29 October 1999



An expanding dairy market

in Poland is attracting

western farmers to invest.

Philip Clarkereports

DAIRYING has been a bit of a disaster area in central and east European countries in the past 10 years, with just about every nation recording a marked slump in production since the end of communism.

Intense economic pressure in the early and mid-1990s was to blame, with consumers unable to afford such luxuries as cheese and yogurt. In Poland, for example, milk output fell by 30% between 1990 and 1997 to 11.6bn litres.

But there are signs in several CEECs that the corner has been turned, and the past two years has seen a small dairy revival.

Forecasts from the Polish Institute of Agricultural Economics in Warsaw point to a 30% expansion in the next 10 years, taking production back to 16bn litres by 2010. This will coincide with a massive clear-out of the smallest, least efficient producers, who typically own just a handful of cows for domestic and local needs.

One British farmer hoping to capitalise on this growth is Allan Mellor, who rents and manages a 540ha (1330 acre) arable and dairy unit at Stare Pole, about one hour south of the Baltic port of Gdansk.

As a former research station, the farm came ready-equipped with an 80-strong herd of black-and-white cows, plus a 12 x 12 herringbone parlour – something of a novelty in Poland where bucket and pipeline systems are the norm.

Since arriving just over a year ago, Mr Mellor has expanded the herd to 200, including 89 in-calf Holstein Friesian heifers imported from Holland.

The cows are grazed in the summer and kept in sheds during the winter, but the plan is to convert to zero grazing. "This is the most cost-effective way to produce milk, and now that we have increased the area of maize and invested in a Keenan feeder, its the way to go."

More fodder will need to be conserved and to achieve this, the cropping plan for next year includes 52ha (128 acres) of forage maize, 50ha (124 acres) of grass leys and 12ha (30 acres) of lucerne.

The ration is based on fresh maize, (see table), and feeding is designed to maximise milk output. "Butterfat has always been high on this farm, as the previous management fed thistle hay. But since our milk mostly goes to Gdansk for drinking, we are more interested in volume."

Yield has already jumped by 700 litres to 6500 litres a head. "We did get to 7000 litres when we were doing three-times-a-day milking, but we had to abandon that a while back as the night milker was so unreliable," says Mr Mellor. A return to three-times-a-day milking is planned when the staffing problem has been sorted out.

Genetics is also seen as important in boosting dairy performance. Local choice is somewhat limited, so Mr Mellor has turned to imported German semen to correct a leg problem.

"Feet and legs are less important to the Poles as their cows are mostly tethered. They tend to select for udders instead. But we have cubicle housing, so our cows need to be able to walk."

Currently the dairy side of the business is struggling to turn in a profit, with the milk price at just 0.7 zloty/litre (12p/litre). That includes a small bonus for supplying over 2500 litres a day, plus a premium for having a TBC below 100,000. "Prices should improve over the next few months, so we are aiming for as much winter milk as possible," says Mr Mellor.

Longer-term, there is the prospect of EU accession. "Poland has a long way to go in getting milk quality up to EU standards, and they are only just beginning to talk about quotas. But when it comes, it will give us a real boost."

The prospect of a better future for dairying has also been a spur to Dutch farming company, Farm Frites, which has a major dairy enterprise at its farm at Bobrowniki, in north-west Poland.

In contrast to Mr Mellor, the set-up here is the traditional type, with cows chained up for the winter and milked into buckets which feed into an overhead pipeline.

"The system is very labour intensive," says Dutch manager Maarten Molenaar. The barns in which some 400 cows are housed are too low to get an automatic feeder in, so wheelbarrows are used. Manure removal is also done by hand.

The Holstein Friesian cows are split into three herds at three sites around the 4000ha (9880 acre) farm – most of which is given over to cereal and potato production. In summer they go out to graze full time in paddocks near the barns, returning twice daily to their own individual places for milking.

The fields are divided into 3-5ha (7-12 acre) blocks, which the cows rotate around, moving on every five days. The milking cows get the first bite, with the pregnant heifers following on to eat the shorter grass.

Overall, about 100ha (247 acres) is available for grazing, with 200ha (494 acres) given over to silage making. Stocking rate is 2 livestock units a hectare – "similar to back in Holland".

Grassland improvement has been one of the keys to lifting performance at Bobrowniki, says Mr Molenaar, who has introduced a lot of western grass mixtures, including perennial and Italian rye-grasses, plus a 5-10% mix of clover. Since the Dutch arrived in 1994, milk yield has more than doubled to an average 6500 litres, driven upwards by the importation of some 130 in-calf heifers from Holland.

Investment in decent silage making kit has also helped, increasing levels of energy and digestible protein. "I quite often take samples to Holland and the results are just as good as anything we produce back home."

As for breeding, the emphasis is on Dutch sires to improve the genetic level of the herd, with attention focussed on milk protein, as well as legs, feet and udders.

Currently the herd is producing milk with 4.3% butterfat and 3.5% protein. "Thats good for Poland," says Mr Molenaar. TBC is a very respectable 15,000-20,000, though somatic cell count is more of a problem at 300,000.

Including a small volume bonus, milk price is 0.85 zloty/litre (14p/litre), from Nestlé in the nearby town of Slupsk – enough to break even. "We aim for as much protein as possible as the price is three times higher than for butterfat," he says.

But these rates are much higher than some local Polish farmers are getting. "Smaller units with poorer quality and lesser volumes only receive half our price and really have no future," says Mr Molenaar.

Like Mr Mellor, he expects to see values firm a bit over the winter, and then continue improving as accession to the EU gets nearer. If that happens, then new developments are planned, possibly with the help of other outside investors, to consolidate and upgrade the dairy enterprise and really chase the market. &#42

Dairy ration at Stare Pole

kg/cow/ dry matter day (kg)

Barley 2.5 2.1

Wheat 7.0 5.8

Horse bean 0.5 0.4

Soya 1.1 1.0

Grass silage 5.0 1.5

Maize silage 10.0 2.0

Potatoes 9.0 2.1

Fresh grass 30.0 5.7

Total 65.1 20.6

See more