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26/09/2017
BBC Radio 4

Super dairies

Archers agricultural advisor

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As Debbie brings proposals for a dairy unit housing 1000 cows or more, Archers agricultural advisor Steve Peacock looks at the emergence of the 'super dairy'.

In the white heat of the 1960s, when Dan was in charge at Brookfield and Phil challenging for top dog status, you could sell food by getting an actor to dress up as a lab technician and talk about science and innovation.

These days you'd be better off with a smock, or at least a tweed jacket. We seem to need reassurance about our food and farming. Consumers prefer images of contented animals, green fields, woodland and rolling pasture, however tenuous the link may be with the actual means of production.

It is no surprise, then, that plans for large-scale, intensive dairy farms prove to be controversial, even among people living far away from the site. We may not know a lot about how food is produced but we know what we like. And we like cows to be in fields, chewing the cud, not in sheds being fed by computers.

Debbie's scheme

Debbie Aldridge's latest wheeze is for her father Brian and the Borchester Land board to invest in a high-tech, intensive dairy unit on the Estate. This is nowhere near the scale of the Nocton Dairies plan that caused such a storm of protest in Lincolnshire. That was withdrawn earlier this year after objections from the Environment Agency. But it is on a grand scale for dairy farming in Britain.

The average herd size is growing, as almost one farmer a day gives up dairying and herds are amalgamated. But it's still not much over 120. The percentage of farms where herds are housed all year round is very small. But unless campaigns like 'Not In My Cuppa' get up a real head of steam it will grow. That sector will account for a disproportionately large percentage of the country's milk production.

Units like Debbie's are not The Future but they have proved profitable in the USA and mainland Europe. They are likely to be an increasingly important part of the dairy farming landscape.

She needn't expect many people to like them though. The idea of 1,000 or 1,500 milkers living under cover all year round, fed 'total mixed rations' instead of grazing the meadows, will be controversial for the forseeable future.

Phil Archer might have approved. After all, he ran an intensive pig unit in his time. But Dan and Doris wouldn't have no more than David and Ruth would. (Although as an National Farmers Union branch chair, David has to be even-handed when discussing controversial issues).

In fact, the NFU would argue that there is plenty to be even-handed about. They point to the high welfare standards enjoyed by the cattle living in these units: the constant attention of highly-qualified herdspeople and vets; clean and comfortable bedding; well-designed, easily digested food; no need to trudge around muddy fields in all weathers.

Open the doors and give them the choice, enthusiasts say, and the cows choose the five-star hotel. They also make the point - and no doubt you'll hear Brian on the subject before long - that in this country most dairy cattle spend nearly half the year under cover, often in less comfortable and welfare-friendly conditions than you will find in a modern dairy unit.

My bet is it'll cut little ice - not until you see a shed on a packet of cheese.

Steve Peacock is The Archers agricultural advisor.

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