245% duty shock for UK cheese

British cheese exports to Canada will face duty of 245% next year, once the third country duty-free quota is exhausted. Some 95% of this quota is already taken by products arriving from Norway and Switzerland, leaving very little for shipments to any other third country.

This slap in the face for British cheesemakers comes as Canadian negotiators came amid talks on the implementation of the much-vaunted bilateral trade deal. Refusing to roll over previous extensions to zero percent duty available under former EU terms, the so-called cheese letters, the decision vapourises pre-Brexit claims of extensive growth in UK food exports. These will in fact be treated like any other third country products, in the absence from specific terms agreed during the framework negotiations. Last year, the UK exported cheese worth nearly GBP 19 million to Canada.

Hard cheese

Irish dairy farmers are seeing huge falls in demand and output in the wake of Brexit. The Irish Creameries’ Suppliers Association ICMS this week revealed that this was an ongoing situation and not a passing phase. Not surprisingly, the ICMS has some very substantial members who between them exported more than 80,000 tonnes of block Cheddar a year to the UK. Allow 13 tonnes of milk to make a tonne of Cheddar and store it for a year or two at a creamery, and it adds up to a significant business commitment.

Those with long memories will remember former farm minister Liz Truss regaling the 2014 Tory party conference with a hatchet job on British cheese imports. Surprisingly little change from today’s outbursts, really. Shows how little she learnt at DEFRA.

Value or price?

Today’s On Your Farm came from Yew Tree Farm, Bristol’s last city farm. Third generation farmer Catherine Withers faces existential challenges to a business that has adapted to extensive and rapid change, but is on the point of losing access to land that is vital to its survival. Part of a site of Scientific and Conservation Interest, the farm should have been spared the predatory attention of a local property developer.

Click the screengrab to access the programme on the BBC.

Instead, acres of hay and winter feed once intended for Catherine’s dairy herd is under lock and key. The tenancy on the field concerned was terminated in favour of a planning proposal for 200 homes that has yet to be agreed. When the BBC visited, the hay in the field was ready to be cut and the livestock would have been sure of winter sustenance. However, Catherine is kept away from her crop by a heavy padlock on the gate. Being able to see the crop but not gather it in just adds injury to insult.

Elsewhere on the farm, another tenancy on a field adjacent to a local council crematorium is set to end, as the town hall plans to extend the amenities for its residents. Again, it is the dairy cattle that will lose out. Catherine has a small dairy herd, as well as outdoor pigs: she also grows vegetables, which she can sell to local residents within walking distance of her farmhouse. Bristol used to have more than 30 farms within its boundaries: as the city’s only remaining farmer, Catherine is something of a local hero, not just to her customers.

Yew Tree has a high proportion of ancient meadow in its grazing, an irreplaceable asset that has been quietly sheltering threatened flora and fauna for centuries. Its value to Bristol is incalculable, but depends on being an integrated space, across which wildlife can roam. The shift from viable and productive to long term decline is an ever-present threat and determined by factors that neither Catherine nor her many supporters can control.

Listen to the programme while it is available on the BBC Sounds website. It raises questions for all of us, regardless of whether we live in a city or a rural area.

Between a rock and a hard place

Hampshire tenant farmer Oliver Neagle was forced to cull 18 of his cows after water supplies to his farm were cut. The dairy farmer pays for water as part of his rent, however he endured breaks in his supply in December and February. Southern Water laid on bottled water for consumers, but had no solution to offer Neagle’s livestock. The number of lactating cows on his farm has gone down from 110 head to 82. With fewer milking cows, the business is compromised and faces harder times. You can read the BBC’s account of what happened here.

This story is an example of the sort of public interest reporting carried out by local BBC journalists that would not have had any traction for commercial broadcasters. Neagle’s story must not be allowed to go down the back of the sofa, no more than the importance of fearless public sector journalism should be undervalued or misunderstood. 

Butter by numbers

A cow producing 5000 litres of milk in a lactation (a lot by the standards of the 1990s) would give enough cream for two and a half tonnes of butter. Converting the remaining output into skim milk powder (SMP) would add a further couple of tonnes of powdered milk to the final output. There are other ways of splitting up milk fractions, some of them with limited use and application. Some standard variables appear in the first table, while the second outlines UK butter import tonnages for packet butter (retail product) and bulk butter for 1996-8, when the Common Agricultural policy was in full swing.

Taking the 1998 total packet butter imports total of just over 20,000 tonnes and when the total is divided by 2.5 (tonnes per lactation) it becomes clear that you will need at least 8,000 lactations — or lactating cows — to generate this tonnage. Bulk butter imports for that year topped 66,000 tonnes, needing a further 24,000 cows. Figures on this scale pose two serious questions.

