Looking to the future
Horace Camp continues his analysis of Guernsey’s dairy industry by considering what could be the next step in the battle to save our cows.
YOU will be pleased to read that this is the third and last instalment of my great oeuvre on the Guernsey cow. I am also pleased because I am itching to get my two penn’orths worth of contribution to the other great tests we are living through out there.
Now, where were we? Column one detailed the sad decline of the once mighty breed to its current status of on watch for extinction. Hyperbole you say. Well, can you name the three Channel Island breeds of cattle? That’s right, three. When was the last time you saw an Alderney? Once it was THE dairy cow and highly sought after by the UK farmers, so much so that both Guernseys and Jerseys would be sold as Alderneys.
Many UK dairy breeds were vastly improved by the Alderney, although unfortunately they are also in decline having been pushed out by the ubiquitous Friesian. Up to 1,000 Alderneys a year were being shipped to England in the 17th century (although I guess some were Jerseys mislabelled to get a better price). Now there are no Alderneys. The Jersey is safe, but our lady is not.
Column two was a list of some of the many risks here and out there in the world that are all conspiring against our beloved breed. It wasn’t a complete list but a selection of the financial, sentimental and green risks. There are more in each of those categories but two worth adding here are the Netherlands passing a law that dairy herds have to be reduced by 30% for environmental reasons. Dairy is hugely important to the Netherlands but even their cows aren’t safe. And the second is one I hadn’t touched on – the risk of a great plague hitting the island’s herd and reducing it to an unsustainable size. Remember foot and mouth?
This column is intended to give some hope and possibly suggestions for safeguarding the future for the breed. It was easy to write the first two columns, but this one is very hard. Hence my prevaricating, long-winded introduction. There must be some light ahead, surely?
The first thing is we must accept a dairy industry on this island is only ‘commercial’ because milk imports are strictly controlled, Guernsey Dairy is the monopoly buyer of raw milk and we, the good people of Guernsey, are willing to pay well over the odds for our milk for sentimental reasons.
I’ve tried to find the price the dairy pays farmers for milk but I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve therefore resorted to the back of a fag packet and a wet tea towel wrapped around my head. The dairy’s website claims to process six million litres a year and the dairy’s accounts for 2020 report purchases of milk costing £4.7m., which I calculate to be 78.3p per litre. (Subsequent to doing this important brain work that excellent gentleman, the president of the STSB, burst my bubble by advising that farmers get 67p per litre. Luckily it didn’t ruin the point I was making.) The average UK farm gate price for raw milk in 2020 was 30p per litre. Do you see why milk imports are controlled? There are UK supermarkets selling processed milk at 62p per litre. We can’t even produce it for that price.
Not only are our production costs astronomical but so are our processing costs. By my reckoning, and I will be happy to be corrected, our farmers receive £4.7m. for their efforts. The dairy’s staff costs were just over £1.5m. in 2020. That’s 25p per litre, which is nearly as much as UK farmers were being paid for their milk.
It is going to get worse. A perfect storm is building up with exponential rises in input costs for farmers. Fuel, fertiliser and grain prices are going through the roof. UK experts predict a 40% rise in costs, which will force the UK raw milk price past the 40p-a-litre mark. If the rise in costs is 40% in the UK, it will be higher here. It always is.
So if we take my 67p per litre and increase it by 50%, we get to a break-even price of £1.05 per litre. We have to assume the dairy is likely to cost more in these inflationary times so will popular sentiment in this cost of living crisis be prepared to live with milk at £2 per litre?
This is the ‘future is bright’ column but for you to follow my thinking you have to accept that there is no rhyme or reason for sustaining the Guernsey breed on this island except for the fact we want to. We could have done the same with tomatoes by banning tomato imports, making the States a monopoly buyer of all fruit which it then processes at a multimillion-pound facility before selling on to supermarkets where they are sold for £2 each. We chose not to do that – I wonder why?
If support is withdrawn, and the support via the inflated milk price and ‘keep the fields nice’ payment is in States terms quite small (possibly less than £4m. a year, or about £2,000 per cow), then we can’t expect farmers to keep the cows out of the goodness of their hearts. Eventually their bank balances would prevent them doing that anyway.
The status quo, as long as it is supported, which I doubt will be forever, is the best solution. But I query whether we should pump £30m.-plus into a new processing plant. I also worry about the drift to so-called plant milks and the vegan and green demonising of dairy on both moral and ‘save the planet’ grounds.
Therefore we need a plan B. Which could be turning a piece of England into New Guernsey, where we establish a new herd with the intention of breeding it back to the popular cow it once was. Get rid of those long legs and get it back to being the efficient grazer and water user the world needs now. Then we could ship the milk in daily and keep our fields tidy with steers and replacement heifers. No dairy needed and millions in costs saved.
Or we think right out of the box and go all 21st century by finding another income stream to support the cows. I say support the cows because this isn’t about supporting an industry because that industry is dead here. Nor is it about supporting farmers. They aren’t in short supply. But as a side-effect of another income stream, which means less reliance on the States and the good people of Guernsey, the farmers will be in an even better situation.
I watch a lot of YouTube and somehow I started following a viscountess who lives in the most splendid manor house in England surrounded by thousands of acres of productive arable land on her estate. Her house is filled with great works of art and fine pieces of furniture from the 18th century, when the family were ennobled.
Worth a bob or two, eh? But what do you know, she shows us a leak in the roof and the damage it is doing. Instantly money starts rushing her way. She shows us a lovely old barn that would be great if converted into a cottage for visitors, if only she had the budget. Instantly the money starts rushing. It’s such a shame, she says, that the new biodiversity warden they have hired to replace the gamekeeper hasn’t got a little run-around vehicle. A month later the vehicle is there and she thanks all of her subscribers for making it possible with their donations.
Yes, there are people out there who will back things with money. I am sure there are millions of people out there who have fond memories of Guernsey cows. Tap into them with a biweekly vlog highlighting the farming, the beautiful cows, the lovely island, etc. Not only will they give money to the Guernsey Cattle Heritage Trust and sign up as patrons, they will also want to visit the island and spend freely when they are here. Support two struggling sectors with one investment.
Perhaps the dairy could dip into its massive £31,000 marketing budget to get it off the ground. Visit Guernsey could chip in as well.
I don’t have the answers. but I do know we have to properly address the issue that our island breed could go the way of the Alderney. Before spending tens of millions on a new dairy, reimagine a world full of Guernseys and plan how we will get there. Bonne chance.