Monday, 10 June 2013

How much for a pint of milk? (Open Farm Sunday)

On Sunday we went to Lee Valley Park Farms in Waltham Abbey, Essex, to join in Open Farm Sunday. We have been to this farm several times (and one day I will publish my draft post about how much we enjoy the animals, playground and soft play), but on Sunday we spent most of our time at Holyfield Hall Farm which is just a short tractor ride away from the main attractions.

If you visit in the afternoon on any day you can hop on the tractor (or walk) down to the working farm and see the calfs or the cows being milked. As part of the Open Farm Sunday event there were also special events including face painting, making corn dolls and the opportunity to sit in a real tractor. We also got shown around by Chris the (very lovely) farmer.

Normally when you visit there is lots of information presented in a way that is fun to read & learn, but my toddler doesn't stay still long enough so it was lovely to learn more about the dairy and arable farm and farming from someone who knows it so well.
Enjoying Open Farm Sunday at Lee Valley Farm
Enjoying the farm
We had a fun day, but I also learnt a few things that surprised me and it got me thinking about farming in Britain.

The amount farmers are paid for milk means it is pretty tough to make a farm profitable. The pressure on farmers to reduce costs means they have to make compromises. While the UK has very good welfare rules if farms were paid more they would be able to improve the living conditions of their animals. The amount farmers are paid is ultimately down to how much consumers are prepared to pay.

If we lose British farms the cost of milk is likely to jump.  Milk is difficult and expensive to transport long distances in it's liquid state and farms abroad are often paid more for their products without needing to export it.  How sustainable is it to keep paying the prices we do?

Here are some other things I learnt at the farm:

  • There is a lot of science in farming. The cows have chips so when they are milked the machine knows which one has produced how much milk. If they produce more milk than expected they are given more feed to give them the extra energy they need.
  • Cows can produce around 30 litres of milk a day when in their high yield stage.
  • While I knew (or at least hoped) welfare of British cows was ok it is reassuring to hear how a farmer believes it is important to have happy well cared for cows. 
  • Cows have passports which travel with them. This means that any British cow can be tracked back to point of origin.
  • The horse meat scandal shocked people but it seems that the only reason it was discovered was due to foreign DNA. Where supermarkets buy a large amount of foreign meat they can't trace the origin so there is a risk the meat will be poor quality, even if it is the animal that they believe. 
  • At Holyfield Park Farm the high yielding cows normally stay inside as they need higher levels of nutrition that grass alone can't provide, but they are comfy eg where they lie is cushioned and they have recently put rubber flooring around the milking area because the concrete makes their feet sore.
  • Cows are seriously big: about as tall as me and a lot longer. Easy to forget if you only see them at a distance in a field or on a plate.
  • "Lucky" female cows go round in a cycle of pregnancy, birth, high yield milk, low yield milk then up to 6 weeks 'holiday' before getting chased by a bull (or artificial insemination) and the process begins again.
  • One of the reasons the cost of own brand milk in supermarkets is kept low is because they form part of the "shopping basket" used to compare prices between stores. Branded milk such as Cravendale costs more, but the farmers get more money per litre.
  • Most milk sold in the UK is British because milk is hard to transport, however dairy products such as cheese & butter often aren't British. Support British farmers and buy British.

Thank you to Asda for inviting me to attend this event and for providing our lovely picnic lunch.

Disclaimer: we received free entry to the farm and a voucher from Asda to spend on a picnic lunch, however I am under no obligation to blog about the event. I have annual membership to Lee Valley farm anyway and regularly visit with my daughter.

The Next Open Farm Sunday is 8th June 2014, put the date in your diary.

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