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Newsletter Autumn 2015


Annual discussion meeting, Westminster, November 11th 


Defra is embarking on consultations on “a 25 year food and farming plan.   This will set out the steps that both government and industry need to take to deliver a more competitive, vibrant and profitable food and farming sector in the long run.” (Defra)   We need to be in there to ask that the “vibrant” industry be one which all can enjoy, and respect for its treatment of workers, live animals and the environment.


We have asked Mrs. Truss, the Defra Secretary, if she will come to our annual discussion meeting at Westminster and tell us if our policy (as set out on our website) is compatible with Defra’s ambitions for profitable food and farming.   Obviously we will be delighted if she can come, but if not we hope to have a junior Minister or Defra’s head of policy.


Economics will be intimately involved.   It is a complicated subject.   It could be said that our last newsletter did not write enough about the dire state of farming.   But how is anyone to know the truth?   Statistics are inevitably out of date.   We will only know next year how farmers have fared this present year.


What is really dire is the situation of many dairy farmers.   Printed below is the somewhat heart rending piece written by a dairy farmer for another semi private publication.   Some dairy farmers have been lucky enough, or smart enough, to obtain contracts from some milk buyers at a reasonable price, but they are a minority.   The farming press gives only 23 pence per litre (ppl) as the average price, but some receive as little as 18ppl.    The cost of production is about 28ppl.


Lambs, also, have each sold for several pounds less this year.   Will this improve next year?  Who knows?    Standard professional advice is to get more efficient and produce more, so that the cost is less per item.   But what reduces prices?   Over supply.    Some of us look anxiously at forecasts.   We note that the supply of beef cattle is supposed to reduce, which is hopefully good news for beef farmers.    Stop press: there is a report that lamb prices have improved due to a shortage of supply!


Nobody is supposing the supply of milk is likely to reduce soon, but some producers have been told the price must recover before too long.   How long?    Advice in a leading newspaper has been that the solution is bigger herds producing more intensively.  This is the way some farmers are going; it will hasten the demise of most smaller milk producers.   Will such a plan prosper in the long run?   Possibly, if we then buy in all dairy products from abroad and only try to provide fresh milk for drinking.


The future is largely in the hands of government.    History has proved that the only way to be sure of viable prices for food at home is to protect us from cheap imports from places where either climate and soil, or circumstances such as cheap labour and/or lack of regulations, reduce the cost of production.    Have we a hope of persuading Defra that

the future is not huge scale?    That the future is not low cost production, but a happy countryside, where farmers have enough support to be able to produce good food in a civilized way.    Come and discuss with Defra on November 11th.




Working 14 hours a day to lose money, by Alice Knox

(click here to read)




Over production sadly causes the demise of many small scale producers.    It is a fact not often stated by economists that as technical progress allows an individual farmer to produce more of a certain product, most farmers will produce more.   And that extra production will inevitably reduce prices.


This happened many years ago to the excellent system of keeping hens in comfort in deep litter in redundant barns, or even old cottages.   But then the introduction of battery cages allowed one person to tend many thousand hens and the price of eggs dropped dramatically.    In the days of deep litter hens, it was also economic to raise some extra large chickens for the Christmas trade.  Now broiler chickens are produced many thousand to a batch and several batches a year, due to sophisticated technology.    They are cheap, and profitable in spite of the enormous numbers.


Will lamb production go the same way?   50 years ago a flock of 60 sheep was a fair size, except perhaps in the uplands.    It was worth keeping on a smallish mixed farm.    A go-ahead farm has diversified relatively recently into ear tag production, and is now selling electronic identification ( EID) and sophisticated handling systems.   So you no longer have to look at an ear tag to identify your sheep, you just waive a “stick” at their ears.    What’s more, the information gained can be recorded automatically on your computer, and programmed according to taste.


All this must make it much easier to organize your flock, and to improve it by selection.    So sheep can now be much more easily managed in quantity, and, hopefully, have become more efficient meat producers.   They can even be a good starting point for a young person who can find some grazing.   (He will already have the computer.)


But is it being overdone?   Will lamb prices stay low?   It does seem likely, unless measures are taken to control the supply.   That means either firm restriction of imports, or quotas for home production.   Could firm restriction of imports ever be allowed politically, or even legally? The NFU, no doubt, would not agree a quota, any more                                                                                                                                      than it originally approved milk quotas.    Indeed it would be incredibly difficult to organize a quota with any justice.   Could sheep producers be persuaded to rein in voluntarily, to realize that increasing production is counter productive?    Perhaps it is a topic worthy of discussion.


Great news on TB!   According to Farmers Weekly, to whom I am eternally grateful for the good news, researchers have finally managed to programme the Polymerase Chain

Reactor to detect Micobacterium Bovis.    In other words it will now be possible to test badger latrines to find out which badgers are infected with TB.    Considering the press said this could be done many years ago, one cannot help but wonder why researchers have taken so long.   It is also stated that the breakthrough was reported in January 2014, but only just made public.


It is great news for badgers, too, if the infected ones are put out of their misery and the rest do not have to worry about becoming infected.   As soon as it is worked out which badgers use which latrines, it will be possible to cull only infected badgers and their close contacts.   It should be possible to do this by feeding different coloured food to different setts.


It is good news that Defra has finally arranged for another “roll out” of badger culling, in Dorset this time.   Hopefully this will be the last cull that is not specifically targeted at sick badgers.




Defra has invited comments on its “Guidance to Natural England on the implementation and enforcement of a badger control policy”.   A long document then gives details of the proposed plan for culling.    Among matters mentioned is the proposal to monitor the change in the incidence of TB in cattle before and after culling, compared with the change in similar areas unculled.    There has been much “anecdotal evidence” that culling has reduced TB.  Hopefully Defra will soon give us some figures.


The guidance also says that culling may be stopped if there is a danger of local disappearance of badgers”. There will be post mortem examination of some of the killed badgers to see that it was done properly.   Why no post mortems to discover the incidence of TB?


On the finance it is stipulated that money to cover the whole cost of four years’ culling must be deposited by farmers at the start.   The necessary sum is to be calculated, the NFU explains, according to a combination of area of farm and number of cattle.    It seems it might be manageable to a well established and healthy farm, but what about farms already damaged by TB in the cattle, or with other serious difficulties?


One cannot help wondering at the equity of charging cattle farmers to rid the country of a notifiable disease which affects humans as well as cattle and other animals, and has been allowed to increase to epidemic proportions because of government inactivity.   Or could one say because of the unhelpful opposition of the RSPCA, plus recently Brian May, who has campaigned so vociferously against culling.



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