Bright Brexit outlook for the dairy sector

At the second RABDF business and policy conference last week the overall consensus from speakers indicated the future, post-Brexit, was looking bright for the dairy sector when compared to its beef and sheep sectors counterparts for example.

Producers with fewer than 100 cows will be put in the most volatile position by Brexit, that’s the view of Rob Hitch of Dodd & Co, as these farms are the most reliant on subsidies and have greater reliance on beef markets – which could suffer with an increase of non-EU competition.

Mr Hitch said: “The withdrawal of area-based subsidies, as a result of the departure of unprofitable red meat producers, will push land rental prices down creating more opportunities for dairy farmers to expand.”

Waitrose and Partners Duncan Sinclair had sound advice to farmers – focus on the issues behind the farmgate and leave the politics to trade associations and politicians.  He said we need to use the coming year to raise awareness of the scale of the upcoming challenges and identify activity that builds on existing programmes, encouraging a change in behaviour. 

“Whilst challenges, such as the new Agricultural Bill, low cost competitors and changes in British animal welfare are on the horizon, our commitment to drive sustainable farming and continuity won’t change.  As a retailer we have already proved willing to embrace change and work together which will aid in any challenges posed by Brexit.”  Quoting the chair of Waitrose Dairy Farmers Brian Barnett he concluded  ‘change is coming – so the best preparation for Brexit is to be the best we can’.

Whilst there are undoubtedly positives for the sector to take from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Gold Cup winners panel discussion highlighted some of their key farmgate concerns with the most poignant being the impact of the potential shortage of overseas labour and increase in staff costs.  Somerset dairy farmer Neil Baker said over 40% of cows are milked by European labour – maintaining this access will be one of the biggest Brexit challenges facing the industry.

After lunch the focus shifted onto cattle health and welfare.  The overriding message here highlighted the UK as a world leader in animal health and welfare, which will keep improving, and reaffirmed that we must use this as a USP to strengthen our appeal, especially with potential market uncertainty looming.

Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss kicked things off with an overall industry update where she outlined what was next for animal health and future farming; to improve productivity and reduce antibiotic use through industry led reduction in endemic disease. 

She said “As a result of previous industry feedback through the Health and Harmony document this will include working in partnership with the industry to ensure delivery and the improvement of on-farm animal health and agreement of endemic disease priorities.  We must also support the industry to deliver these improvements.”

The new UK AMR strategy is essential and includes a 20 year vision and five year national action plan to aid reduction in antibiotic usage.  Concerns surround the impact of how overuse in farming sectors can lead to resistance in humans, complicating treatment.  Fraser Broadfoot from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate explained what steps will ultimately lead to controlling the problem.

“We must prevent use where possible, improve alternatives and control infection via food hygiene and zoonoses he said.  Whilst targets have been set for each sector the dairy industry is set to focus on the likes of biosecurity, nutrition and housing, genetics and previous medicine as a way of preventing infection without the use of antibiotics.”  Progress to date can be viewed in the Targets Task Force Report 2017 and reflect a drop in sales of antibiotics.

Livestock traceability is all about insight with the original programme aims focusing on reducing the cost of traceability whilst improving future responsiveness says Defra’s Simon Hall.  “The plan is to enable bovine EID as an EU requirement from mid 2019. Going back to traceability insight, this knowledge is a fundamental enabler as it is vital to trade, it inspires customer confidence, underpins disease surveillance and control whilst enabling better animal health and welfare – something as an industry we must strive to continue improving. 

“The Traceability Design User Group – an industry government collaboration led by AHDB – has been designed to develop world leading standards of livestock traceability in the UK with the end goal being to build a world class livestock information service that has all species data in one place and is easy to use.”