Friday, 15 April 2011

An Unprovoked, Unnecessary & Ill Informed Attack on Pasture Based Dairy Farmers

"Farmer bashing" sadly happens far too often. You would think today with the "Perfect Storm" looming (likely worldwide food shortages) that a well informed society would be encouraging & supporting their local farmers who produce high quality food. Sir John Beddington the Chief Scientific Officer has clearly set out the risks to food security of climate change & population growth. Yet this week the unnecessary but very public attack on pasture based dairy farmers came not from someone who belongs to an extreme lobby group but from within. This ill informed attack was made by a UK University scientist (who should know better) & an Agricultural newspaper. Why did the Farmers Weekly allow this to happen I ask?

The UK dairy industry is rapidly dividing naturally into the high & low input systems. Each to their own preferred system. But why would a University & an Agricultural newspaper seek to pit one sector against the other group of farmers.

Our Dr Mike Wilkinson from Nottingham University clearly knows nothing about the efficiency nor the high calibre of pasture based dairy farmers in the UK or elsewhere in the world.

Has he ever been on a low input pasture based dairy farm in the UK? I doubt it as he spoke at the recent British Society of Animal Science conference in Nottingham clearly not understanding the outstanding technical efficiencies of the pasture based system. Nor has he fully considered the numerous inefficiencies of the high input systems of milk production.

The average milk production per cow in the UK is approx 7000litres/year times 2.5 lactations. This equals a lifetime production of approx 17500litres per cow. The low input pasture based dairy cow that Dr Wilkinson was so critical of only produces 5500litres per cow per year but over 5.2 lactations = 28600 lifetime production.

Which high yield cows would you prefer Dr Wilkinson?

Add to the lifetime production the ability to calve every 365 days for more than 5 lactations & we have a very scientifically efficient system. These are genetically very sophisticated dairy cows that are fed simply & naturally on pasture. The high breeding efficiency of the crossbred cows & the clover fed pasture means a very low carbon footprint. Pasture based dairying doesn't rely on protein from South America.

Pasture based dairying in the UK is for smart thinking professionals. It attracts smart young entrants to the dairy's a pity the UK Universities are not playing a greater part of this sector.

Pasture based dairying is at the forefront of science & technology. Don't be fooled by the apparent simplicity.

Grazing management is simple but sophisticated. It requires real management skill..

Dr John Beddington called for sustainability in agriculture...times have moved on..we no longer wish to destroy the very environment we depend on for food.

The pasture based dairying has a long term sustainability. Under pasture there is a healthy soil with high soil organic matter (soil carbon). Although UK soils are decreasing in carbon stocks those soils under low input pasture systems are increasing the soil organic matter & contributing to the UKs Soil carbon stocks.

Sustainability is clearly something Mike Wilkinson hasnt considered with his high input milk production that relies on cereals, protein from South America, depleting soil carbon, tractors & fuel. Not to mention poor herd fertility & a low number of lactations & lifetime production.

Lastly Dr need the public support for healthy locally produced food. Today the public is well informed & with social media can rally support or opposition to farmers & farming practices eg. notinmycuppa. High input systems do not have public support.

Pasture based dairy farmers are proud of the public support they get & will fight back to protect that support.

Current UK Pasture Measurements

Few areas of the UK have had either any rain or enough rain to significantly influence pasture growth on UK dairy farms. The long dry spell is of increasing concern as it follows a relatively dry 12 months.

Pasture growth has hit "Magic Day" on many pasture based dairy farms as soil temperatures increase. Cornwall (not really part of England!) is having an amazing spring with some farms having already cut silage.

Average Pasture Cover (kgsDM/ha) & Pasture Growth (kgsDM/ha/day)

South Ayrshire Scotland AFC 1962, Growth 64 rotation 18 days

Dumfries 1910, 36

North Wales 1950, 44

Cheshire Organic 2000, 39

Lincolnshire 2350, 115

Nottingham 2000, 60 (no rain for 2 months)

Nottingham 2064, growth 69, demand 65 (no rain.. silage?????)

East Staffordshire 2080, 56

Staffordshire 2004, 60

Herefordshire 2080, 50 (no rain 6 weeks)

Herefordshire 2099, Growth 59 demand 32

Gloucestershire 2230, 77

Oxfordshire 1940, 50 (demand 48) no rain

Pembrokeshire 1970, 61

Pembrokeshire 3085 (complete farm), 105 growth

Somerset organic 2300, 45 (paddocks shut for hay)

East Sussex 1947, 47 (no rain since early March relying on Chicory fields)

Dorset 2600, 87 (third farm shut for silage) perfect grazing conditions

Dorset 2443, 91

Dorset 2462, 79 (planted 15ha Chicory & Plantain for summer)

