Small-scale dairies work in Belgium

Expansion may be the buzz-word in the UK dairy industry, but in Belgium it’s sustainability farmers are driving for. There, 85 cows is considered a large herd, with most dairy farms family-run.

And Lietaer-Vangenechten dairy farm near the town of Geel is no exception, with Griet Vangenechten now the fourth generation to run the farm, along with her husband Stijn Lietaer.

“Initially, when we got married in 1992, Stijn brought 35 cows with him from West Flanders and we ran the farm jointly with my parents milking about 50 cows. However, when they retired in 2002 we took over the rest of the farm and from then on began to grow to the current size of 85 cows,” she said.

But apart from increasing cow numbers, development has also been made in genetics with a move away from dual-purpose breeds, explained Mrs Vangenechten.

“When we were milking dual-purpose cows we were averaging 2000litres a cow a year, but that wasn’t enough, so we started incorporating Holstein genetics. However, we were careful that we didn’t just select on yield and so incorporated genetics from USA, Italian as well as Dutch Holsteins,” she said.

Now cows are averaging 9500litres a cow a lactation, although Mrs Vangenechten did admit fertility wasn’t as good with Holsteins. “When cows started producing above 35litres a day we began seeing more fertility problems. Cows are also only lasting on average two lactations, so it is also our aim to increase this,” she said.

However, the aim of this family farm is to be as sustainable as possible which is why only 850kg a cow of feed is bought in each year. “We don’t use much external feed, with much of our feed grown on 63ha of land including triticale, potatoes, grass and maize.”

But although silage is good in energy it is low in protein, so a protein mineral mix is added in to the TMR. From spring until mid-September cows are also turned out to grass. “Because our cows are only fed a small amount of concentrates it’s important we also develop and breed a cow that can eat a lot of roughage and produce from it to,” she added.

“And because our feed bill is kept to a minimum it means when the milk price is at its lowest at 20 cents/litre, for example we are still not losing any money. At the moment we are receiving 25 cents so are doing quite well.”

And the fact this family farm is generating money makes the prospect of continuing the farming tradition appealing to Griet and Stijn’s two teenage children, Leen and Sofie. “Dairying is a good living which is why our two children are interested, but they also realise that you do have to work for it,” said Mr Lietaer.

Thinking about the future, the family also plan to expand. “We plan to grow the business by 2-3% a year and this is a healthy way of expanding. Those farmers with 1000 cows or more are simply not farmers but managers – so if you want to do the work yourself you can’t also manage with this size of herd. Family farming also means money stays in the family,” he said.

However, despite only having 85 cows, they are not scared about investing. Only last year they purchased a robotic mobile barn cleaner which cleans slats continuously. “We decided to invest in this piece of technology to keep cows feet clean and dry, explained Mr Lietaer. “Dry hooves mean there is less bacteria and helps prevent foot problems.”

Foot health is also maintained by cows having feet trimmed every eight months and by also being put through a formaldehyde footbath every three weeks after milking.

Other investments include an automatic calf feeder, which Mrs Vangenechten believes helps gets calves off to a good start. “All calves have transponders and are specifically allocated a set amount of milk each day. This not only saves labour time, but it also makes sure calves are drinking enough milk and raises issues when they aren’t drinking enough.”

The aim is to get heifers to bulling weight by 14 months and to ensure this, a good start is required, with 30% of heifers kept for replacements.”

The family are also trying different bedding materials for cubicles to cut costs and improve cow comfort. “Cows are currently bedded with sawdust but this is costly, so we are looking at mattresses and other materials,” said Mr Lietaer.

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