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Turn for the better in milk crisis improves 2013 legacy

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 09, 2014

  • LOOKING AHEAD: Colin Rowland.

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NORTH Devon's dairy farmers might, in the future, remember 2013 as the year the tide turned for milk prices.

In this second part of our review of the last 12 months the standout event was a meeting in Holsworthy of more than 400 farmers, feed merchants, vets and others close to agriculture.

They were trying to solve the crisis in milk that had created levels of debt in the industry unseen for decades as people borrowed more to counter the effects of low payments and bad weather.

Cattle man and company founder Bill Harper told the meeting he'd calculated that between them they represented dairy herds giving half a billion litres of milk, a critical factor in any negotiations.

Joint meeting organiser James Cann of Bideford said it was time for farmers to examine their contracts and if they didn't like them, then do something about it.

On the platform was David Handley of Farmers For Action who pulled no punches in telling the farmers they had only themselves to blame if they failed to band together and take advantage of the demand for milk by renegotiating the contracts.

By the end of October the big processors had offered a succession of increases. Prices had risen on average 15 per cent compared with October 2012. The future, for many in the industry, had taken on a rosier glow as long as they could steer clear of bovine TB, the other big headache for livestock.

The disease continued to strike farms across the area, seemingly regardless of closed herd practices and bio-security measures.

Breeders and producers were increasingly frustrated by their losses and by the rules and regulations brought in by Defra.

But the farming minister at the time, David Heath, told the Journal there was no chance a government would lift the legal protection for badgers. He warned against farmers "taking things into their own hands."

Instead he urged them to keep faith with two trial badger culls in Gloucester and Somerset as the first steps in "getting back to the TB-free status we had in this country a few decades ago."

By the end of the year that status seemed further away than ever.

Meanwhile a good old-fashioned summer had taken hold across North Devon, much to the relief of the Snell family of Moortown Barton, 900ft above sea level near the A361.

Mike and Mary Snell, their son David and daughter in law, Vicky, opened their farm to the National Sheep Association's big event of the year, Sheep South West.

Beforehand David told us he was hoping for a "fortnight of warmth on the sheep's backs" after such a cold spell he hadn't been able to shear his 1,000 Suffolk and North Country Mules, and explained:

"It would have been done by now in a normal year but it's just been too cold. There would have been a risk of mastitis among the ewes."

More than 3000 people came on the day, at least a third of them touring the farm and everybody enjoying a proper day out in the sunshine.

And so we were into the show and festival season, but no-one expected the entry of Glastonbury's Michael Eavis into the cattle TB debate.

The man behind the world's biggest music festival surprised farmers and city dwellers alike by revealing that his first love after his wife and children were his dairy cows, and if he thought for a moment badgers would infect them he "knew which side he would be on.

"I'm not on the side of the badger. They've uprooted all the orchids and killed or eaten all the hedgehogs. They're a damaging animal."

Meanwhile farmers were preparing the trial badger culls up country amid a polarised debate and with scores of protestors doing their utmost to undermine the work of co-operating farmers and marksmen.

And the issue was in the air as, the Prime Minister and his Defra right hand, Owen Paterson, surprised everyone by visiting North Devon Show, no doubt looking ahead to next year's general election.

David Cameron promised that his government "had the political courage to support the countryside in combating the disease." But he repeated to local farmers that lifting the legal protection for badgers was not an option.

TB was one reason why there were few dairy cattle at Woolsery Show in August where, for the first time, judges couldn't part the best of the dairy and beef classes to find an overall winner in cattle.

The trophy was shared between Ted Haste of Stoneleigh Farm for his British Blue beef bull, and the Martin family's Ayrshire Cow from Locksbeam Farm at Torrington.

"That was a first for Woolsery. We had a laugh, it was pistols at dawn," said Christine Haste after the event.

And Tracey Martin told us: "We've never been in a tie before. Normally you would have an independent judge but they couldn't find one, apparently."

No such trouble at Holsworthy Show where judge Brian Miller picked out one of the cows from Thuborough Barton at Sutcombe as the local winner in a high-class field.

"We're looking for substance, the power to take on forage and survive in a large herd environment," he told the crowd.

Mild conditions blessed the countryside well on into the winter, but it wasn't enough to stop one Exmoor farmer's departure for Turkey.

Roberta Edgar told the Journal the weather of previous years was too much to bear:

"I'd just had enough of the rain," she said as she sold her traditional herd of Devon cattle and Exmoor Horn sheep and then flew off to the sunshine.

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