Coping With The Big Freeze

UK - There are a number of things farmers should consider prior to and during periods of cold weather to minimise the risk of disruption, says the National Farmers Union.
calendar icon 2 December 2010
clock icon 7 minute read
National Farmers Union

Animal Health and Welfare

On a number of farms issues such as inability of staff to travel to work, outwintered animals, missed deliveries of feed and fuel and the halting of routine visits such as TB inspections, dairy inspections and farm assurance inspections have an impact on farm practices.

Recommendation 1:Early discussions with key agricultural stakeholders to ensure that all understand the impacts of the cold weather on farm. Organisations such as Animal Health, RSPCA and Red Tractor Farm Assurance need to be sympathetic to the increased stress placed on farmers when prolonged periods of cold weather make daily farm routines more difficult.

Recommendation 2: Farmers should stock up on animal feed, bedding and fuel before the winter period.

Missed deliveries and collections

The main economic impact of cold, snowy weather on dairy farmers is non milk collection. In many regions farmers were not notified whether milk would be collected and given mixed messages as to timing of collection. Knowledge of who to contact for information on milk collection was mixed, exasperated by the use of separate hauliers by many milk processors.

The NFU was generally impressed with the dedication of the transport industry who worked with farmers to ensure that deliveries in very difficult driving conditions on rural roads. This was particularly important for deliveries of animal feed and heating fuel but also bulk milk collection.

Whilst most drivers made sterling efforts to get to farms, the feedback the NFU received was that a disproportionate amount of milk collections were missed compared to other farm deliveries and collections. Farmers have the ability to take out insurance for missed milk collections; however when a dairy cancels a collection due to their own contingency plans failing, through no fault of the farmer, many dairy farmers will be left asking why their insurance companies should pick up the bill.

Recommendation 3: Regular conference calls should be held between processors, hauliers and farmer representatives so that all are aware of the local situation, and that correct information is going to farmers. Discussions should be held between milk processors to share best practice and advice on why milk cannot be collected.

Recommendation 4: Farmers should know who and how to contact their milk buyer or haulier when there are problems with milk collection. Steps have been put in place to improve the communication network within a number of processors, for example Milk Link’s Milkline – a 24 hour farmer helpline for which offers guidance and information and Dairy Crest Direct’s new cascade communication system.

Condition of farm tracks

A number of non-pick ups were caused by the condition of farm tracks. Farmers are expected within their contract to “provide access from a public highway by a way of a road or a track suitable for milk collection vehicles. Many farmers took it upon themselves to clear farm tracks and rural roads to ensure that milk tankers and other vehicles could access farms and in future councils could look to make further use of the services farmers are able to give in terms of clearing impassable roads.

Some processors referred to the fact that farmers were in some cases unwilling to clear drives or roads as this was not their responsibility. Whilst it is understandable that during periods of cold weather, routine farm work becomes more difficult, it is in the interest of all parties to work together to ensure a quick return to normality.

Milk Storage

Milk storage conditions vary depending on milk purchaser and to an extent the end use of milk. Issuing clear national guidance is thus difficult. Many farmers have extra capacity in their bulk milk tank beyond every other day milk, but were unsure whether it was legal to store milk for longer than four milkings.

Alarmingly, many farmers were unsure whether they’re milk buyer allowed them to store surplus milk in mobile milk tanks when the bulk milk tank was full. It is important that this is stipulated clearly in milk contracts. Dairy Crest for example allows storage of milk in purpose built mobile milk tankers but not in containers. Arla and Wisemans on the other hand, in line with the Dairy UK position, do not allow producers to store milk in mobile tanks. These mainly liquid milk businesses state that ensuring the hygienic quality of milk stored in emergency containers is difficult, along with agreeing a consistent design of store and the practicality of collection from such a container (including sampling, agitation and visual examination of milk).

Recommendation 5: The milk contract should state clearly how long milk can be stored (in number of milkings), where milk can be stored; if milk can be collected from mobile milk stores and the composition of these milk stores.

Recommendation 6: Hauliers need to be clear on the policy of the processor on what is acceptable in term.

Disposal of milk

When milk collection is not possible, farmers have no option but to dispose of milk on farm. Whilst most farmers are aware of the rules around milk disposal, which includes the application for an Environment Agency agricultural waste exemption, problems faced by farmers included the fact that because the cold weather period occurred at the end of the winter season, milk was being diverted to near full capacity slurry stores, as unfavourable land conditions halted the spread of milk immediately.

Recommendation 7: Early discussions with the Environment Agency to improve and publicise the correct guidance to farmers in terms of spreading of milk and slurry on land.

Recommendation 8: Farmers should ensure that they have an agricultural waste exemption for disposal of milk on farmland.

Milk payment

Whilst it is a decision for the milk purchaser as to whether milk not collected is paid for or not, this needs to be clearly written within the milk contract. One milk co-operative that had historically paid for milk not collected due to severe weather, reconsidered this practice during the prolonged spell of cold weather earlier this year, and has followed the practice of other processors in stipulating that dairy farmers should purchase insurance to cover non-milk collection.

Recommendation 9: The correct information on payment of milk should be clearly written into the milk contract.


The majority of milk contracts have a force majeure clause stating that the milk company will not be liable for a delay or failure to perform an obligation under the contract, due to adverse weather or any other cause or circumstances under their reasonable control. There were a number of instances of farm lanes and local roads being clear but tankers still not being able to get through due to other blockages in the road network, which was an obvious source of consternation to farmers.

It is not compulsory for farmers to take out insurance to cover the non collection of milk, although this is Dairy UK’s advice. Processors state that “whilst taking no pleasure in leaving milk, they feel that equally they cannot be responsible for the value of that milk if it is not collected due to circumstances completely beyond their control” yet are aware that a very low proportion of their suppliers are insured. All processors have reminded their suppliers of their responsibilities to insure and state that due to contractual stipulations all suppliers should be covered.

In our consultation with farmers and processors it seems that a very small percentage of farmers have taken out cover for non milk pick up and others are unsure if they are covered. Many have not experienced a missed collection and thus had not considered purchasing insurance cover. Other farmers may be on every other day pick up during the most pressing period with low milk volumes, thus the cost of insuring may be greater than the value of milk lost. Financially farmers are working out the benefit of taking cover for non milk collection. To take advantage of the clause milk companies would need to put the milk producer on notice that they are unable to pick up milk due to adverse weather conditions, and that they are relying on this clause to release them from their normal obligation to pick up and pay for the milk. They should also take all reasonable steps to resume performance of their obligations.

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