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Mega Dairy or small dairy farms?

What is better one mega dairy with 2,000 cows under one roof or 150 small dairies?

There is a mega dairy up north with 2,000 Holstein cows under one roof. It is managed by one person and produces milk at 16p per litre. The Holstein cow has been specially bred to produce large quantities of low fat milk and are slaughtered after 3 lactations (4years). The milk is sold in supermarkets for around 70p per litre.

A small dairy down south has 20 cows employs 2 people and produces milk at around 40p per litre. The cows are a traditional Jersey, producing, a ‘high solid’ milk and live for over 13 lactations, 14+ years. The milk is sold direct to local people, either raw or pasteurised at around £1 per litre.

Both farms are making a good profit.

Where do you want your milk to come from? And how much are you prepared to pay for quality, animal welfare, and supporting your local community?

The mega dairy is making the large corporates, food chain and supermarkets lots of money, but returning very little to the local community or tax to the treasury.

150 small dairy farms, to produce the same amount of milk as the mega dairy, would employ 300 people, put their money back in to the local economy and contribute far more tax to the treasury? Or have I missed something?

Unfortunately we are are already moving rapidly away from small dairy farms, to mega dairies, with 11,000, over half the total, closing in the last 20 years.

Other interesting facts;
The milk from a Holstein cow is similar to Jersey milk with add water. This is legal because the water is added by the cow and not a human.

Mega dairies milk their cows using robots and can detect milk yield to adjust the feed quantity automatically. Any illness can be detected through teat temperature and antibiotics administer accordingly.

Mega dairies feed their cows a special high protein feed small dairies feed their cows predominantly on grass or silage.

Raw milk is better for us but restricted because it may give is TB if the cow has TB.

There is a vaccine for TB in cows that would eradicate bovine TB and mean no Badger cull. It will not happen because the vaccine may get in to beef meat and give the french an excuse ban imports. The French say they do not have TB in cattle, most experts say they do.

We welcome your thoughts below.


  1. ahardy66 says:

    What will TB vaccine do to French steaks then?

  2. Perry Farmar says:

    You have missed rather a lot and should have done some proper research before blogging this waffle.

    You say that both the large and small dairies “make a good profit” which isn’t the general experience of the industry. Your 20 cow/2 person dairy may survive because it doesn’t fully cost its (man & wife?) labour, is in an area of lush grass and has a niche business selling small amounts of high price milk direct to locals that are willing to pay 40% more for it.

    That’s sounds truly wonderful, but it is of no use whatsoever to the majority of people who live in cities, require enormous amounts of milk, need to minimise their living costs, and do not have a friendly farmer with 20 cows from whom to buy just down the road. That’s why small dairies are usually non-viable and are closing down.

    Large dairies plus processors with a sophisticated transport network and supermarket outlets are the only realistic way to supply the vast majority of the UK’s population, but this doesn’t mean that even a large dairy makes much of a profit on its huge capital investment.

    The supermarket sells at around 70p/litre and the dairy is paid about 30p/litre, the 40p gap going in transport, processing and supermarket overheads/profits. You say that your “mega dairy” is “managed by one person” and produces at 16p/litre – the implication is that its profit is the difference between 70p and 16p which is baloney. I estimate that an efficient computerised and mechanised 2000 cow dairy would need to employ about 15 people (albeit with a single manager!) and that its production costs would be at least 25p/litre.

    I’m afraid that your facts and figures are simply wrong and that your bucolic vision of hundreds of small dairies supplying full fat jersey milk to our towns and cities is ludicrous.

  3. bigbarnblog says:

    Thanks for your comment Perry. This is not article is not waffle and my facts come from a very good source.

    I am amazed you are so aggrieved. Do you really think the food industry is motivated by what is good for the consumer, rather than profit?

    To me the story sums up the food industry very well. The mega dairy is producing diluted milk, treating cows inhumanely, and employing very few people by investing huge amounts in technology.

    In the long term the small dairies, selling through the milk supply chain, will go out of business and the mega dairies will charge as much as the market will take. Their profits will be moved abroad and very little tax paid to the UK government.

    Those small dairies that do survive by producing a better quality milk, from high welfare cows, and selling direct to locals, and people in cities, will make a profit by cutting out the expensive supply chain.

    My family grow onions and get, on average £120/tonne every year. 2 days later they are on the supermarket shelf for £850/tonne. That seems to be a lot for transport and supermarket margins and costs?

