The case for expansion: is the future for farming all about size?

Grovesnor Farm

Dairy farms are getting bigger. Go back to the late 1990s and the average size of a herd was 70-odd in the UK. Today it is around 150.

That average herd size figure (from AHDB) is somewhat skewed by a large number of small dairy farm holdings of less than 10 cows (6,000 out of 19,000 dairy holdings in total in the UK). In England there are now more than 20 holdings with 1,000-plus cows.

One of those 1,000-plus holdings is Grosvenor Farms in Cheshire. We’ll be there next week to debate the future of dairying in the UK - and farming more generally.

For the managing director Mark Roach there the future is very much one where ‘bigger is better’. It means increased economies of scale and a more efficient milk production set-up. Even with the current uncertainties around Covid-19, recession and Brexit, he has been expanding the herd size.

The bigger is better trend is nothing new in dairy. 

Back in 1966 at the Oxford Farming Conference one of the speakers on a session on 'Expansion in Dairying' at the Wednesday afternoon session was a Mr R M Ecroyd, from Hertfordshire. He was milking 1,000-plus cows across eight farm units, supported by c1,000 acres ‘devoted mainly to intensive grass production’.

What has changed since 1966 is that the bigger is better trend appears to be gradually squeezing out the middle.

The question is, will there be room in the future for those medium-sized dairy holdings - those that are neither very big nor very small micro-dairy or hobby setups?

A few years ago I ran a debate at the other farming conference in Oxford on the future of dairy, with representatives from all sizes of farm.

NFU Cymru Milk Board chair Abi Reader had said then that size was not necessarily important. There is room for producers of all sizes, she said, as long as they have sound business models and are capable farmers.

The case for expansion remains strong among many within the farming sector, but what is the future for those - whether in dairy or any other sector - who can’t or don’t get bigger?

Join us next week to discuss - and feel free to send your opinions and questions.

#OFCBitesize will take place on Thursday 6 August 2020 from 12.00 - 13.00. Click here to register to join.

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