06/02/2016 14:22 EDT | Updated 06/03/2017 01:12 EDT

Milk producers protest on Parliament Hill in favour of supply management

OTTAWA — Cows and tractors took over Parliament Hill on Thursday as thousands of milk producers gathered to demand the federal government enforce Canada's cheese laws regarding the use of diafiltered milk.

Protesters were preceded by a convoy of farmers who travelled by tractor to Ottawa after starting their multi-day journey earlier in the week in Quebec City.

The farmers say cheese companies are illegally using a cheap, non-tariffed U.S. milk protein in their products instead of real milk made in Canada.

They estimate the use of diafiltered milk cost them $220 million last year.

"We need our government to stand tall, control its borders and start working for us," said Chris Ryan, a farmer from St-Isidore, Ont., who brought along his cow, Ninja.

Cheese sold in Canada must include a minimum percentage of actual milk, according to the country's supply management laws.

Foreign milk entering the country is subject to high tariffs in order to protect the domestic industry.

Diafiltered milk, however, is considered an "ingredient" at the Canadian border and therefore is not subject to tariffs.

Diafiltration is occasionally done when processing milk to obtain a higher protein concentration.

Cheese companies are accused of illegally using diafiltered milk to fulfil their real milk quotas in their products.

Michel Crete, from Sainte-Agnes-de-Dundee, Que., said the importing of diafiltered milk is preventing him from modernizing his farm.

"We have big losses," he said. "It is affecting us and preventing us from investing in the company."

Serge Lapointe, who hails from Lambton, Que., says diafiltered milk is costing him $25,000 a year.

"We were told last April that (action) was imminent," he said. "Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a lot of political will on the part of the government."

Farmers accused the Liberal government of not doing enough to enforce the country's supply management system, which protects eggs, dairy and poultry from foreign competition and guarantees certain farmers a price and demand for their products.

They also said they were promised financial compensation from Conservative and Liberal governments in exchange for signing Trans-Pacific and European trade agreements but that they have not received anything as of yet.

Danie Gilbert, the daughter of a milk producer from Quebec's Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, said she doesn't know whether she'll take over the family farm.

"A lot of money is being lost," said Gilbert, 20. "With supply management being threatened, we don't know what's going to happen. Will farms disappear?"