French dairy balances the books with 75 cows

Limited land base, drought and low milk prices force farming brothers to focus their attention on management efficiency

Milking only 75 cows on a farm with little grassland is a challenge in France at the best of times, but when milk prices are low, management efficiency falls under even more scrutiny.

Brothers Jean-Charles and Didier Blanckaert run their dairy herd at Saint Hilaire au Temple, which is two hours east of Paris with 395 acres at their disposal.

The farm has been subjected to long drought spells during the past two years. That, coupled with only 2.5 acres of grass available for the cows to stretch their legs on, means that drought-resistant alfalfa is the only forage the farm can grow naturally and other feeds must be bought in.

Jean-Charles is in charge of the livestock side, while Didier looks after the crops. He grows about 35 acres of alfalfa, 85 acres of sugar beets, 35 acres of corn, 125 acres of cereals, 25 acres of potatoes and 25 acres of poppies. The remainder is used to grow grass seed for lawns and sports pitches.

The cows normally yield about 11,500 litres each per year milked in two DeLaval robotic milking systems. The cows are milked an average of 2.8 times each per day and the milk quality is 3.3 percent protein and 3.8 percent butterfat.

A local dairy buys the milk for a minimum priced contract at the equivalent of 32.9 cents per litre, plus an added bonus for higher butterfat because the herd is involved in a high omega-3 production program.

Two second-hand DeLaval robotic milkers are used on the farm. | Chris McCullough photo

Cows are kept indoors year-round and fed a ration along the feed passage and via the robots. There are no cubicles, so the cows lie in open pens, heavily bedded with straw.

“It’s quite tough to grow grass in this area recently as the harsh droughts over the past two years have hit us bad. We can grow alfalfa, though, as it is drought resistant and we can use that as one of the main forage ingredients in the ration,” said Jean-Charles.

“We use AI (artificial insemination) throughout the entire herd but use sexed semen on the first calving heifers. Any male calves from the main dairy herd are sold at 14 days old for around 50 euros (C$73) per head,” Jean-Charles said.

With an average cost of milk production running at 46 cents per litre, the profit margins are tight, putting greater emphasis on feed costs.

According to Didier, crop yields suffered this year because of the hot weather that pushed temperatures beyond 40 C on some days and created a long drought period.

Cows are fed a mixed ration containing alfalfa. | Chris McCullough photo

“We cut the alfalfa every 45 days on our farm giving us three or four cuts per year,” said Didier. “The first cut is ensiled into the pit; the second cut is baled and covered in plastic to keep the moisture and sugars inside. Other cuts are sent to the drying plants to be made into pellets.

“Yields for the first cut can be as high as 14 tonnes per hectare (5.7 tonnes per acre) while the fourth cut can be as low as only one tonne per hectare (.40 per acre). This year the first cut was around 10 tonnes (four tonnes per acre) due to the dry spell, which reduced our overall feed tonnage, forcing us to buy in some extra alfalfa or alternatives.

Heifer calves are raised as replacements while bull calves are sold at 14 days. | Chris McCullough photo

“We are at the mercy of the weather when it comes to yields and that’s something that we cannot factor in when considering feed stocks for the year.

“It’s tough balancing all the costs with such unpredictable factors, but that’s where good management comes into play to ensure a profit,” he said.

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