Devon 2500, 75

Devon 2180 , 65 (demand 51)

Cornwall 2100, 105 (third farm shut for silage)

Cornwall 2498, 94 (silage already cut).....Cornwall is not in England????(Ed comment)

Southern Ireland 2100, 68 Lots of bloat around


  1. A.G. Street wrote Farmers Glory in 1932. He stated that England had never had a comparative advantage growing cereals yet England was one of the best pasture growing countries in the world.Little has changed since 1932. With wheat prices likely to rise as severe droughts hit the USA it will become more obvious even to the blind

  2. Indeed, Farmer's Glory should be compulsory reading for anyone studying agriculture. He certainly had more brains and common sense than some of the "educators" in our Universities today. He also pointed out that the fertility stored in the nation's soils by the pasture farming between the wars was what helped feed the nation in World War Two. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense can see that housed dairy systems are a disaster from a food security perspective.

  3. Luckily I'm one Nottingham University graduate who could see the industry being led up the garden path of high input dairying. Dr. Wilkinson and his colleagues cannot be seen to support pasture farming as much of their commercial research funding would be stopped overnight. Not to mention that it's also in their interest to promote a complicated farming system that requires vast inputs of scientific research.
    Thankfully Nottingham's farm management education is top notch and most graduates will see that the high input dairy system as a business model is fatally flawed.

  4. We often have problems like this in France. We often read grass isn't good for cows. They think it's better to feed with maize silage and soya... We always have to prove "an another way is possible" to manage dairy cows with a low cost system. Look at the film and photos from Erwan and Laurence Le Roux. Success in their business and family life

  5. Another way to look at those figures is to look at yield per year of total life.

    Low yield of 28,600 per life divided by 5.2 lactations plus 2 years as a young animal = 3,972 litres per year

    High yield of 17,500 per life dived by 2.5 lactations plus 2 years as a young animal = 3,888 litres per year

    Therefore a low yielding animal is actually higher yielding!

  6. I agree with the above figures except that few Holstein heifers calve as 2 year olds. So it should calc as 17500/5 = 3500 litres per year. Sorry Nottingham this just gets worser & worser.Why are students taught about a system that is often unprofitable & with so many inefficiencies??
    Well done Tom for supporting the low input pasture farmers.

  7. As usual the scientists have told us all what a terrible unbalanced feed grass is for dairy cows.
    Dr. Wilkinson should do his research properly:
    Following which he should visit a few pasture based dairy herds in the UK. He might be surprised how well they look on this "unbalanced" feed!!!

  8. Im always mindfull of what I read in the press but here I think it's pritty obvious that Mr Wilkinson has not thought this through, probably never been on a 'real' farm. And as commented before, feels he has has to push housed cows as this is the universities multi-million investment.
    As I have worked on one of these housed year round, robitc, TMR herds for 5 years, then 'having seen the light' in New Zealand moved to a pasture based system over two years ago. I'v seen the obvious differnces and advantages of pasture based systems. All out lined by Tom. And I'd like to add on a welfare basis I have never seen so much drug dependant cows, mastits, lameness etc. Alothough high yielding housed cows do look happy (sitting, cudding) I think the high cases of mastitis, lameness and low lactations shows that they are not. And another note of welfare is the herdsman's (staff). On the high input system I worked on for 5 years with 200 cows there was on average a new member of staff every 6 months. Weather this was a management or system issue is a matter of opion. I for one now have never seem my family so much.
    But I still think that it should be an each to his own system, as long as it is profitalbe and welfare of the cows is managed.

  9. I've just read the "Housed cows may be key for food security" article on FWI and im absoluty horrified at both Nottingham University and Farmers Weekly for publishing this highly ill informed information. I am 21 years old and due to graduate from University in the next few months to pursue a carrer farming the pasture based system. I cant believe Farmers Weekly as one of the biggest recognised "brands" in UK farming can publish such negative and may i add false information about farming. How does this encourage people like me with a great enthusiasm for farming to come into the dairy industty knowing that i am facing oppostion like this from people within my own industry. All people within the industry of agriculture should be promoting and supporting one another and working together to take forward UK farming.
    Further to this Nottingham University as an educational institution should be edcuating students in a fair and balanced way showing students the benefits of all dairy systems. I see this all the time in agricultural education. It leaves some students with a very limited one dimensional way of thinking. UK farming needs to produce innovative thinkers that are able to think outside the box to solve problems.
    To add finally with any system of dairying it is how much milk you can produce from your land not per cow. Im sure if you take some pasture based farms im sure their litres per hectare per year are very similar if not better in some cases than some of the intenisive housed all year round dairy units due to the ability to be able to stock so many cows per hectare.

  10. Is this the same Mike Wilkinson that wrote a book in 1984 entitled "Milk and Meat from Grass"?