Cattle farming in the West Midlands could be at risk because of high levels of bovine tuberculosis and difficulties making money from dairy products, regional farming chiefs have said.
David Collier, West Midlands regional director of the NFU, said the collapse in farmers' milk revenue margins, combined with the infections – which he believes is spread by badgers – made it harder than ever to run a cattle farm.
"There's almost always a future for entrepreneurial farmers with lots of ability to find a way to make a living for themselves," he said. "But now nobody can guarantee that even the most skilled and most able will be able to survive in this industry."
Mr Collier spoke to The Birmingham Post yesterday at the NFU's national conference at the Hotel Metropole in the city.
He added that all farms could be at risk regardless of size, saying: "There's no rhyme or reason in the way that in some areas we are seeing very small farms going out of business, but in others, it's the big ones going out."
Herefordshire – formerly one of the major centres of cattle farming in the country – now has just 40 dairy farms.
Mr Collier said the West Midlands was now one of the worst hit areas in the country as a result of by bovine TB.
"If you look at maps showing numbers of incidents in the region, it's clear that what was once a limited problem is now a serious problem in most parts of the region.
"Warwickshire is the only county in the West Midlands that doesn't have that big a problem."
After the disease was nearly eradicated in the 1980s, there has been a resurgence in bovine TB in recent years. The NFU has asked the Government to consider culling infected badgers to try to rein in the problem.
Michael Madders, the head of the Staffordshire branch of the NFU, told The Birmingham Post low income from selling milk was the other major challenge facing the dairy industry.
"Milk has been at the same price for years, but we have seen our margins going down," he said.
The amount of money from the price of a bottle of milk that is passed on to the farmer has gone from 58 per cent in 1995 to just 36 per cent in 2005, according to statistics released by the NFU. The cut taken by the retailer has risen from three per cent to 30 per cent in the same time.
Mr Madders, who runs a 700-acre mixed farm in Staffordshire with 200 head of cattle, said it was possible for farmers to survive on income from a dairy farm, but that it was difficult to do any more than that.
"People can make it pay on a day-to-day basis," he said. "But the milk prices don't cover investment."
He added that he had seen farms in Staffordshire forced out of business by the difficult conditions.
He said that he had been much more successful with the arable side of his own farm, and that other farmers with mixed-use farms would be likely to start relying on that side of their business.
The head of the National Farmers’ Union warned that the UK dairy industry faced "meltdown" unless supermarket chains acted to create a fairer business relationship with their suppliers.
"If we are going to halt the dramatic fall off (in dairy production) then retailers have to get off their backsides and act pretty sharpish."