Friday 22 April 2016

The price of milk

For the last several years the white exudate has been retailing at €0.75/lt. You can pay more of course in the belief that Avonmore or Dairygold or another branded product is a) different and b) better than ordinary full fat milk from ALDIDL or any of the other multiples. When she drank milk, The Beloved would buy 'organic' at €1-a-pop but she's now consuming unmilk made of almonds, soya or kumquat pith and a lot of emulsifiers (which stop these wicked brews separating into their component parts).  My sister always said that, although she liked a glass of milk as much as the next child, she could really empathise with folk who found it repellent. Who works hardest to get the milk to our tables?  Apart from the cows [nnnggg, nggg, more oxytocin lads], it must surely be the dairy-farmers who get up in the dark and have to fight back anxiety about mastitis, brucellosis, TB and somatic-cell count. Not to mention the cost of calling out the vet for a difficult birth. What do they get for their trouble? 22c/lt  = about 30% of the take. When I wrote about milking robots less than a year ago the price was 28c/lt

The price is low right now - indeed below the cost of production - because there is a glut of milk and milk-products on the global market. That means farmers going into debt or eating their savings to keep the whole capital-intensive show on the road.  The average herd size is 60 cows each producing about 5,000 lt a year. So the gross income is, say, €65,000. This is more or less what you'd pay to acquire the herd at the Mart, with maiden heifers fetching €700-€1,000 each. The price fluctuates wildly, adding to the farmers' anxieties.

My neighbour is not going to sell his milk to a consumer in China: he doesn't have the contacts and his Mandarin is shaky. Especially not since the Chinese government last year made it very difficult to import dried milk in an effort to encourage breast-feeding. Many years ago, farmers came together to achieve economies of scale, locally and then on a larger stage. The local creamery had a manager and cooling vats and a tanker to collect milk from the farm gate.  They also had feed and troughs and wellington boots and buckets for sale when the farmers came in to get paid.  The local creameries merged into conglomerates until the map of Ireland looked like late medieval Germany - a rash of principalities, margravates and fiefdoms having carved up the island into spheres of influence.

A little over a year ago the Irish Dairy Board, which acted as a sort of Holy Roman Empire over the vassal states, was rebranded [repellent phrase, implying new logo and letterhead but the same old management with their same old tired and complacent ideas about how to market a) milk and b) Ireland Inc.] to Ornua - The Home of Irish Dairy. Plain Ornua will doa: I'm guessing their marketeers think NewGold is a suitable change from (so yesterday!) KerryGold. This week, reluctantly and because they are compelled to do so by recent legislation, Ornua released partial data about the remuneration package of their 9 top executives and 14 members of the Board of Directors. For the executives it works out at an average of €450,000 each - doubtless with rather a lot of range top to bottom. The Directors have given themselves a pay hike of 44% to about €35,000 each. Directors have expertise and contacts and probably a real job; they turn up to a meeting a tuthree times a year and get paid close to the average industrial wage [€43,000pa] to do their few hours a year steering the good ship SS Ornua through the sea of surplus milk.  Like a lot of suits both in government and in management these blokes [they are ALL blokes!!] take credit - and a fat bonus - when something global-good happens and shirk responsibility when the chips fall the other way. There is nothing to prevent a chap from taking up numerous directorships and pretending that there is no conflict of interest. Harrummph!

There are 17,000 dairy farmers still active in the country, if the top executives halved their gross pay and shared it out among the workers at the cow-face, each of the latter would get €250 - enough to pay their water bills.  We haven't had a government these last eight weeks, because 90/157 deputies were elected on a Water Falls From The Sky ticket and that's not a sufficient qualification to run a whole country.  About 40% of the people who should pay their water charges have so far failed to do so. Cows drink a lot of water and washing their udders and the floor in the milking parlour takes even more.

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