Issues are shared across the globe, Finnish farmers find out

By Jeanette Severs

IT APPEARS there are similar issues and concerns for dairy farmers in the northern hemisphere, going on the input from a group from Finland who toured a number of Gippsland farms during five days in the region in October.

Succession planning, animal welfare, environmental stewardship, intensive feeding systems, silage, subsidies and weather were some of the subjects discussed between Australian and Finnish farmers.

Sixteen of the group were dairy farmers and the remaining 40 per cent were mostly beef breeders, with a grain grower and two chicken farmers.

In contrast to Australia, where dairy is primarily a pasture-based industry with the cows outside, dairy cows in Finland are housed in barns all year round.

“It is because of the weather,” said Unto Harmoinen, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Finland.

“To maintain production year round, the cows stay in the barn. It is too cold for them to be outside.”

Mr Harmoinen milks 160 cows, using three robots, on a 330 ha farm which uses 250 ha to grow pasture. His herd produces 12,000 kgMS/ cow/pa. Milk payment is based on protein, fat content and somatic cell count.

“Only dry cows go outside, in the summer,” Wilma Harmoinen said.

When Mr Harmoinen took over the farm as an 18-year-old, just after his father died unexpectedly, the dairy farm was 50 ha, including a 20 ha field and 30 ha of forest. All pasture is grown for harvesting as silage, fed to the cows year-round in the barn.

The milking herd is mostly Holsteins, with a few Ayreshire cows.

The couple have grown the farm in the past few decades; in particular, by buying forestry land and redeveloping it for pasture. It is a system that is difficult to proceed through now, with limitations on land clearing.

“We bought 250 ha of forest and took the wood out of it; we grow grass on 175 ha, on turfland,” Mrs Harmoinen said.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it easily now, we would have to get a permit from our local government.”

Fortunately, they already have a permit to expand their dairy platform so they can increase their herd, to ensure the farm is viable for two of their sons to join them in the business.

“Succession is an issue in Finland, trying to make enough income for the next generation to farm also,” Mrs Harmoinen said.

They have five sons, aged 18 to 28; two of those sons want to work on the farm. To do that, Mr­ Harmoinen said they would need to double the current herd numbers and install two additional automatic milking systems.

Fortunately, they applied successfully many years ago for a permit to build an additional barn out of wood from their forest.

That barn will house two milking robots and the additional cows.

The onus is on farmers in Finland to meet auditable criteria in order to earn subsidies that offset low income due to food being sold at prices lower than the cost of production.

According to many of the Finnish farmers, these subsidies are earned by complying with consumers’ expectations around animal welfare and environmental standards; expectations that have now become law.

For example, bull calves are generally not castrated; and if they are, the operation has to be performed by a veterinarian.

The same goes for dehorning. In both instances, pain relief must be used.

Dairy farmers raise bull calves to six months old, when they are sold to bull farms, intensive feedlot systems where the bulls are grown out to two years old and slaughtered for meat.

In some instances, dairy farmers will sell their bull calves at two-weeks-old to farmers who will raise them to six months old, before they are on-sold to the feedlot system.

“It’s most economical to keep the bull calves until they are six months old, because the European Union pays you money,” Mr Harmoinen said.

The same system applies to beef and dairy cattle. These intensive systems are outside and utilise silage and concentrated feed products.

The group of farmers from Finland who visited two robotic dairy farms in Gippsland, standing in a paddock of Oxford barley at Forge Creek, near Bairnsdale. The group visited eight farms on its tour of Gippsland in October. Far left is Forge Creek grain grower, Trevor Caithness.

While heifer calves can also be sold into this system, there is a strong market for selling crossbred heifer calves to breeders.

Annemarie Saderstrom, Lapland, milks a 37-cow barn-housed Ayreshire herd using a robotic dairy.

“All the cows are AI, 75 per cent with Ayreshire semen, 25 per cent with Blonde d’Aquitaine,” Mrs­Saderstrom said.

“I use sexed semen for all my heifers.

“I join cows to Blonde d’Aquitaine because I can sell the cross-bred heifers to beef breeders and to feedlot farms. It’s a common system in Finland.”

She sells all her bull calves to the bull farms. Mrs Saderstrom and her husband grow crops and pasture between June to August, utilising the midnight sun to push growth.

Traditionally they grew barley and oats to make silage; the harvested grain has a moisture quotient of 20 which has to be reduced to 12.

They do this by heating the grain, using oil to power the drying machine.

“Oil has now become too expensive, so we can’t harvest grain and dry it,” Mrs­ Saderstrom said.

They now grow peas for silage, which are stored in a pit, in layers with grass.

“We sow 5‑kg/ha Meadow Fescue, 15‑kg/ha Timothy grass and 5‑kg/ha red and white clovers.

We harvest that for silage,” Mrs­ Saderstrom said.

“We still sow barley and oats [on a river flat], but we now graze it.”

All the group members were interested in a grain growing farm they visited at Forge Creek near Bairnsdale, where about 1300‑ha is sown to barley, wheat, oats‑—‑harvested as silage and grain — and forage crops.

There was considerable discussion comparing time of sowing, given the short season available to grow crops and pasture in Finland that is enhanced by 24-hour daylight during summer time.

Seeds are sown in late May and June for an August harvest in Finland.

The group toured paddocks of Moby and Oxford barley, sown in May and grazed in July for four weeks; with an expectation of harvest at the beginning of summer in Australia.

“The barley is forming grain now. A feed test of the Moby barley a week ago, yielded ME of 11.8,” Trevor Caithness said of his crops.

While farmers in Finland are also diversifying their income streams and looking for ways to optimise cash flow, some of them are looking at tourism opportunities.

“Our farm boundary is 10m from a lake on the peninsula,” Mrs Harmoinen said.

“We have built a guesthouse that currently returns about 10 per cent of our income. I want to concentrate on increasing its use. It will give us another income when our sons come back onto the farm.”

Anna Okkonen, agrologist and tour organiser, brought 26 farmers to Australia to tour Gippsland farms.

Anna Okkonen, agrologist with Travel Agency Farmimatkat Oy, said the farm tours are an opportunity for farmers to take a break and improve their wellbeing, while seeing what farming in other countries was like.

The 26 farmers visited two dairy farms with automatic milking systems, an olive farm and processor, a beef stud, a beef farm, a sheep and wool growing farm, a beef and wool growing station, and a cropping and beef property, while they were in Gippsland.

The remainder of their visit to Australia was spent visiting tourist attractions in NSW and Victoria.

About the hosts

ROBOTIC DAIRY farmers, Trudi and Darryl Hammond, Buln Buln, hosted the tour group and found them very keen to exchange information about a host of topics.

As at all the farms, many of the questions were about land value, water security, production systems and pasture tonnage.

“They had three pages of questions they asked us,” Trudi Hammond said.

Buln Buln dairy farmer, Trudi Hammond, hosted the farmers from Finland. The Hammond/Hewson family have a robotic dairy.

“They were very interested in comparing what they do with our systems.”

The group looked around the dairy and calf sheds and toured several paddocks on the property.

“We showed them where some cows were grazing chicory and that was an opportunity to discuss tonnages and why we were doing it,” Mrs Hammond said.

When the discussion turned to water and the dam that was reconstructed on the Hammond property to enable irrigation of crops and pasture — to produce silage — much was made of the amount of government regulations that overshadowed the earthworks and use of the dam.

“They were very interested that we have to pay for everything; that we have no subsidies,” Mrs Hammond said.