    Your vision of mega farms as the best way to feed our cities is terribly nieve. You seem to want people to become even more distanced from the production of their food and be totally beholden to the supermarkets and adverts on the television.

    I am trying to raise awareness of the downside of mega dairies and what other smaller farms are doing and making a healthy profit.

    • Perry Farmar says:

      Of course the food industry (including small dairies) is motivated by profit, or at least trying to make a living whilst covering its cost of capital investment. This is inevitable, except under a communist command economy or in a hippy commune, and applies as much to dairies as to your family onion business.

      I am not campaigning for people to become even more distanced from production of their food, but merely pointing out that, in today’s and tomorrow’s real world, the mainly urban population has to depend on highly efficient large farms and bulk supply food chains. Most people do not have the luxury of buying from small high quality, and high price, local suppliers – would that they did! If your family could sell its onions for more by cutting out the supermarkets, I assume that it would.

      When you go on about dairies charging what they like and moving their profits abroad, you seem to be confusing UK milk producers with processors or supermarkets that are rather more likely to have some foreign shareholders – anyway, your comment on this, and the idea that large dairies would reduce the UK’s tax take, didn’t make much sense.

      Small dairies will die out as you say, except in certain niche situations like your 20 cow Jerseys. The small niche dairies are great, and long may they survive, but they cannot solve the overall supply problem.

      It doesn’t follow that large dairies will then be able to charge whatever they like. They are not monopoly suppliers and have to accept what supermarkets and their customers will pay (milk sells for less than bottled water). Even quite large and efficient dairies are currently operating at just over breakeven, when inputs, depreciation and cost of capital are taken into account. Dairy is also a very high risk business because it is subject to costs over which it has no control (e.g. feed, fuel and finance costs) and simply cannot increase the price of its product unilaterally – the only pressure that dairies can exert on the market is that of shutting down, which is a council of despair.

      The supply chain is expensive as you say and I would not object if its costs could be reduced and/or if the public would pay more for milk (and your onions for that matter!). But don’t criticize the producer of milk (or the squeezed onion grower!).

      Holstein milk is certainly less creamy than Jersey milk and large dairies tend to have Holsteins because (1) full fat milk has become less popular with customers, for health reasons, and (2) they are more capable of producing the volumes required by the overall market.

      Large dairies do not treat cows inhumanely. If they did so, milk production would suffer both in quality and volume, vets bills would rise, the buyers’ inspectors would apply price sanctions (or shut the operation down) and the dairy would lose money. These are just the business reasons as to why you are wrong, but even large dairy farmers have an empathy with the animals they look after and treat them well for moral, not just financial, reasons.

      • bigbarnblog says:

        Thanks for your second comment and for being more civil this time. Although I do not think I am ‘wrong’ especially when you are starting to agree with many of my points.

        I think you are very wrong to assume that inhumane animal practices would decrease production. A good example is female pigs penned in crates to increase production by protecting piglets. Clearly inhumane and banned in this country.

        Yes, the food industry, and small business, has profit as one of their motives, the big difference is, short term, verses long term. Big business is motivated by short term shareholder value and current directors remuneration, as opposed to small business thinking one, or more, generations ahead.

        Tesco recently had an offer; 1 for £1 or 2 for £2, obviously to increase sales. I doubt a farm shop would treat their customer in such a complacent way.

        Yes my family will sell their onions direct if we can find enough local customers and retailers. Unfortunately too many people believe that the food industry, and supermarkets, really care about the consumer, and will give them good food and a fair deal. From what I can see this is not the case.

        They have already watered down milk, cut the average life expectancy for a cow in half and charge more for many products than are available in my local farm shop. A shop that is making a good profit, returning money to the local economy and encouraging more local food production.

        There are thousands of similar shops on the BigBarn website, with some attached to small dairies selling their milk for less than the local supermarket. Yes, cheaper, not due to inaccurate accounting, or loss leader, but because they are cutting out the middle men and retailer margins. We need to spread the word about such shops and dairies and encourage people to switch from the supermarket to local suppliers.

        How can this be wrong?

  4. timfinney says:

    sadly it’s all just a race to the bottom–when we have moved to 2000 cow dairies producing cheaply (with all the knock on consequeneces, whether it’s environment, welfare or more likely rural social disruption, loss of jobs etc), someone will then come along with 3000 cow dairies producing even more cheaply: and so on and so on (t’was ever thus with human endeavour). These cheaper producers will not make more profit, since the semi-cartel like retail industry is geared to paying food producers, especially ‘own label’ producers and processors, just about the amount needed to keep them in business. So cheaper milk for everyone–anybody would think it was expensive already, so determined are some people to make it cheaper!– unquantifiable knock on effects on cow welfare, possible trouble for the local environment, fewer jobs, families uprooted. What a marvellous route forward.

