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22.08.05
Dairy Cows, Veal, Machinery And Canals

Prototype Lely robotic feeder in action, WaiboerhoevePrototype Lely robotic feeder in action, Waiboerhoeve

Dutch farmers were to be found juggling production per cow, herd fertility, labour requirements and feed costs, to find the most profitable mix for their farms on a recent joint North Cornwall Grassland Society and Grassland Challenge Focus Group study tour. The farmers commented on the tight profit margins and long payback period of any quota purchased in the Netherlands. The farmers visited were renting out land for vegetable and tulip production to bring in additional income, or running the dairy farm as part of a mixed farm and keeping a close eye on their feed costs to remain profitable.

The study tour wasn't all about dairy cows; there was plenty of machinery to see at the Schuitemaker factory, a tour of Amsterdam by canal and a look at the milk powder and veal industries. The group also visited the Polder Museum, which described the regular floods, causing death and destruction before the dykes were built. The museum also described how the dykes were built and the growing of reeds and cereals before the land was farmed.

The group's first visit was to a family dairy farm purchased 4 years ago, which the farmer aims to increase from a 160 to a 250 cow herd. The farmers' main goals were a labour efficient system, healthier cows rather than the highest milk production per cow and for a financially profitable farm through low farm costs. Currently two people manage the cows and the farm workload is reduced by using contractors to make the silage and dispose of the slurry. Using contractors also helps to minimise the machinery costs.

Another farm visited generated its income from three sources, renting out land for potatoes and tulips, embryo and semen sales and milk production. The family milks 110 cows on land reclaimed from the sea in 1960. The farmer mentioned one of the main constraints on the farm was the cost of purchasing quota at €2 per litre (approx. £1.36 per litre).

All the dairy farms the group visited on the trip were renting land out for tulip and/or vegetable production, with the potato land returning €1500 per hectare (approx. £1,020 per hectare). It was often profitable to rent the land out and purchase in by-products for cow feed rather than to grow pasture. Grazing stock is also tricky as the soil is silty and poaches easily. The group looked at low cost farming versus high tech farming at the Animal Sciences Research and Information Centre, Waiboerhoeve, Wageningen University. Low cost farming systems and high technology farming systems are being trialled under commercial conditions. It was interesting to see the two extremes of Dutch dairying, especially on the high tech system, the use of robots, and the level of detail that staff were using to control the cows' environment. On a cents per litre basis both farming systems have higher farm expenses than farm income. Milk price received by farmers is generally 30c/L (approx 20.1per litre).

The type of stock on the low cost unit has changed completely since the unit started. Initially there were 96 Holstein-Friesian cows producing 9,000 litres per cow per year, with the expectation that per cow production would fall under the low cost system. However these cows had health problems on the low cost system, and they failed to get in-calf. The herd was drastically changed, with the remains of the initial cows sold and cow numbers reduced to 55, a mix of hardier French Montbeliaede cows and Holstein-Friesian cows. Production per cow now averages 7500 litres for a 305 day lactation.

As well as a specific cow type being needed for different farming systems, our host mentioned that the farm staff have a definite preference for working on either the low cost or the high tech unit. The high tech unit is aiming for yields of 10,000 litres per cow year with one person and one milking robot. There is a lot of attention to detail on this unit. As the cows are indoors all year, the parlour/barn has been carefully sited so cows don't get wet, too hot or cold with the temperature maintained at 240C. Nets are used when the sides of the barn are open to minimise birds infecting the cow feed. The milking plant is fully automated and group members were able to see a Lely robotic feeder in action that is not yet commercially available. There is also a robotic cleaning scraping system that cleans the barn every half hour.

Young-stock are kept indoors in isolation until they are 6 months old with the aim of raising young-stock that are paratuberculosis free. At three weeks old they have a chip implanted in their ear for the automated feeding machine. With young-stock raised indoors, some cows are reaching mating weights at 11-12 months of age and this raises the question of "should the cows be inseminated at this early age?"

Production figures for high cost and high tech systems
  Production costs (cents per litre) Lactations per cow Calving interval
(days)
Production
(litres per cow)
High tech
(800,000L quota)
38 (approx 25.5p/L) 5-6 400 11-12000
Lowcost (400,000L quota) 33 (approx 22p/L) 6-7 1 calf/year 8,000

Both the high tech and the low cost units aim to have a 50 hour working week per person, have all field work done by contractors and calve all year round.

The veal industry and the use of by-products for calf feeds were the main topics covered during the visit to the Denkavit factory, hosted by Will Sinclair of British Denkavit. The veal industry is vertically integrated in Holland, with companies such as Denkavit owning the calves and supplying the feed at a wholesale cost and paying the specialist veal farmers for their labour. Vertical integration came about due to tight profit margins. At the time of the group's visit to Holland veal was returning €3.80 per kg (approx £2.43/kg), far less than the €4 per kg (approx £2.56 per kg) needed to be profitable for veal production, yet last year veal was earning €4.60/kg (approx £2.94/kg). With highly variable profit margins and sometimes very slim margins, the market for calves is kept 'tight'; if the price for veal drops, the price paid for calves is also decreased.

The two main areas of research at Denkavit were also described during the group's visit. The first was using proteins from different sources such as peas and wheat in milk powders and animal feeds. The major obstacle to using protein from these sources is the anti-nutritional factors. If these anti-nutritional factors can be overcome it will open up a new supply of protein for calf milk replacers. The second area of research discussed was looking for health promoters that can be included in the animal milk replacer, now that inclusion of antibiotics is no longer allowed.

As a change from cows the group visited the machinery manufacturer Schuitemaker. The firm was established in 1919 and started selling machinery in the UK in 1980. Our host described the models of forage box, diet mixers and slurry spreaders that the company manufactured. Our host pointed out that even though Schuitemaker makes diet feeders, he believed that forage boxes were more profitable than diet feeders, as they were cheaper to purchase and had lower running costs. The company now produces forage boxes with compartments for concentrates, allowing the partial mixing of forage and concentrate.

Members of the North Cornwall Grassland Society and the Grassland Challenge Project visiting the Schuitemaker factoryMembers of the North Cornwall Grassland Society and the Grassland Challenge Project visiting the Schuitemaker factory

The Cornish group were particularly interested to see which models were sold in which countries. Tandem forage boxes designed for being driven long distances in Australia and are not sold on the continent. There is a forage box for narrow passages and also a model for smaller farms.

The tour was supported by VTS, and part funded by EAGGF and Defra. If you are interested in finding out more about the range of Grassland Challenge focus groups, please telephone the office on 01579 372295 or check the website: www.farm-management-sw.co.uk.

Grassland Challenge is a partnership project led by Duchy College on behalf of the Cornish Grassland Societies in association with the Institute of Grassland & Environmental Research (IGER), aiming to improve the competitiveness of grassland and forage producers in Cornwall through technology transfer and dissemination of best practice. This project is part financed by Objective One European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF) and Defra and through sponsorship from Cornwall Farmers Limited and their suppliers.

The Objective One Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly has invested in Grassland Challenge through the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF).

For further information please contact Hazel Burton of Grassland Challenge on 01579 372295 or email: hazel.burton@duchy.ac.uk.

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Editor's notes:

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Clare Morgan
Media Relations Manager
Objective One Partnership Office
Castle House
Pydar Street
Truro TR1 2UD
Mobile: 07973 813647
Telephone: 01872 223439

cmorgan@cornwall.gov.uk

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