On Monday, Gary Underwood got out of bed at 3am to bring in his 100-strong herd of Friesian cows from the fields.
By the time the rest of us had finished breakfast, his ‘girls’, as he likes to call them, had long since been milked and led back out to pasture on the 120-acre patch of countryside near the village of Oulton, in Staffordshire, that has been home to his family for generations.
Two thousand litres of creamy full-fat milk, chilled to a temperature of four degrees, were sitting in a tank in his barn, ready to be collected by the lorry sent daily by Freshways, one of Britain’s largest dairy companies.
But the lorry never came.
Gary Underwood (far left) with his family (left to right) Felix, Melissa and Alicia own an 120-acre patch of countryside near the village of Oulton in Staffordshire
Instead, just after noon, Underwood received a curt text message telling him the day’s visit was cancelled.
With no extra space to store his product, and the cows in need of milking that evening, Gary and his grown-up daughters Alicia and Melissa had to throw it all away.
A video made by Melissa shows it gushing noisily into a slurry pit.
‘It makes you sick to the stomach,’ she tells me.
‘Never in four generations have we been forced to throw out milk. We won’t be paid. It’s just gone. Money literally down the drain.
‘Dad’s 58, he has been committed to this farm his whole life. And, through no fault of his own, he is throw into a situation that could break him.’
Britain’s 10,000-odd dairy farmers are being forced to pour away millions of pints of fresh milk. Pictured: Dairy farmer Alicia Underwood and the Friesians whose milk is wasted
The ‘situation’ is one being experienced across the countryside, where every day hundreds of Britain’s 10,000-odd dairy farmers are being forced to pour away millions of pints of fresh milk.
To blame are ructions in the food supply chain caused by the coronavirus emergency, which in a few short weeks has shuttered the pubs, restaurants and coffee shops that normally buy about half of the 40million litres of milk we consume each day.
Suddenly, big companies such as Freshways, which only supplies the food service industry — its clients include Costa Coffee, Starbucks, British Airways, P&O and McDonald’s — can’t sell their highly perishable product, so their tankers are cancelling visits to the farm gate.
Yet the nation’s 1.8 million cows keep on producing milk, morning and night. Some estimates suggest that about 1.5million litres were thrown away on Sunday, when there was also a shortage of lorry drivers due to illness.
‘What a waste of all the effort that goes into producing quality food,’ was how Wiltshire dairy farmer Robert Mallet described the heartbreaking loss of 17,000 litres of fresh milk.
‘My grandmother says this is worse than wartime,’ Llyr Griffiths told reporters from his farm in Ceredigion, as he tipped away 11,500 litres.
‘At least the countryside could carry on producing food for the war effort and local people back then. But with this, we have no control over anything.’
With no extra space for storage, and the cows in need of milking that evening, the Underwoods were forced to throw the milk away into a slurry pit (pictured)
Meanwhile, in a cruel twist, demand in the retail sector has risen dramatically, so the companies that supply shops which sell milk to us all are struggling to get their hands on enough of it.
This has produced an absurd situation where there are shortages of milk, butter, cream and cheese on some supermarket shelves, just as producers such as Mallet, Griffiths and Underwood — who, like almost all dairy farmers, are under contract to sell only to one company — are pouring thousands of gallons away.
‘Our local Aldi is only letting us buy one container of milk per customer, and they are limiting purchases of UHT to four bottles,’ says Melissa Underwood, 34.
‘I have five children, aged from nine months to 18, so in our house one bottle doesn’t go far. It’s maddening.’
Robin Betts, who farms a herd of 100 cows on the North Downs in Kent and is contracted to contracted to produce milk for Freshways, lost 3,500 litres in one day
For many dairy farmers, whose industry has for years run on waferthin profit margins, the financial implications are frightening.
‘The milk price has been at a historic low, so we are on the edge anyway. And now we can’t offload it,’ says Robin Betts, who farms a herd of 100 cows on the North Downs in Kent.
‘I chucked away 3,500 litres on Sunday. When you have worked so hard, when you are raising these cows and feeding them and getting up before dawn to milk them, it just doesn’t sit well to chuck it into a lagoon — not when you then see shortages.
‘But it’s happening across the country. We have no route to market.’
Betts is also contracted to produce milk for Freshways, which usually pays him between £15,000 and £20,000 a month.
He says it has yet to pay for February’s supply, and has changed the payment terms so the cheque for March won’t now arrive until mid-May.
Even when its lorry does show up, the company has recently cut the price it pays farmers for milk from 24.5p to about 22p per litre (Freshways did not respond to a request for comment).
