage. But they said there are also wider implications for the three farm workers who have lost their jobs, and the raft of suppliers who relied on the farm for their custom.
This week has seen a flurry of activity, checking ear tags and passports, carrying out tuberculosis testing and foot trimming to make sure all the animals are ready for auction at Beeston Castle in Cheshire on March 22.
After the sale, 400 animals – including milking cows, calves, and even treasured competition winners – will be gone.
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Mrs Barrell, 62, said: 'We broke them in as babies so you cannot help but feel attached. It has been very traumatic.
'When you are working with them all the time, it is like people – there are some you can't bear the sight of, and some you love to bits.
'The general public seem to get the idea we factory-farm them, but I could name all these cows out there. We do it for the love of it. I would never do it to be rich.
'I think we will be emotionally drained when it is all over. We have had the men in tears as well.
'There are three guys who have lost their jobs, and there is all the suppliers who will no longer be supplying us. Because farming is so individual, no-one ever sits down and works out how many hundreds of people are losing their jobs because of this price. It did rally for a few months, but it didn't last long.'
While most of the cows are being sold, some will be sent direct to slaughter because they are not of marketable quality.
'We have had to make the decision of which ones are going to live and which ones are going straight to the abattoir,' said Mrs Barrell. 'That was 36 of them. It broke my heart because they are good cows, but they are not pretty enough, or not in calf, or the confirmation was not good enough to be able to sell them.'
The farm's cost of production is about 29p per litre. Three years ago, it was selling milk at 32p per litre, but the current price is 21p – which is 8p below the break-even point. As the cows produce more than two million litres a year, the annual loss would be £160,000.
Mrs Barrell said: 'We have had our consultants her three or four times in the last six months, trying to save a few pennies which equates to how much we are going to lose. But we are at a point where we cannot penny-pinch any more, because it will affect the welfare of the animals, and I am not prepared to do that. Hopefully they will end up somewhere that someone can make it work.
'The word crisis is often bandied around lightly, but not this time. I am nearly 63 and I cannot remember a time when every part of agriculture was down.
'I don't want charity. All I want is a fair price for what we produce.'
The herd, set up by Mrs Barrell and her husband Peter in 1981, and has earned a reputation for its genetic breeding quality, and many competition successes.
After the dispersal sale, the mixed farm will still have its 500 acres of arable land, but the family will need to look for ways to make viable commercial use of the empty buildings, with possible options including renting them out to other livestock producers, starting a livery, or using them to store straw for biomass burners.
Tim Barrell said: 'I don't think we would be in farming if we couldn't look for the positive side.
'We always moan and groan about things but we try and do the best we can with the situation we have been given. Farming has always been highs and lows but with the weather we have been having, with all this rain, and the cereal prices so low, it just seems to be a downward spiral and it does not give you much hope at the moment.'
Mr Barrell, 36, said he had been working with dairy cows ever since he was a teenager.
'I will be gutted when they're gone,' he said. 'We've put blood sweat and tears into it. I always saw our future as a mixed farm, where what we take out of the land from the arable we put back in with the muck from the cattle. It is like a cycle.
'We just want to make a decent living doing what we love.'
The Barrell family are not the only Norfolk farmers who have been forced out of the dairy sector by the economic downturn.
Henry Alston at Billockby Farms, near Acle, said his company had also taken the difficult decision to begin a gradual dispersal of its dairy herd.
'We have been a herd of 420 cows and it is a very sad situation,' he said. 'It is no reflection on the management, or my staff, or the performance of the herd – it is purely a result of low commodity prices that we have decided to gradually disperse the herd and cease production.'
Charlie Askew, vice chairman of the Norfolk Holstein Club, said: 'The Barrells are quite a major player with a good name for breeding genetics, so the fact they are going is bad for the industry in Norfolk. And Billockby would be one of the biggest herds in the county, so it has got quite a knock-on effect in terms of the labour and the neighbouring farms that they deal with.
'And, it's a lot of milk. There are not a lot of dairies close to us, and the further you have to cart milk, the critical mass of producers left in a certain area becomes important. The price offered to farms a long way from the processing is likely to go down rather than up, because the cost of collecting that milk is expensive to the producers, whereas 40-odd herds across Norfolk could fill up the tankers. There is always a knock-on.
'In our part of the world, unless people process it themselves, or radically change the way they are doing it, then it will be difficult. You can look at cost control, but even big players have shown that expanding the numbers to big herds has not necessarily worked.'