Concern over island’s dairy farming industry

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The despondency over the future of the island’s dairy farming industry deepened this week with the news that three further farms are to leave the dairy sector.

The price paid to the Bute farmers for their milk has plummeted over the last few years. First Milk’s price is the lowest in Britain, with Bute farmers receiving even less than First Milk’s average.

In December 2013 farmers were getting 32p per litre. A Bute farmer selling 60,000 litres to First Milk received some £19,000 in return. By December 2014, with the price per litre nose-diving to 14p, the same output yielded an income of only £8400, a catastrophic drop. The price has recovered to 23p/litre, but there are signs this price is under pressure.

Set alongside this drop in income are increases in outgoings such as fertilisers, without which the grass will not grow, supplementary feeding and machinery. Pressure from the environmental lobby means spraying for leather jackets, which eat the roots of the grass, is banned.

While these are facts of life for dairy farmers countrywide, the Bute producers must also absorb the cost of transport from the island. The First Milk tanker, full with 29,200 litres of milk, pays £220 to CalMac in ferry fares, an oncost of 0.8p per litre. Transporting a cow to Ayr market requires an outlay of £30.

This harsh economic equation has persuaded the farmers at Dunallan, Kerrytonlia and Bruchag that enough is enough and they will cease production in the coming months and dispose of their dairy herds.

In 1998 there were 32 dairy farms on Bute. When First Milk closed the Rothesay Creamery in 2010, its cheese-making operation was supplied from 16 Bute farms and one from Cowal. The present 12 will reduce to nine by the end of the summer.

The remaining nine are understood to be seeking out a new market for their milk, but it seems certain they will need to expand operations as a key factor is filling the milk tanker each day.

Kerrytonlia changed to dairying when the present tenant, Duncan McAlister, left Rothesay Academy in the mid-70s. When James McAlister, from nearby Bruchag, sells off his Ayrshire cows at Carlisle on May 10, it will signal the end of one of the oldest Ayrshire herds in Britain, dating back to 1850/60. Bruchag won the Supreme Championship at the Highland Show as long ago as 1898. The farm records reveal that McAlisters have been landholders on Bute since 1506. James is one of five brothers farming on the island.

For Robert McIntyre at Dunallan, his retiral at Martinmas will be a poignant moment, as his family have farmed there since 1822 and the Ettrick Bay herd is the second oldest Friesian herd in Scotland. Robert, himself, served as a director of Scottish Milk, one of the precursors of First Milk.

There seems to be general agreement that successive governments have to bear some of the blame for the present difficulties by persuading farmers to increase herd sizes and milk production, without ascertaining that there was a market for the product. There is criticism, too, of the abolition of quotas, with Robert McIntyre stating: “Bute farmers cannot compete in an open market.”