First, is the UK economy capable of generating sufficient demand to increase domestic production by a comparable tonnage? Second, where would the UK accommodate an additional 30,000 dairy cows and the same number of calves that would trigger the necessary lactations? The chances are that the UK economy is not vigorous enough to generate investments in domestic production on that sort of scale. It is equally probable that the UK landscape would not absorb thousands of additional cattle and their calves.

The attraction of imported stock such as bulk butter is that it can be diverted into seasonal products like mince pies, which are planned into shifts after Easter and stored in a freezer until needed in the run-up to Christmas. Energy prices have made this pattern uneconomic this year, but it was a successful venture in previous years.

Butter comprises 80% cream and is transported in a refrigerated system. If there is no refrigeration, butter can be clarified. The process removes the water and heat sensitive protein, turning it into ghee. This can be kept in hot climates at ambient temperatures.

Milk by numbers

Milk is around 90% water, so it makes sense to stabilise it as butter or cheese or milk powder before trying to move it anywhere. A good example would be New Zealand, which has a network of butter/skim milk powder plants, where milk is centrifuged to extract the cream. This is made into butter, while the remaining skimmed milk goes to a drying tower and leaves as skim milk powder (SMP).

The UK has a tradition of marketing its milk as liquid milk, which is either pasteurised, sterilised or put through an Ultrahigh Heat Treatment (UHT) line. UHT cartons will have a life of around a year at ambient temperatures, sterilised milk should be protected from the light, but will last indefinitely in unopened bottles.

Using a centrifuge, milk for pasteurisation or UHT lines will be standardised at 4% or 2% or zero percent for full cream; semi-skim or skim respectively. Surplus cream is usually collected in a tank for sale on the industrial market. A milk packing plant can quite easily generate a tanker load during the course of a week, for most of the year, with the exception of a Christmas peak in UK sales of cream. Before Brexit, tanker loads would often travel as far as Germany and be a viable proposition.

See Butter by numbers.

See Cheese by numbers

Milk powder footnote

All milk for powder making must be centrifuged before it goes through the drying tower. Any remaining cream or protein would block the fine nozzles used to spray the milk into a rising column of hot air. The fat-free Skim Milk Powder is collected from the bottom of the tower.The fat content is restored if there is a need for Whole Milk Powder or a custom formulation for food manufacture or baby foods.

Cheese by numbers

When you come to realise that milk is made up of water — 90 percent or more — it becomes clear that it needs to be turned into something a bit more user-friendly to be transportable. Making cheese has routinely been a convenient way of stabilising fragile milk and preparing it for a longer journey to its end user. Milk proteins will be retained and a proportion of the cream will be either removed or additional cream will be added, depending on the recipe. Cheddaring cheese is basically a technique for extending the working life of milk, using the existing solids. The progression is laid out in the table below.

Having made curd with the milk, there is inevitably some loss of the finely divided protein particles that are retained in the whey. The whey was traditionally fed to pigs, which is why the history of livestock farming in Denmark was so closely integrated. A significant component of Danish bacon in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries started out as whey from cheesemaking.

Depending on the density of grazing livestock — the example here assumes 20 lactating cows to the hectare — there will always be a certain amount of agricultural land that will be blocked from local use by the commitment to export the production it supports. This is a topic to which we will return. For now, it is sufficient to assume that dairy producers will need three lactations (integer values) for every tonne of milk solids that are recovered and transferred into cheesemaking. In addition, there will be a need for three twentieths of a hectare of grazing land to meet the Livestock Unit level in this model.

There is a greater diversity among cheeses, reflecting their moisture content and how the whey is removed during the cheesemaking process. As a cheese ages, it will go from being a crumbly wet curd and solidify into increasingly dense cheeses. Whole cheeses are matured for up to two years in the case of hard cheeses like parmesan or Grana Padana, a year or more for mature grades of Cheddar, to just six weeks for soft cheesses like Camembert or Brie. The protein can be more or less elastic, depending on how much heat has been applied to the curd and other factors in the process.

Milk prices set to take off

The farmgate milk price has risen by nearly 24% during the year ending March 31, 2022. For most of this time, prices tracked the five-year minima, but started to rise steeply from January and into February, closing the gap on five-year highs as the spring flush appears on the horizon. This is the time of year when the majority of UK dairy farms plan for calving, since there is usually strongly growing grass and the longer days promise more favourable weather for the next generation of cattle.

With a high proportion of cows starting a lactation in a normal year, milk volumes would go up, reaching a peak later in the summer. A slower start to the spring flush is a marker for a more difficult year, while the rising farmgate price gives cause for concern, since it would suggest that there are fewer lactating cattle to supply the market.

There is, however, another factor that will push producer prices up. The UK dairy industry has a lot of milk tankers on the road and unprocessed milk is a high mileage market. Steep rises in fuel costs will also impact the headline producer price of milk. source