The number of dairy farmers in England and Wales has halved to 9,960 in just over a decade, new figures show.
According to the NFU, 60 farmers gave up producing milk in December alone – a rate, it warns, that will see fewer than 5,000 left in the industry by 2025.
The news comes after an announcement from First Milk that it is delaying its next milk payment by two weeks, increasing capital levy contributions and recouping extra capital from farmers at a time when they are already under significant financial pressure.
Speaking the Semex Conference in Glasgow - the first major dairy conference this year - NFU President Meurig Raymond addressed the ongoing situation and set out his vision for how dairy farmers can be supported at a crucial time.
“I and the NFU dairy team met with First Milk the day after their announcement last Thursday,” he said. “I told them that their time scales were unacceptable.
“I am also challenging them to get out and explain to their farmer suppliers what these changes are and explain how it will impact them.
“I know that First Milk have their AGM later this month, but the questions need answering now.”
Recent milk price cuts, introduced by most processors, have had a massive impact on the industry, with some farmers now facing their lowest milk price since 2007, at around 20p per litre.
At the same time, farm costs remained some 36% higher than they were eight years ago and the single largest cost component of dairy farms - animal feed - was more than 50% higher than 2007 levels.
“This combination has left many producers under extreme financial pressure and fearing for the future of their dairy businesses,” Mr Raymond said.
“You only have to look at the number of dairy farmers now leaving the sector.
“For the NFU, it is important that we focus most on issues where we can make a difference.
“We cannot reverse world market trends. But I think there are definite areas where we where we can work to improve the situation for dairy farmers.”
He added that the NFU would continue its “difficult but necessary” discussions with both processors and retailers.
“What we want is an economically sustainable dairy industry for the future,” he said.
“As farmers face volatile markets, I’m also convinced that the Government can do more to help by ensuring its policies are sympathetic to the current situation and will help farmers and farming businesses continue forwards.”
NFU dairy board chairman Rob Harrison said: “These latest figures don’t come as a surprise.
“Being a dairy farmer at the moment is like being a boxer - on the ropes and taking body blow after body blow; there’s only so much you can take before throwing in the towel.
“I, like my colleagues on the NFU dairy board, am completely appalled by the ongoing price cuts crippling our industry and we are working hard to support our members and their businesses in every way we can.”
Citing an NFU survey that showed 86% of people wanted to buy more British products, he added that it was “heartening” the British public still supported the sector.
“We keep hearing on social media how consumers want to help,” he said. “They can back British dairy farmers by continuing to buy British milk, but also by buying more British cheese, yoghurt and butter.
“If you can’t find it easily on shelves, let the NFU know and ask for it from your retailer. Looking out for the Red Tractor is the easiest way to ensure you are buying food that can be traced back to the farms on which it was produced.”