Consumer backlash against ‘super dairies’ could create new label for ‘free range milk’

27 September 2010

A backlash against the increasing prevalence of superdairies comprising herds of thousands of animals will lead consumers to demand more 'free range' milk, farmers predict.

Nocton Dairies want to build the country’s largest dairy farm in Britain in Lincolnshire. Animal rights campaigners claim the plan to house more than 8,100 cows on one farm will lead to “battery farm” conditions.

Now farmers are predicting that consumers will demand “free range milk” in response to the plans, as reported in The Times [27/9/10].

Lyndon Edwards, the former chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF), said big dairies could be “positive for some farmers that want grow and expand”. But he warned of a “consumer backlash" that could lead to a demand for “free range milk”.

“They [super dairies] will fill a market for milk that is produced in vast quantities and is cheap to collect but there will be a backlash from consumers so maybe they will be best selling their milk into processing rather than into liquid markets,” he told the Farmers Guardian.

“It is probably good news for organic farmers because one of the organic standards is that cattle have to graze. Anything that raises consumer awareness of organic farming is good. I think it could also open the door to a free range milk brand as well, something which is probably long overdue.”

The average dairy herd size is still just 120 in the UK and animals are grazed outside for part of the year. But it is common to keep thousands of animals indoors in the US and the Continent where robots milk the cows and the animals only have limited time outside.

Phil Stocker, Soil Association director of farmer and grower relations, said the new unit will put yet more small family farms out of businesses as they cannot possibly compete. Already up to three dairy farmers give up in Britain every day. However, Mr Stocker said the growth of ‘super dairies’ may benefit organic farmers as their herds are guaranteed to have been grazed outside. “Most farmers would say super dairies are not a good thing but if it is going to happen it could boost sales of organic milk as people want a guarantee animals are given enough time outside,” he said. There could also be the creation of a new label as people demand ‘free range’ milk.”

Pat Thomas, of Compassion in World Farming, said the animals will suffer from increased risk of disease and cramped conditions. She said even the limited time outside is unlikely to be ‘green pasture’ because the animals are bred to need constant feeding and milking. “Consumers want cruelty free milk or factory free milk - at the moment there is no way to do that unless they go organic - so, there could be a market for free range milk,” she said.

Nocton Dairies is expected to resubmit the application for its farm just south of Lincoln in the next few weeks. David Barnes, director of Nocton Dairies, said the unit will ensure high welfare and environmental standards and the animals will be able to go outside.

“Our proposal will combine the best welfare and leading environmental technology, and the cows will be free to choose to go outside when the weather allows," he said. “All this will become clear when the planning application is resubmitted and we hope at that time everyone will look at the proposal and judge it on its own merits.”

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