We’re at a crossroads when it comes to dairy farming

I HAVE a confession to make to you, dear reader. Two weeks ago I recounted the very sad tale of the decline of the Guernsey cow from world dominance to near extinction in a single generation. Unfortunately, and it pains me to write this, I made a mistake. Local milk isn’t homogenised as I claimed. There, it’s out now, I’m not infallible.

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Moving quickly on, in this column I want to return to the Guernsey cow by looking at where she is now and what her future may be. So here we go, part two.

Guernsey is the best of places and the worst of places to be a dairy farmer. Our island home has all the benefits nature can provide for growing grass over a generously long season. We have sun, we have rain, we have mild winters and early springs. We have dry uplands and wet lowlands, which promises grassy meadows in droughts and accessible fields in wet springs.

We counter those best of things provided by nature with the worst of things being all the problems caused by man. Usually farmers own their land and all their fields are together surrounded by a single boundary fence, the famous ring fence. The beauty of this arrangement is that farmer, cows and tractors never have to leave the farm and this is good because it not only avoids irritating motorists but it also saves time – and time is money. Land ownership is good as well because it encourages the farmer to increase its wellness, knowing that money invested will see a return over the long term.

Farmers tend to own a core block of land around the farmstead. But in Guernsey for one reason or another, often inheritance but more recently the conversion of farms with land into prestigious homes, much of our agricultural land is owned by non-farmers. And the nature of ownership tends to be the odd field or a couple of fields here and there.

Even though that land is worth a fortune, say at least twice as much as prime farmland in the UK, it yields almost nothing for the owner, who is often happy to let farmers use it for a peppercorn rent as long as they keep it tidy. Often these agreements are of the gentleman’s variety and are usually on an annual basis. This gives the farmer little incentive to improve the ground and thus increase output.

Guernsey, by its nature of its fragmented land ownership and the lack of security for the tenant, is inherently inefficient and wasteful. The requirement to run around the island with tractors and machinery is time consuming, labour intensive and fuel guzzling. Again inefficient. The other thing about Guernsey fields is they are small. This makes them difficult to farm with modern large equipment. And dare I say it, but the increased mileage of hedges also cost a lot to keep tidy.

We have about 8,000 vergees devoted to dairy farming. In the UK that would support twice as many cows as we have here. In short, Guernsey should be the last place on Earth you would want to be a dairy farmer.

But there is an overriding factor. Despite all the problems of farming here, it is possible to make a profit. With the support of the people of Guernsey and by its government by paying an artificially high price for milk, as well as subsidising farmers for keeping the fields tidy, we have removed the risk of failure from our dairy industry. By my reckoning, and we know now that I am not infallible, so take it with a pinch of salt, I believe we support every milking cow with an annual payment of at least £1,500. That will increase with the amortisation of the proposed new milk processing plant which the States has indicated will cost more than £20m. and possibly £30m.

It is worth noting that if Jersey builds a new dairy the cost will fall to its owners – not the States of Jersey, but the dozen or so farmers who own it co-operatively. Again, another level of support for our industry not seen anywhere else.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to dairy farming. Bad science of the past started a decline in the consumption of dairy products when it vilified saturated fat. Who has been brainwashed into believing that butter is bad? We all have. New generations have grown up believing it and they are also the generations turning to faux plant-based milks. Female almonds do not produce milk from their mammary glands to feed their young.

And that leads us into another threat for the dairy industry. The generation of anti-livestock campaigners who turn their backs to meat-eaters and condemn those who steal milk from the mouths of calves. I thought the phrase ‘resistance is useless’ could only be attributed to Vogons – but change the vowels and you reveal another growing threat to dairy farming.

‘As interesting and well written as your column is so far, Horace,’ you will be thinking to yourself, ‘what has this to do specifically with Guernsey cows living in Guernsey?’

Well, dear reader, I believe if we follow our current path the Guernsey is doomed in its homeland. Public support, and by extension government support, will dwindle.

We have already established that the dairy industry cannot stand on its own two feet. Left to its own devices, and with a world awash with cheap milk that fewer and fewer will want to buy, then the future of our island breed will be dependant on altruistic farmers burning money solely for the love of an iconic breed.

I nailed my colours to the mast at the start of my last column. I want to see the future of the Guernsey in Guernsey secured for the long term. I especially want it to live through the Vogon assault when, if successful, the last Guernsey cow will breathe her last at the age of 22 somewhere deep inside a wilded thicket of willows and blackberry bushes somewhere in the Vale.

And all that will be left as a memorial will be a multimillion-pound milk-processing plant still fully staffed and maintained by the States of Guernsey just because it always has been and no-one can remember quite what it was actually built for.

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