When milk prices began to tumble, dairy farmer Markus Legge was faced with a conundrum.
Having already converted to organic in an effort to add value to his milk and reduce his costs, he realised that increasing his herd size was the next step to helping his business be more profitable.
However, the logistics of the farm meant that adding additional cattle to his 100-head herd was less than straightforward.
Situated near Monschau in West Germany, an area popular with tourists because of its picturesque narrow streets and cobbled roads, Mr Legge’s milking parlour was located in a village, while his fields were a kilometre away.
Tough daily challenge
Navigating the cows along tiny streets and up to his 30ha of hill-top pasture was a four-person job and often took hours.
“Adding more cattle to the herd would have been impossible,” he says.
“No one wants cows in their garden, so we used to have three or four people guiding the herd past the houses to make sure they didn’t cause any damage. It was a tough challenge every day.”
- 80ha grassland farm
- 1,000-2,000mm of rain/year
- Annual average temperature 7C
- 125 mainly Holstein Friesian cattle, crossed with Brown Swiss, Scandinavian Rotvieh and Montbeliarde to produce more sustainable dairy followers
- Belgian Blue and Simmental semen used on second- and third-rime inseminations to produce beef calves, which are sold
- Cattle continuously grazed from mid-April once the grass reaches 7cm until mid-October, with an additional 120-150g of concentrates/kg of milk
- In winter, fed 200-250g of concentrates/kg milk, plus grass silage, alfalfa hay, straw and fodder mix of rye, grass meal pellets, linseed cake and protein mix
The solution was something that had never been tried on a German farm before: Mr Legge installed two transportable robotic milking machines in his fields.
The machines remain in the pasture throughout summer before they are lifted by a tractor and brought back through the village to the main farm in October, where the cattle are housed until the following April.
The parlour remains in one central location, while the herd is split into two blocks on 20ha of land surrounding it. The cows are rotated around the 20ha grazing platform with the aim of leaving 4cm residuals.
It has streamlined his system, enabling him to increase his herd of mainly Holstein Friesian cattle – which he crosses with Brown Swiss, Scandinavian Rotvieh and Montbeliarde to produce more sustainable dairy followers – to 125.
The portable parlour
Mr Legge came across the portable robots when visiting farms in Switzerland that were using organic parlours. He realised he could make use of them on his farm.
Working with engineers, he built two portable containers that house two Lely Astronaut milkers, along with a storage tank, washroom and a small office.
The units are powered by 700m of electricity cable from the village, while water for washing the robots comes from the farm’s borehole.
Water troughs are located within the dairy, which is part of Mr Legge’s strategy to incentivise the cattle to visit the robot. They do this on average two-and-a-half times a day.
Once they have been milked, cows are then allowed from their morning block to an evening block of pasture, again encouraging them to use the robot.
“It’s a simple system,” says Mr Legge. “Each container weighs 8t and everything is inside them, so they can be easily packed up to be moved by the machinery.
“We only have to move them twice a year as the cows use the same pasture blocks each year.
“Poaching does occur around the robots as the cows wait there to be milked and drink water. However, we save on other areas of the fields being poached as we change those areas regularly.”
Labour savings and payback
Having invested €400,000 (£355,000) on the robots and containers, Mr Legge hopes he will be able to repay the loan in about 15 years, thanks in part to labour cost savings.
He is now the main worker on the farm, and — with help from his wife and one part-time staff member — has been able to cut down the time he spends working there to just 25 hours a week.
“I don’t have much work with my cows any more. I don’t have to clean the barn, I don’t really even need a tractor,” he says. “If you don’t like change, then a robot isn’t for you.”
Being able to raise his cattle numbers also helped him ensure that his organic farm remains profitable, even when milk prices are low.
“I needed a mobile system, otherwise being organic wasn’t viable for me. When a farm has pasture around it, an on-farm parlour system makes sense, but we needed something different.
“Moving to organic lowered our production by 30%,” he adds. “We were producing 10,000 litres a cow in 2000 and now we are down to 7,500 litres.
“The premium we receive does make up for it, but being able to add extra cows to the herd also helps.”
Mr Legge’s milk is sold locally through a regional co-operative managed by six farmers, which helps to keep the milk price higher as they are not competing on a global market.
He receives a basic payment of €0.48/litre (43p) for his milk, but quality bonuses can push the price up to €0.58/litre (52p).
With his cost of production at €0.32/litre (29p) – and conventional milk prices hovering between €0.22-€0.25/litre (20-22p) – he says being organic continues to make sense for him.
However, despite the premium, Mr Legge says the price situation isn’t sustainable for Germany’s dairy producers.
“If we want to encourage investment in the industry, organic farmers really need €0.50/litre [44p] and conventional producers need to be paid €0.40/litre [36p],” he says.
Growing interest in organic conversion means Mr Legge is also having to think about the next development he can make.
“In Germany there are lots of farmers switching to organic production. I think over the next two years the price will go down as the amount of organic milk available grows.
“My plan is to work with three farmers to open the only organic dairy factory in the region. We already have a bakery interested in buying organic cream and fresh milk from us.
“We need to start thinking again about what to do next to make ourselves different.”