Feature: Modern day farming - on the dairy farm

Minty and Kevin Willoughby.
Minty and Kevin Willoughby.

From their kitchen in Thurlby, just outside Alford, Minty and Kevin Willoughby have a stunning view of the Wolds. In the field in front of the house are some of their 300-strong pedigree dairy herd which they keep on a medium-sized farm of 330 acres.

No other farming sector has had the profile of dairy this year, with frequent news reports showing the dire plight of many milk producers and protests laying the blame at supermarkets.

Minty puts it very bluntly: “It’s suicidal for some.”

This is not an exaggeration: farming has one of the highest suicide rates by occupation, as the stress of maintaining a family business, which is also the family home, can take its toll.

The reasons behind this year’s milk price collapse are complex. The removal of the EU milk quota system back in April and changes in the international markets have all had an impact.

Kevin explains: “It’s the first year without milk quotas. Production had been held back a bit, but now the shackles have been lifted and everyone’s produced more. There’s worldwide over-production.

“Russia has shut its borders and that’s a big market gone. China has stockpiled skimmed milk powder and is not buying any at the moment.

“The high pound is one of the biggest things. It makes it much cheaper to import from Europe, from countries such as Holland.”

Milk price data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board show that average farm gate milk prices have fallen by 32 per cent in the last two years, from an average of 34 pence per litre to 23 pence per litre in September of this year.

With the average cost of production at 28 pence per litre, there are many dairy farms producing milk at an unsustainable loss.

The future according to Minty and Kevin is going to be highly unpredictable: “It’s going to be volatile. We’re in a global market and everybody’s linked into it. It’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.”

Tough as it is, there’s never a thought to throwing in the towel and giving it all up.

The Willoughbys keep a closed pedigree herd and they sell their quality heifers to supplement the milk. They also farm for the long term, allowing them to smooth over the peaks and troughs of the rollercoaster. It’s a beautiful place to live and work too.

As they say, it’s more than just a business: “It’s a way of life.”