In 1983 I qualified as a chartered surveyor, and started working in Cheshire, mainly with dairy farmers. At that time, a lot of farmers had signed up to development schemes under which they received government investment grants for new buildings, machinery and other farm improvements.
All this was turned on its head in 1984 when, overnight, Milk Quotas were imposed. Farmers stopped spending on major investments and, by and large, battened down the hatches. Until then, we had been working with dairy farms from 30 cows upwards. Most cows were milked through herringbone milking parlours, housed over the winter in cubicle housing and fed about 6 tonnes of silage and 1.5 – 2 tonnes of cake a year. Typical milk yields from a productive dairy herd were about 6,000 litres of milk pa. A large herd was anything over 150 cows, and cows typically joined the herd at about 2.5 years old, leaving it about 4 to 5 years later. Although an acre a cow was often mentioned, most cows actually enjoyed a slightly higher stocking rate than this, about 1.25 acres of grass each. A few pioneers like Giles Tedstone were producing reasonable yields of milk entirely from grass, with no supplementary feeding. They were however, generous with the Nitrogen to achieve these levels of production.
The other big legal event of 1984 for dairy farmers was the implementation, after 10 years on the statute book, of the Control of Pollution Regulations 1974. Suddenly our work switched from advising farmers on new investments and herd expansion/improvement, to how to deal with slurry and silage effluent, in the wake of vigorous enforcement campaigns by the National Rivers Authority or its predecessors (Regional Water Boards?) (now the Environment Agency). This was a body blow to many farmers. Milk quota was allocated on historic levels of production, not the levels planned for under ambitious development schemes, and buildings had been erected for which there were now to be no cows. And on top of all that, investment was now required in waste management schemes which would show no return other than the avoidance of prosecution and fines.
Driving around Cheshire now, it is easy to see the legacy of this period. Buildings which were thought to be very smart at the time are now looking forlorn, and it is clear that many of the dairy farmers have struggled since then to keep up with the reinvestment requirements of their businesses. A lot of the cows have simply gone.
But we have also seen the emergence of much larger dairy farms: 400 – 600 – 800 and more cows. Robotic milking technology, and the return of the large rotary milking parlour – itself a piece of precision engineering undreamt of in 1983.
What are the implications here for the human side of the management of larger dairy herds? Once upon a time the cowman did all the jobs, with the help of an assistant and perhaps a relief-milker. Are we now likely to see the emergence of greater specialisation in the management of the dairy herd, for example the milking team, the health team, the feeding/forage team, the waste team, the data analyst and so on? We hope to be exploring these questions in the near future.