What’s the real price for milk?

If the supermarket won’t come to the cow, the cow must go to the supermarket.

Last summer, dairy farmers up and down the UK staged protests over the price paid for milk by supermarkets. They entered stores with cows in tow, emptied the shelves of cartons and then handed them out to the public.

The farmers wanted to shed light on the struggles they’re facing. More than 1,000 have quit the dairy industry since 2014 – nearly 10% of the UK’s total.

The ‘official’ national average cost to produce a litre of milk is around 30p per litre, with the average price paid around 24p per litre. But securing this rate of pay is something of a pipe dream for the majority of dairy farmers.

Bryce Cunningham, who was one of the chief organisers of protests in Ayr and Kilmarnock, runs West Mossgiel Farm with his wife. He’s been told that the milk they provide for their buyer in April will be bought for 10-12p per litre, yet it’ll cost them 26p to produce.
food assembly
Cunningham says that though the protests had an immediate impact, with some producers receiving an increase of a few pence (1p can equate to £10,000 in terms of extra annual income), it was short-lived.

“Since the milk trolley challenges, dairy farming in Ayrshire has entered a deepening crisis level. Farmers are being forced to sell up herds of cows that have taken decades to build up, and with horrendous consequences to their businesses and families,” he explains.

“I know of at least 50 farmers who just cannot make ends meet, with some taking second jobs alongside farming to put food on the table. The irony is food producers can’t afford to buy food because they are paying to make food for someone else. I myself have recently had to sell 100 of my stock just to keep the farm in business.”

The supermarkets aren’t to blame for the depressed prices. They simply find themselves at the end of a long cause and effect chain. One of the major root causes has been the lifting of the EU milk quota last April, which resulted in cheaper imports flooding the UK’s market. Cunningham says that this has forced “milk processors to slash prices in a race to the bottom to even try and compete”.
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The UK is heavily reliant on liquid milk. According to Defra, 65% of milk produced is sold as liquid, which it says makes them more vulnerable to price changes – the organisation wants farmers to focus on higher-value products, such as butter, cheese and yogurt. Cunningham agrees that diversifying is one way forward, especially as it can help grow local and export markets.

“I decided to put our savings into a milk pasteuriser and sell our milk ourselves. We are only retailing around 20% of our total milk production ourselves so far, but we hope to grow this as time progresses,” he adds.

“I want to engage with the community and re-educate everyone about the benefits of local, natural milk as I feel that we have all lost touch with one of the most important superfoods we have ever had.”

Cunningham says that supermarkets can still do more to promote the UK’s dairy industry and create consumer awareness. Some stores have started selling lines marketed as ‘milk for farmers’ that pay the farmers a premium, yet these don’t get the recognition they deserve as the marketing and signage can be poor.

“The customer doesn’t know where it comes from and there is no ownership to it. In my opinion, they should introduce regional packaging to give the consumer some buy in,” Cunningham argues.

“For example, if you launched a ‘Dumfries and Galloway’ or a ‘Yorkshire’ milk, the consumer could relate to that and know that they are buying a product that supports a community. At the moment, it’s just supermarket milk.”


Richard McEachran

Rich McEachran is a freelance features writer covering all things edible, green and sustainable. He writes for The Guardian, Vice and Virgin Travel. He was a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism competition 2012.


  1. We drive 45 minutes every Friday to a farm that sells raw milk. We pay £1 a litre. They also sell their own cheese and honey. Would be nice if more farmers could do this xxx

  2. Hi Paula, you’re right and I think a lot more farms will be. We’re going to be selling 100% grass fed Jersey raw milk next year – although we’re a micro-dairy – only 4 cows at the moment! More direct selling in general for farmers is what’s needed in my opinion. Why should the supermarkets make the money? Selling direct can be as cheap for the customer, yet can help the farm receive a fair price.

  3. Our milk is branded ‘Made in Sheffield’ & due to the demand of Sheffield folk the Co-operative supermarket stores in Sheffield now offer their customers milk milk produced in Sheffield.
    Eddie – Our Cow Molly Dairy Farm Sheffield.

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