    • bigbarnblog says:

      Thanks Tim, and very true. But we must not give up. Those of us that do see what is happening must act and buy good food and drink locally and tell our friends. The great news is that the supermarkets and middle men have reached the point of ‘greed’ where they are complacent and local producers and independent retailers can give a better deal. BigBarn exists to help more people find these places and by shopping with them help them grow and produce even more local food and drink.

  5. Amy Jackson says:

    To take a selection of your points individually:

    – All farms are managed by one person. One person is always need to have responsibility in a business of any kind, whether they are the owner or the manager
    – Many small farms have Holstein cows too. I am visiting a Jersey herd next week with 1600 cows. Breed is irrelevant to size of herd
    – Many people have old Holsteins. And a cow slaughtered after 3 lactations would be 5 or 6 years old, certainly not 4. People also have old Friesians, old Jerseys, old Guernseys etc etc.and also some that have to leave the herd early, for a variety of reasons.
    – all farming makes supermarkets lots of money, but most also support the local economy with local jobs (except where they use family labour although you could argue those are jobs), purchases from feed and other farming suppliers, contractors etc., and all pay taxes IF they make a profit, which many don’t. In fact, you could also argue that IF a large dairy was earning lots of money then it is, de facto, returning lots more to the treasury. 150 small dairy farms would probably use no labour other than the family, so no local jobs outside the family.
    – many farms have survived but have had to expand to gain economies of scale so that is why the average herd size has almost doubled over the same period, but it is still only 120 cows.
    – any milk, compared with a jersey’s, has less solids – that is fat and protein. The poor old Holstein – why do you have such a downer on her? She’s a lovely cow and most farmers are extremely attached to their Holsteins! I think you are being very discrimating against them; they are as loving as the next cow and don’t deserve the bad press you are giving them! We have to look after the cows we have, and over 90% of the cows in the UK are Holstein or Holsetin Friesian….and they certainly aren’t all in ‘mega-farms’
    – Robots are not necessarily practical in large herds and certainly I’m not aware of any farms with over 500 cows using them. In fact, around a quarter of herds in many European countries now use robots, but many are on small family farms of around 60 cows or so because the farmers need a better lifestyle, are getting less able as they get older, and can’t necessarily afford the time and effort of trying to recruit and keep good labour. Yes technology is wonderful and farmers of all sizes and system are using science to help keep cows healthier and give them better nutritition. The great thing about technology is it’s allowing us to detect the onset of disorders more quickly so that antibiotics can often be avoided! And that’s good news for everyone as no milk can enter the food chain if a cow has been treated with them when she’s ill.
    – All farms feed large amounts of forage to cows, but yes, if the cows are high yielding, they need a diet higher in protein and energy, much as someone doing lots of exercise needs each day or a breastfeeding mother. it would be negligent and harmful if a farerm did not feed a cow to suit her needs. High yielding Jerseys need diets high in protein and energy too.
    – Why is Raw milk better for us?
    – there is no viable, workable vaccine for TB in cows but the good news is they’re working on it!

    Can I ask if you’ve researched this subject by visiting a large dairy farm? and interested to know at what point a dairy farm becomes ‘mega’?

    • bigbarnblog says:

      Hi Amy and thanks for your comment, although please note this is a blog, not a scientific report for a journal. I did not visit a mega dairy but have had my statements checked by an ‘expert’. An expert who says there is a viable workable vaccine for TB in cows. My blog was designed to show the difference between small, and mega dairies, and how we do not ‘need’ dairies to get big, to be profitable, if they sell their milk direct.

      I have nothing against Holsteins or robot milking machines. But I don’t like seeing animals selectively bred to suit the needs of the supply chain, rather than what is good for the consumer. I always though robot milking machines for small family farms would be brilliant allowing them, as you say, to lead a better lifestyle.

      As far as supermarkets returning money to the local economy please read ‘plugging the leaks’ by the New economice Foundation. And for more on the benefits of raw milk a previous blog

      • Amy Jackson says:

        Hi there. Not sure how my answers can be likened to a scientific journal! important to be factually correct and not sacrifice accuracy for the sake of sensation, which I’m afraid is what happens too often. But facts don’t always make good headlines so that’s where accuracy loses out.