Other big companies in a similar position have followed suit, and more are expected to follow.
‘I’m spending today trying to work out which of my suppliers I can afford to pay,’ adds Betts.
‘I’m acting like an interest-free lender to a huge dairy company. Farmers everywhere are. This can’t go on.’
Some dairy farmers are already going to the wall. In Wales, Abi Reader, chairwoman of the NFU Cymru dairy board, who keeps a herd of 200 cows in the Vale of Glamorgan, says she knows of two local dairy farms that have gone out of business in the past week.
In the UK as a whole, she says, at least 300 have been forced to tip away milk in the same period. ‘Milk is a perishable product and it’s coming every day,’ she says.
‘Cows have to be milked. You can’t mothball them, or furlough staff. It just keeps on coming and we still have bills to pay.
‘About 20 per cent of farms in Britain have already been affected by a price cut, and more are going to be affected the longer this goes on. It is unsustainable.
‘The UK is only 80 per cent self-sufficient in dairy as things stand, and this crisis is showing us how important food security really is.’
Ironically, supermarket supply problems are worse in rural areas — which means people who live near farms that are having to throw milk away are less likely to be able to find any in the shops.
‘I was bringing the girls in last night and a neighbour called across the hedge: “Where’s the milk gone?” She’d been to the local Tesco and there was no butter, no milk and only the odd bit of cheese,’ says Steven Evans, who keeps a 450-strong herd in Pembrokeshire.
‘I know one farmer who is losing £10,500 worth of milk a day. We think about a million litres are currently going to waste, every single day.’
At 22p a litre, that equates to about £1.5 million of milk being wasted a week.
‘It’s being tipped into slurry pits, literally going down the drain,’ Evans adds.
‘It isn’t just a crisis of farmers. When you think of the businesses that rely on us — the vets the feed companies, the tractor firms, the seed companies, hauliers.
The amount of money riding on this industry is huge — and when farmers suffer or are put out of business, the effects will be felt right down the economy.’
Scarily, the medium-term outlook for dairy farming is worse still. In the first days of the coronavirus crisis, panic-buying led to a rise in retail milk sales of about a fifth.
Now stockpiling has stopped, retail sales have stabilised at roughly 7 per cent above pre-crisis levels — not nearly enough to compensate for the loss in trade to restaurants, pubs and other food service buyers.
The recent spell of sunny weather has heralded the arrival of spring, when grass-fed cows hit peak production.
‘The more sun we get, the more milk they produce,’ says Ian Potter, one of Britain’s foremost agricultural analysts.
‘We already have surplus milk swashing around the system. The price of cream has collapsed. In the space of four days, over last weekend, it went from £1.05 per kilo to 85p. To a processor, that knocks off about 2p of income from every litre of milk.’
On the spot market, which is effectively the open market on which commodities are traded, milk usually trades for between 25p and 30p a litre. Last weekend it hit 7p — and on Tuesday the price was 5p.
‘Given that’s a delivered price, which includes transport costs of 2-3p, milk is worth almost nothing,’ adds Potter.
‘As of today, we simply don’t have demand for the milk that’s available.
‘Things are going to get much worse for this industry and everyone who relies on it.’
Yesterday, Muller, one of Britain’s biggest dairy firms, instructed its farmers to reduce their daily supply by 3 per cent, in an attempt to rebalance supply and demand.
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers has called for a financial support scheme to be introduced straight away for the 300-odd farmers it believes are at immediate risk of going under.
Others believe this looming crisis shows the degree to which the entire milk market has become dysfunctional.
In Britain and elsewhere (milkdumping is also taking place in the U.S. and across Europe), the industry is dominated by a small number of large dairy firms, which are themselves at the mercy of rapacious supermarket giants.
Consumers have grown accustomed to paying just over £1 for a four-pint carton of milk, making profit margins wafer-thin at every level of the supply chain.
‘It is absurd that poor old farmers are effectively pouring milk into a ditch, while consumers are having trouble getting hold of it,’ says shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner.
‘One of the reasons they can’t get it to people who want it is that the way the market is organised has failed. When we come out of this, a lot of people are going to be asking serious questions about the food production system.’
Back on his Staffordshire farm, Gary Underwood has simpler priorities at the moment.
He is just praying that today a lorry will arrive at his gate.
‘Dad gets up at 3am and works till 7pm, and apart from a week’s holiday each year, he never has a day off,’ says Melissa.
‘It doesn’t matter how sick or busy he is, he’ll be out there every single morning, trying to keep the country fed.
‘Like every member of the family from my great-grandfather downwards, he has worked hard to build this farm up. If things don’t get better, he could lose it.’