Dairy farming across the Big Pond

By Travis Smith, Wildlife/Forestry Specialist for Guernsey SWCD

This marked the third year for the OSU Dairy Industry Study Abroad. Fourteen students in 2007, 10 in 2011, and 11 in 2014 have participated in this program, along with my wife and me.

The 13 of us departed Columbus May 1 and returned May 17. Most of our time was spent in the Netherlands, but one day was spent in Germany, and we were in Belgium for about a day and half.

Tour

During the visit, we toured about 10 dairy cow farms having just a few cows up to about 500 cows. These farms included an organic dairy (Blaarkop breed), two university dairy facilities, two farms with on-site processing of milk, ice cream, and/or yogurt, and two farms with diversified businesses of a restaurant and/or farm games.

In a comparison of the U.S., with the three counties visited, the U.S. has more cattle (9 million head) and a higher yield per cow per year (21,650 pounds), than Germany (4 million; 16,036 pounds), Netherlands (1.5 million; 16,669 pounds), and Belgium (485 thousand; 15,565 pounds).

Forage

Certainly, the genetics used among these countries compared to the U.S. are different, but one of the factors consistency noted to be affecting milk yield of the European dairy farms was low quality of the stored forage. The milk fat and protein percentages are higher in Europe, usually averaging 4.0 to 4.5 percent fat and 3.5 to 3.6 percent protein among the farms that we visited. Germany has the greatest number of dairy cows and produces the most amount of milk in Europe, with the large land base attributing to this.

Even though the Netherlands produces a lot less milk than the U.S., this country produces about 28 times more milk per agricultural land area than the U.S. Also, it is important to note that about 25 percent of the land in the Netherlands is below sea level that was previously under water. Cows and dairy products are just part of the fabric of the country and thus the milk consumption is 20 to 25 percent higher in Europe than the U.S.

Technology

Modern technology available to dairy farming is present in the U.S., but it was more common to see on farms in Europe. This labor saving equipment has been present on farms in Europe for many years, when some of it just recently has become more common on U.S. farms.

The use of labor saving technology on European dairy farms has been driven by the limited labor supply and very stringent labor laws. We were able to tour the Lely forage and dairy equipment manufacturing facilities located in Rotterdam. Common technology observed on European dairy farms included either the Lely or DeLaval robotic milker units, Lely Juno automatic feed pusher, Lely Discovery barn cleaner, automatic milk feeders for calves and automated bedding systems. One farm we visited had all of these types of technologies on the farm and was able to manage 270 cows with 1.5 full-time equivalent of labor.

Beside dairy farms, we also visited a sheep dairy farm that had about 90 ewes that processed milk for sale at the farm as fluid milk and cheese (aged and fresh). The goat dairy visited consisted of 1,500 Saanen does being milked in a 72-stall rotary parlor.

The does averaged 2,600 pound/year with 4.10 percent fat and 3.54 percent protein. About 70 percent of the does were milked continuously without breeding, with breeding only occurring when milk yield dropped below a specified amount or there was the specific desire for offspring from high performance does.

We visited a farm that milked Belgium mares for selling the milk as fluid milk, dried milk or 14 human health or cosmetic products. They had about 40 mares that were milked with a DeLaval unit. After the mares give birth, they start milking them during the day after about two months. They start by milking once per day, then twice, and then they get up to milking them about every 3 hours. At night, the mares are not milked but the foal continues to nurse. The mares are typically milked for about six months.

We visited a farm that had about 70 head of Belgium Blue cattle. The muscling on these cattle is amazing, and thus because of the size of the calf when born (90 to 155 pound), about 90 percent of the cows required caesarian. We also observed some of the dairy farms breeding some of their low-producing cows to Belgium Blue sires.

There continues to be increased restrictions in the European Union related to animal health and welfare, such as no tail docking, restricted use of antibiotics (e.g., if < 50,000 cells/ml of SCC at dry off, no antibiotics used for dry cow therapy), calves have to be 14 days of age to transport, dehorning with hot iron requires an anesthetic which must be administered by a veterinarian, and hot iron branding is prohibited.

The European Union is still on track for elimination of the milk quota system by 2015. The dairy farmers did not seem to be very concerned about this, but the general attitude was that it was going to be replaced with further manure application and land nutrient regulations that are going to limit farm expansion.
It was certainly apparent of the increased focus on energy and natural resource conservation in Europe over the past seven years of the program.

Solar

There is increased use of solar panels on farms (usually placed on barn roofs), continued focus on wind and water power, and soil nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) balance. Manure storage systems must be covered to reduce volatization of nitrogen, and like in the U.S., research is being conducted at reducing methane production by cows and increasing feed efficiency.

About the Author

Maurice Eastridge is a professor and Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. More Stories by Maurice Eastridge

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