Farm visit

Electronic recording of milk yield

A family from the Wendland in Northern Germany has invested heavily into the modernization of their farm. In this region, their company is considered to be a fine example of modern milk production. Improvements for example, include the building of large stalls and precise data collection for each cow. This helps considerably with the questionnaire relating to the sustainability module milk. A visit to the farm of a Uelzena supplier.

Sparrows and swallows are the only animals in the barn that create sounds whilst they fly back and forth underneath the roof. The 150 cows in the barn are pretty quiet. Once in a while there is a little rustling when one of the animals helps itself from the feedbox, gets up slowly from its cubicle or moves along one of the walkways. Otherwise there is absolute peace and quiet.

"It is a good sign when cows are quiet  because it means that they are happy,” says Karola Stegemann. It is not by chance that their cows are feeling contented. Stegemann and her partner Christian Dreyer have worked hard for this and have invested more than one million Euros in their farm.

Both are dairy farmers in Dangenstorf, a little village in the Wendland near Lüchow-Dannenberg in Northern Germany. The few roads in the village are lined with old and well-restored timber-framed houses; there is a pub, a playing field and a volunteer fire department. Many years ago, this village with about 200 people had an agricultural infrastructure. Today, the farm of Stegemann and Dreyer is one of only a few that are left. They keep approximately 150 dairy cows on their farm and almost the same number of calves and yearlings. The couple delivers fresh milk exclusively to the same dairy as they did 30 years ago: the Milk Collection Company Uelzena, formerly known as Wendlandmilch, in Lüchow, has been a cooperation member of Uelzena eG ever since.

Changing dairy industry 

The working days of Karola Stegemann and Christian Dreyer start at six o’clock in the morning with the first milking and they end 12 hours later with the second milking and in summertime it is even later. Cows have to be milked seven days a week. There are no other employees on the farm although their two grown-up sons are active helpers. Julian, aged 29 has already completed his education as a master agriculturist; Philipp, aged 22, is also a trained farmer. From July 2019, both brothers plan to take over the farm and manage it jointly.

The future of their children was the reason behind the decision of Dreyer and Stegemann to modernize and expand their farm in 2014. “The old barn was pretty small and work took too long. Now everything is much more simple and faster,” explains Stegemann. Before the modernization, one milking took three hours; today it can be carried out in 1.5 hours. Added to that, the husbandry conditions have significantly improved and the cows are much healthier, adds Dreyer.

There was also another reason for this decision: the changes within the dairy industry. After more than 30 years, the European Union abolished the milk quota in 2015. Now dairy farmers such as Stegemann and Dreyer can produce and sell more milk. They wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and have more than double the number of cows taking the numbers from 70 to 150. They are very positive: Their company with its advanced milk production is well placed for the future. A core part of the modernization process was the new milking plant and the new cubicle barn.

Revolution in the cowshed 

Many older barns are comparably small, narrow and dark. There are big differences with the new barn of Stegemann and Dreyer: When you enter the barn you have the feeling of still being outside; open sides allow fresh air to flow through. Inside it is almost as light as outside. Cows, who experience a different sensation to cold than humans find this proximity to the wind and weather as pleasant.

The barn is huge. Dreyer looks from one end to the other. Approximately 850 square meters of floor space, almost as large as three tennis courts. Modern cubicle barns need to be spacious because the animals in there are no longer tied. The cows are free to move through the walkways and decide which cubicle to choose for resting or when and where to feed. “The husbandry conditions in our modern barn are similar to those requested for the production of organic milk - there is no difference," says Dreyer. 

Each of the 150 cows has its own cubicle prepared with soft bedding made of straw, wood shavings and a special lime which raises the pH level and has an antibacterial effect.  This prevents udder diseases and enhances the comfort for the cows which lay down up to 16 hours per day. The cubicles are cleaned twice a day and prepared with fresh bedding. The pathways are kept clean with a type of snow plough. Every two hours the device automatically pushes the manure into a special collection basin. This keeps the pathways dry and the cows’ claws healthy. Suitable feedstuff also contributes to animal health. Both farmers once ordered a feed advisor to adjust the ratio of the individual feeding components precisely for their cows. It is a well-balanced and easily digestible mixture of corn and grass silage, grain, cracked rapeseeds and soy meal, straw and mineral feed. 

Veterinary costs cut by half 

Beside the main part of the barn, there are also separate departments: one is for pregnant cows that are about to deliver, one is for freshly born calves and one is for animals that have calved or are sick. Dreyer knows each cow by name and suffers with those that are not feeling well. “Our cows have more room in the new barn, their living conditions have improved and they are experiencing less stress.  Consequently, we have been able to cut the costs for veterinary services by half,” says Dreyer. The average cell and germ counts, which are important quality features for milk, have also dropped. The cell count indicates whether a cow is healthy or suffering from mastitis, an udder inflammation. The lower the cell count, the better. The germ count also indicates whether the milk has been properly cooled after milking and how hygienically the farm operates. If this number is too high, the reason for that must be researched. 

„The husbandry conditions in our modern barn are similar to those requested for the production of organic milk - there is no difference."

Christian Dreyer, farmer

Cows with electronic straps

Directly next to the new barn is the new milking plant with cooling tower. The new cooling tower is as high as a house, can accommodate up to 25,000 kilograms of milk and is able to reduce the milk temperature within a few minutes to the required 5°C. The previous cooling equipment needed an hour to reach this temperature. Stegemann and Dreyer are very proud of the new milking plant. It looks like a carousel and 24 cows can be milked simultaneously compared to ten previously. Each cow has an electronic strap with a chip that is automatically read by a transponder. The information on the milk yield per cow is collected on the computer in the monitoring room. On average every animal delivers 12,000 kilogram of milk per year. The cooling tower is filled up with approximately 5,000 kilograms per day. Every second day, the Milk Collection Company Uelzena eG collects the milk. “It is really positive that the new plant allows us to work quickly and efficiently. This gives us more time to take care of every single cow,” explains Dreyer.

Tasks for the next generation

Due to their comprehensive and detailed knowledge and the existing, modern data documentation, the two farmers have been able to equanimously participate in the survey on the sustainability module. They said that it took them about one hour to answer all questions to the 84 criteria. “Much of the basic data is now available which will make it even easier next time,” explains Christian Dreyer. It was only occasionally that he had to research a little more for an answer. One example of this is regarding the question about the total length of the moats bordering their agricultural land. This took quite some time because first of all he had to find which of the older moats still carry water. However, this was a one-time effort.

As soon as the collection cooperative has completed the evaluation of all of the data, Dreyer and Stegemann will receive their results. All participating farms will learn how well they have performed in comparison to other farms; all information is of course subject to data protection. The focus here is on four sustainability aspects: economy, ecology, social affairs and animal welfare. This insight should provide farmers with valuable information on how fit their farms are for the future and where there may be a need for further modernization.

Dreyer and Stegemann are optimistic about their future. Since the elimination of the milk quota, they are now more exposed to fluctuating world market prices. However, both farmers think in the long term. It is a safe bet that they will be able to sell the milk they produce to a dairy and it lets them rest assured. They do not rule out that they might expand their farm some day. “Our new milking plant would clearly be able to handle even more cows. We would also have room for another barn”, says Stegemann. However,  they will leave this task to the next generation.

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