Nearly 10% of Great Britain’s dairy cows are now kept in herds of 500 or more animals, according to new research.

As of the end of 2013, 146,103 cows lived in such herds - 9.4% of Britain’s total herd of 1.55 million dairy cows, a 36% increase from 107,152 in 2011.

The trend towards larger herds has been particularly pronounced in England, where 108 herds now have more than 500 cows - up 35% on 2011. Over the same period, the number of herds with more than 1,000 cows has doubled from five to 10.

The figures, revealed exclusively by The Grocer this week, were compiled by food industry consultancy Oxtale through analysis of data from Defra and the Welsh and Scottish governments. The Oxtale figures exclude very small dairy herds of fewer than 40 cows as the majority of those are not commercial-scale milk producers, according to Oxtale.

The dairy industry now faced the challenge of promoting the “diversity” of the dairy industry - and the relative benefits of small and large producers, said Oxtale founder Amy Jackson, who in the past has acted as an adviser to the controversial Nocton ‘mega dairy’ proposal. She added she hoped the increasing trend for larger dairies would not create further conflict with animal welfare campaigners.

“Good animal welfare is about good management, regardless of the scale of the farm.”

NFU chief dairy adviser Rob Newbery said the increasing trend towards larger herds was a sign the UK dairy industry was becoming a more attractive investment opportunity.

Citing cross-industry dairy growth plan Leading The Way, which outlined the strategic aim to eliminate the dairy deficit by 2025, he said farms would have to become more competitive.