Gilles raises 35 dairy cows of different breeds on 73 hectares, including 50 hectares of meadow: he’s a real expert in grass management! Meanwhile, Anne, who aims both to supply food that’s good for you and to spread knowledge through farm visits, processes milk on the farm and welcomes around 1700 guests each year.
A ruminant can create everything it needs with a very straightforward feed: grass! But only if this grass is well diversified and well mowed.
Gilles & Anne took back Gilles’ parents’ farm in 1986. With an ecology background, Gilles converted the farm to organic in 1994. Anne joined him on the farm in 1995 to look after in-house processing and welcoming visitors. They now work with 2 staff (1 full-time and 1 half-time) covering 73 hectares. They breed 35 dairy cows of different breeds (Pardo Alpina, Prim Holstein, Normandy and Montbéliard) on grass, and sell half their production as retail sales.
The agro-ecological practice
Ecology is at the heart of their practice. This includes:
- The diversity of breeds
- Cows fed on grass, pasturing outside all day
- No use of chemicals on the pastures or crops, facilitated by soil rotation
- An environment (both created and nurtured) that favours biodiversity (a pond, hedges, trees, …)
- The use of agroforestry on 1 ha
- Legumes and compost to feed the soil
Feeding their cows on grass plays a key role in their initiative and it requires a lot of technical capability to do so. They’ve been able to become self-sufficient with animal feed thanks to a fodder dryer that they’ve built and that ensures high quality grass. It consists of a shed containing storage units that allows them to enhance the quality of the fodder and so provide a more balanced diet for their livestock. They used to use silage previously but it led to digestive problems in the herd. And standard fodder doesn’t allow you to optimise the grass correctly as it can be either too dry (so you lose the small leaves) or too wet.
The technical information on this agro-ecological practice
Even though agro-ecology is spread across the whole farm, this case study will focus on the fodder dryer as a tool to facilitate the supply of a healthy and environmentally friendly grass diet for cows.
The first step is to get the quality of the fodder right: young fodder is very rich but can be hard to digest. On the other hand, older fodder is less rich but easier to digest. So both early and late mowings are required (in this region, that’s from the end of April to the end of May).
Once the mowing is over, they start to allow the fodder to dry in the field. But before it’s completely dry, they collect it in bulk and take it to a drying unit, where it finishes drying in hot air generated under 135m² of solar panels. The benefits are twofold because this also helps to improve the yield of the solar panels.
They have 3 drying cells (the last one is being built currently):
- 10m x 14m and 5m high
- 11m x 14m and 5m high
- 6m x 14m and 5m high.
Specifically, using a grab, they stack a fodder volume 1.5m high, equivalent to the output from 2 to 6ha; they can do this in a morning or afternoon. They do this successively in small horizontal layers. The fodder dries in a few days if there’s a lot of sun and of course this is easier with small quantities. There’s a fan, using grid electricity, that helps with the drying (all the electricity from the solar panels is resupplied to the grid). The fan is a big specialist ventilation device where the volume flow and pressure can be controlled, and has a 20 hp engine which consumes approximately 20 amps. Depending on the weather conditions, it usually provides ventilation for 24 hours on the first day, a little less on the second day and so on.
When it comes to distribution of the folder, they remove it with the same grab but this time vertically and not horizontally to balance the feed between early and late mowings. The shed is very close to the feeding alley (for winter months of course) and they only have to push it manually.
To sum up, this fodder dryer is composed of: 3 storage/drying cells, a grab, a fan and 135m² of solar panels.
Financial information on this practice
The initial investment cost €100,000 in 2006 without taking into account the labour costs as they installed part of it themselves (the equivalent of approximately 6 months’ work for 2 people working half-time). The 3rd cell should cost them €15 000.
Since they made this investment, their income has improved compared to the previous system with silage. This is due to a combination of factors. Harvesting costs are lower. They use an 80-hp tractor whereas before, for a silage packer, they needed a 400-hp tractor: so they are saving energy globally (even though it’s hard to estimate how much). They also save on plastics (100kg so approx. €160 per year), string (100kg so approx. €250 per year), etc… But more importantly their cows are in better health (which is also time and money-saving) and they produce as much milk as they used to.