Giant barn centrepiece of German farm

By Stephen Cooke

A 1000-HEAD barn and automated milking system is the centrepiece of an impressive family operation in east Germany.

The Lansink family — Gerhard and Inneke and their son, Guus — built their 1000-head barn on their Wartenburg farm, south west of Berlin, in 2014. Unfortunately, a dramatic drop in milk prices followed, as Germany banned dairy sales to Russia following their involvement in shooting down a passenger plane.

The Lansinks run three branches — the dairy, a farming operation and biogas production — in a bid to spread their risks.

“In the dairy sector, we hope that the cash crop will help us out. Two years ago, both milk prices and crop prices were bad,” Guus said.

The family has 25 full-time employees on the farm.

Recent changes to biogas production means it is not as attractive for farmers or other businesses to invest, but they have a contract until 2032 with their current system.

They also receive Government subsidies for their cropping land.

The Lansink family moved to east Germany from Ontario, Canada in 2006, starting with 300 milking cows on 1500 hectares — 1000 ha of tillable land and 500 ha of grassland, comprising good loamy soil.

They farm 215 ha of winter wheat, 170 ha of canola, 165 ha of winter barley, 350 ha of corn, 60 ha of alfalfa and 40 ha of sugar beets.

Of the 500 ha of grassland, 60 ha comprises conservation area, where they’re not allowed to put much manure on and can only start mowing June 15 to enable birds to breed, and 40 ha of grasslands around small local towns.

They now run 950 milking cows, 150 dry cows and 900 young stock on three different locations. The herd averages between 36 to 36 ½ litres a day with 3.9 fat and 3.4 protein.

Heifers are kept about 3 km from the new barn, and are run on grassland in summer until about October, depending on weather, before being housed in a barn.

Construction of the new barn began on a greenfield site in June 2013 and involved 29 different companies. The 150 m by 72 m structure took more than 35 000 hours, and involved moving 15 000 cubic metres of soil.

2500t of construction waste from sow barns made superfluous from the communist era was processed and used, as was 4260 cubic metres of concrete and 220t of reinforced steel. 480t of steel was used in total and 5 km of wood beams.

The barn contains 16 A4 Lely robots and also utilises the Lely Juno feed pusher.

Solar panels on the roof make roughly 1.2 megawatt of energy a day and the roof was rented to a company for 20 years. The upfront payment paid for the roof. The office area and break rooms are also heated with warmth of the milk, which offsets energy costs.

Daily slurry production is 70 cubic metres and under the barn there is storage capacity for 20 000 cubic metres of slurry. This is used to produce biogas. They produce 360  kW daily, with 60 per cent from animal waste products (15t slurry/5t manure per day) and 40 per cent feed products (silage) (5t corn/5t gas).

“We sometimes employ a custom guy to shred manure straw, which enables us to get more energy with less product,” Guus said.

“From the silos, we take away silage from both sides and the top. Just in case there is any mould in feed, it usually occurs on side or top, so we use it for biogas.

“We were planning to build another biogas converter on this location, but EU changed laws and subsidies so not as attractive.”

They are currently renovating a shed to make a new calf shed, where calves will be housed from day 1 to 20 weeks. They currently use igloos and although Guus says it is a good system, 100–150 calves to feed means it is a lot of extra work. “Having calves in one barn in one location, will make it much more efficient.”

They will also invest in a new slurry system.

“Right now we are hauling everything. Next year we will be able to pump manure from barn into fields with a drag hose. Our fields are in a radius of 5–6 km so the drag hose system will be good. With slurry tanks we can spread 40 cubic metres an hour, with drag hose it will be 250 an hour, so it will save a lot of time.”

Cows weigh between 650–700 kg.

Milk price is currently 30–31 Euro cents per kilogram of liquid milk. Guus said this was “pretty good, not the greatest”. Their production cost is about 29–30 euro cents per kilogram of milk.

“When we started we were paid 27c. In Nov 2014, we were at 27c, then it went down to 20c. We had two really rough years after building the barn.

“Then it went up to 40c, we all knew it wouldn’t stay there. Then in one month it dropped 9c from one month to the next.”

There are no milk quotas in place but tillable land is 300 euros per hectare, with grassland attracting 90 euros per hectare. To receive this farmers must meet Government requirements. The Lansinks met the Government criteria of growing a green crop on 6 per cent of tillable land by planting alfalfa, which Guus said is great feed for dairy cows.

“If you build a new barn you can get subsidies, but this province only subsidises up to 500 cows. They say bigger farms can sustain themselves. If we were 40 km down the road we would have been eligible.” Subsidies for barns are 40 per cent.

The biogas is profitable, as it earns money from the energy company and subsidies from the Govenrment, amounting to 90 euros per tonne. They animal waste is mixed with a self-propelled feeder, makes methane, which is burnt off and generated into electricity, which he is paid for. That waste is then used to fertilise grassland.

It has a higher concentrate of nitrogen than dairy slurry and has proven more effective.

“The way the dairy market is, it would have been more profitable to invest the money we spent on the barn in a new biogas generator,” he said.

Farmers must provide their processors with two years notice if they want to leave, and Guus says they can be told their price two weeks into a month, or at the start of the month.

There is a bonus for additional fat and protein but litres is the main profit drivers. Once you produce a benchmark for fat and protein, the additional cost required to raise this is not necessarily rewarded.

“Effectively, the more I produce, the more I’m paid. A few months ago we averaged 38 litres per day and that was a bit too much. We always need to look at what can be produced but also is it going to work out for cows. We’re happy between 36 to 36 ½ litres a day.”

They produce between 33 000–34,000 litres each day (3.9 per cent fat and 3.4 per cent protein).

However, the real bonus is supplying non-GMO milk.

“It’s a huge thing in Germany at the moment, they are going crazy for non GMO.”

It wasn’t had to make the switch as GMO products are banned in the EU. They had to switch their soya bean supply from the US to Hungary.

“We just feed that and show the government we’re not using non-GMO products from companies that don’t use GMO products in those trailers.

“They’re pretty much forcing us to do so. DMK said produce non-GMO or we’re not taking your milk.”

• Lely funded Stephen Cooke’s trip to Germany and the Netherlands.