DAIRY farmers’ profits recovered in 2019-20 after falling in 2018-19, largely due to reduced purchased feed costs, according to the Old Mill Milk Cost of Production Report.

The report, conducted by rural accountant Old Mill and the Farm Consultancy Group, found that dairy farm profits averaged £233 per cow in the year to March 31, up from £141 the previous year.

However, there remained a big gap between the top and bottom producers, with the top ten per cent averaging a profit of 12pper litre compared with a loss of 5.48p per litre for the bottom ten per cent, with 24 per cent of the sample not breaking even.

Gerard Finnan, farm business consultant at the Farm Consultancy Group, says: “This is a big reason why 2.5 per cent of producers are ceasing production annually.

“At the current rate, a lot of the bottom ten per cent could be gone in four to five years’ time, unless they change their management decisions.”

This is the third year in a row that income has remained stable, with both yields and prices seeing little change on the previous season. Though the average milk price remained about 31p per litre, the subsequent challenges presented by Covid-19 meant a number of milk buyers instructed suppliers to cut production or dispose of milk.

Dan Heal, rural accountant at Old Mill, says: “This resulted in some producers capitulating, and though the distressed milk market is now behind us, the report highlights how finely balanced supply and demand is."

The top ten per cent of producers have once again outperformed the bottom ten per cent by more than £1,000 per cow, despite income levels only being £142 per cow higher. Reducing costs has been a major driver for numerous producers over the past year, with producers cutting costs by an average of £124 per cow, explains Mr Finnan.

However, the effectiveness and impact of cutting costs is starkly apparent between the top and bottom ten per cent of producers.

“Cost efficiency is about much more than requesting suppliers to reduce their prices,” says Mr Heal. “It is looking into the expenditure of the business and adapting to suit the farm or milk contract. Or making timely investments if they will give a return.”

After the drought during the 2018-19 season, the favourable growing conditions of 2019 resulted in a £97 per cow drop in purchased feed costs, says Mr Heal. Producers also spent less on seeds, fertilisers and sprays, with the weather allowing for the production of large quantities of quality forage.

He says: “However, the unpredictability of the weather does mean it is an aspect that is much harder to plan for.”

In contrast, machinery costs rose by ten per cent on the year, due to increased contracting costs, with a corresponding fall in depreciation as field operations are increasingly outsourced, explains Mr Heal. The top ten per cent spent £342 per cow less on power and machinery than the bottom ten per cent, whose costs averaged £710 per cow.

It is notable that yields, herd size and system are not driving profits. Yield per cow in the top ten per cent by profit ranged from 4,520 litres, to 10,393 litres, while in the bottom ten per cent it varied from 3,974 litres to 8,614 litres.

Though the top ten per cent of producers have double the herd size of the bottom, scale should not affect variable costs, explains Mr Finnan. Variable costs were 4.5p/litre cheaper for the top ten per cent, and though greater buying power might account for one pence per litre, it should not account for 4.5 times that.

Again, system has little impact on the profitability of a business. Of the top ten per cent in terms of profitability, 44 per cent were spring calving, 28 per cent were autumn calving and 28 per cent all year round, with organic and non-organic enterprises represented across these. “The same applies in the bottom ten per cent,” says Mr Finnan. “Profitability is not down to what you do, it is the way you do it.”


Budgeted profits for 2020-21 based on an increase in milk output of 186 litres per cow, stable cow numbers, a 0.5p per litre fall in milk price and consistent costs of production are predicted to remain similar to 2019-2020.

Despite this anticipated stability, the report demonstrates that buyer security is volatile in times of oversupply and cost control is more effective when looking at the business as a whole.

Mr Heal says: “It is not possible to control everything, but the most successful farmers adapt what they can control to suit the factors they can’t."

Survey basis

The sample consists of Old Mill and Farm Consultancy Group clients who derive their income mainly or solely from milk sales, across a variety of farming systems. All farms have a March 31 year-end. In order to make the businesses comparable, rents, interest payments, drawings, tax and capital expenditure have been excluded from the figures and a labour charge of £30,000 has been included per full-time partner/director. Basic Payment Scheme income has also been excluded. Depreciation has been included in these figures.

The projection for 2021 has been calculated by looking at actual costs incurred for this financial year to date along with national trends.