        Am interested that your expert has access to the private financial information of farmers! Costs of production vary by more than 10p per litre if my memory serves me right, so admit to being fascinated that your contact can so confidently state what a given farmer’s COP is…

        By viable and workable vaccine I mean effective and usable. This gives quite good info on this point

        Would still be interested in your view as to the definition of a mega dairy.

  6. bigbarnblog says:

    Hello again Amy. The vaccine I was talking about was for cattle not badgers.

    16p COP was what I was told, and I believe it. The point of the blog however, was price and quality to the consumer and the viability of the small farmer.

    I would say mega was 1,000 or more cows under one roof.

  7. Lou says:

    I am a retail customer and I buy all our milk from a small dairy farm three miles away. We are lucky that we live in a place where this is possible, but the likes of Big Barn are doing a great job of expanding access for those that might not know how to source products from smaller suppliers. Increasing numbers of consumers are sick of cynical exploitative supermarkets and the way they treat their suppliers. Thank you Big Barn for highlighting that there is an alternative.

  8. nplima says:

    Recently there was a Metro newspaper article comparing different aspects of the latte drinks sold at Eat, Pret a Manger, Costa, Starbucks, Nero (and I can’t remember if there were others).
    Those who answered the question about the suppliers of their milk revealed that they buy in bulk from some sort of purchasing agent who in turn buys the milk at a price level that allegedly was below the production cost of the milk farms.
    Do you know how/whether this is possible?

    • bigbarnblog says:

      Yes this is possible and often happens, but should not. Milk is a perishable item and needs to be sold. Those selling it are probably following the example of airlines who sell off some tickets at a loss to fill up the plane. in the case of milk this is rather lazy and should not happen.

  9. I always buy everything from the smallest, most local producer possible. “Mega” is not good! There are many reasons to support small farms, reasons that benefit everyone – from the animals to the entire planet.

  10. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article! It’s the little changes that produce the most important changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!|

  11. Linzi says:

    I expect the ‘contact’ works for DEFRA, you can find out a lot about farming working there. I worked in bovine TB testing there and found out quite a bit about TB. There is a vaccine for cows but as it is tuberculin based, like the BCG for humans, it will make cows tested using the tuberculin based test, that is an EU requirement, test positive for TB. Most farms in the South West seem to have about 200 or so cows but there are some with one or two thousand so it seems we have mega farms here too

  12. S Gibbens says:

    I cannot underpin my comment with any scientific or factual data at all but, at the risk of drawing derision, I’m going on gut feeling here. I understand that, if one starts claiming inhumane treatment, then someone will always come back with the “of course it isn’t or the animals would be ill, vets’ bills would be higher, blah blah” argument. Nevertheless, I have a blanket sense of disgust about mega dairies. They just seem wrong to me, mainly as the cattle are not on grass. Naive this may make me, but I am sick to death of hearing farmers misuse the word “need” when discussing the public’s requirements. The public does not need cheap food (milk), they want it. Times may be hard, and every penny counts, but anyone who thinks a bottle of milk can be produced at so little cost, is yet another person who does not understand good housekeeping, which should encompass careful food production as well as value for money. The supermarkets are full of people pushing trolleys laden down with pies, pizzas, processed foods, and I bet they go home moaning about how much they have had to spend. Buy good milk, good cheese, and a few potatoes, and you have a magical meal, cheap, and wholesome. Buy a free range chicken, make it last 3 days, and I bet this works out cheaper than 3 days worth of supermarket pies. I’ve gone sideways from the argument! Mega dairies? Ban them.

  13. Theodore Molony says:

    It is quite interesting to note that after reading all of this comments that not one person mentioned the benefits of the advancement in technology as far as milk production is concerned. aside the breeding, i personally think that technology has had a very positive effect on dairy farming and related activities. Although the argument is still on about the decline in cow numbers in UK attributing it to the inhumane treatment that these beasts of burden go through just to keep on producing milk for the world’s ever growing demand for milk and dairy products. Bovine TB has had a share in this ill fated decline. But just a quick point to note, the bull calves that are shot at death because of their uselessness in terms of milk production could be used to make beef. Also, the issue of artificial insemination, i for onee, think it is just a stab on the back of nature. technology?????

    • bigbarnblog says:

      Thanks for your comment. I have nothing against technology and think automatic milking machines for small dairies are a great way to improve the quality of life for the farm owner. Especially not having to get up at dawn and milk the cows 2 or 3 times a day.

      As far as bull calves are concerned there is a growing demand for rose veal so very few calves are shot at birth.

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