Dairy farmers seek government help as lockdown forces milk dumping

UK dairy farmers have called for government help after a collapse in the milk market following the coronavirus lockdown forced them to start dumping the product, with about 5m litres a week at risk of being discarded.

The closure of restaurants, cafés and canteens has cut into milk demand, pushing down prices and compelling some farmers to start dumping milk after processors halted collections.

The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, an industry body, on Tuesday evening asked the government to “reimburse dairy farmers who are receiving a significantly reduced value or are having to dispose of their milk as a result of their processor being heavily reliant on the food service sector”.

Some 10m litres a week of milk would normally enter the food service industry, according to Peter Alvis, chair of the RABDF. Stores are absorbing about half of that, leaving about another 5m litres surplus after people stopped buying milky coffees and other dairy products they would normally consume outside the home, he said. Overall the UK produces about 35m litres of milk a day.

Mr Alvis said the situation was “without a doubt a risk to farmers’ livelihoods as they are not getting paid or are being paid a significantly reduced value, below the cost of production”.

He added: “But the larger difficulty for the industry is that with the extra amount of milk, it is pushing down the prices for all the rest of the [dairy] products.”

Consumers’ stockpiling cushioned the impact at the start of the lockdown, but the market began falling steeply last week. Spot wholesale milk prices fell from 20p a litre to 15p during the week, said the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, citing industry quotes. 

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The RABDF said about 300 farmers needed help. It called for the government to reimburse these farmers up to their standard milk price — about 25p a litre — if they can show the impact on their business was due to coronavirus. This would “help to stabilise the current spot price without causing long-term market distortion”, it added.

Farmers posted videos on social media of themselves discarding milk into slurry lagoons.

One Wiltshire farmer, Robert Mallett, said on Twitter at the weekend: “Ordered to dump milk tonight . . . What a waste of all the effort that goes into producing quality food.”

Milk processor Freshways was among those delaying milk collections and telling farmers some milk would have to be discarded, reports said. Freshways did not respond to a request for comment. 

Mr Alvis said there was also a lack of processing capacity for retail dairy products — but even with extra capacity, the retail sector would struggle to absorb all the surplus milk. Similar problems have emerged in the US and Canada as the coronavirus crisis has escalated.

Milk analyst Ian Potter said: “This will have very serious long-term consequences . . . sadly for some it won’t be a case of ‘can I find a new milk purchaser’, more ‘can I find a buyer for my cows’.”

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it was in talks with the industry about support. “We are also working very closely with farmer and processor representatives to understand the specific challenges that the dairy sector is facing,” a spokesperson said.

“Frequent discussions with the dairy supply chain will continue through this crucial period to understand what further support the sector needs.”

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