Ag in my Land is an online series that celebrates farming globally, providing an insight in to what life is like on-farm around the world.
Marina Boller, 32, is a dairy farmer in the north of Switzerland with her partner.
Where do you farm?
Our farm, Hof Habsburg, is in the north of Switzerland, right between Basel and Zurich. The whole town sits beneath an old castle originally from the Habsburg Dynasty, a site of national significance when it became the originating family seat of the House of Habsburg, one of the leading royal dynasties in Europe. The village only has 430 habitants so it’s a very small knit community and its very familiar. We have such a fantastic view from this little hill and we’re surrounded by the forest, making it feel somewhat somewhat cosy.
How involved are you with your rural community?
We are very involved and have a lot of people from the town that buy our produce directly. Buying local is what we try to promote as much as we can. We communicate a lot with those who live close by and we always have families with kids coming to the barn. It’s our way of creating transparency as we want everybody to see what we do and how we do it.
How do you educate people about what you do?
Even if it’s just explaining what we are doing right now, or why the cows are making a noise, people get to know us and the way we are with our animals. We began to attract more and more families with their children and started to sell meat directly. I think people enjoy our honesty, the patience we have to explain general farming things and how we tell little stories about the cows and our daily life.
Why did you wanted to get in to farming?
It was actually my partner Gerry’s dream since he was small. He grew up in an even smaller town where most of them were farming so he’d helped from a very young age. After school, he gained a farming apprenticeship, but as he had no farm to inherit, it was virtually impossible. When we met in 2014 he told me about his childhood dreams and from those conversations we signed up with a company that finds farms for those who don’t have one or don’t have any descendants.
What do you farm and on what scale?
Our farm is rented and has about 24 hectares (60 acres) of farmland where we also grow grass, corn, bread-wheat and barley. We have 22 Red Holstein dairy cows, six red Holstein heifers and one Jersey heifer. We try our hardest to establish a very healthy herd so we can continue breeding with the best of the best.
Why did you choose Red Holsteins?
When we took over the farm from the previous owner we took over all the inventory including the animals so the Red Holsteins were already here. All of our animals are our own but we sometimes purchase calves from a neighbour to fatten up. This means we also have a small herd of 12 Angus and Limousin cross breeds which we will use for beef and calf to fatten. We try to fatten up the calves within 160 days because in Switzerland, by law they have to be slaughtered before 160 days old otherwise they count as beef and are worth less. The calves normally weigh between 120-160kg slaughter weight but over Christmas, calves are worth much more than the rest of the year due to the consumption over the holidays.
How self-sufficent are you?
The beef stays with us for a year. We fatten them up to about 180-230kg slaughter weight. The market for beef is pretty much always the same. We produce our own food for the cows – silage, hay and corn. Another production is bread-wheat and barley and we make straw from these too. They have soya and rape mixture for a protein source and while milking the ones that milk a lot get another portion of energy food. The others get grass pellets during the milking time, so they enjoy coming into the milking parlour from the beginning.
How does the climate affect your farm management?
We generally have four main seasons but because we live on the flat part of Switzerland, our summers are so dry. It’s this that affects us the most, especially in terms of grass-silage production and hay. We must calculate enough fields with grass, to ensure plenty of food for the cattle in winter. At the moment we have had some snow, and will have more. Since we are a bit further away from the alps we don’t get as much. But still, there is a lovely white landscape. Often rain washes the snow away quite quickly.
Tell us about Christmas traditions in your town?
Habsburg actually has its own advent calendar. You can sign up to be one of the numbers, from 1-24 and if you do so, you then prepare a window dedicated to Christmas. This can be all sorts of things such as angels or just a display with trees and animals – whatever you fancy that lifts the Christmas spirit.
Every day, another window opens where you can go and visit. You normally get something to drink and you can simply socialise with the whole town. I think that is such a nice tradition to have. Over Christmas lunch there will be some time to come together with our family though.
What does a typical working day consist of?
Gerry and I split the work. I milk the cows every morning and evening (always around 5.30am/pm) and I am responsible for the overall wellbeing of the animals. We can deliver 130,000kg a year to the dairy we supply so I make sure the calves have all the milk they need and the heifers are happy on the pasture or in the barn.
In the summer, there is much more work on the fields where I do help as much as I can. Helping with the hay or fencing for the heifers. My partner is responsible for the crops out in the fields, and making hay and silage.
He also makes the TMR for the cows and helps me with the care-taking of the cattle. In the winter, he can help me more in the barn since the fields don’t need as much attention.
What is your biggest obstacle?
To find a balance between producing milk and earning little money from it. This is probably the biggest obstacle at the current moment as the prices are very low and the production costs a lot. We are constantly trying to find the best solution. For example, we earn more money feeding milk to the calves to produce meat instead of delivering it to the dairy companies. We choose to deliver less than we are supposed to, and fatten up calves for veal. It’s proved more way more lucrative.
What do you love most about your job?
I love working with my cows. I even find milking extremely relaxing and if you are close to the animals you can detect if there are any health issues very early on. I do observe them often during the day. I love the fact that all our cows, whether dairy or beef, are a part of our family and we treat them accordingly.
Who do you turn to when you need business advice?
Our neighbour is a big help. He took over the farm from his dad and has a lot of experience. Our vet is a huge help as well. We have met a lot of people in the surrounding area that are very helpful to us. We are registered at the Swiss-Herdbook and they of course help with herd management to if this is needed.
What financial support do you receive as a new entrant coming into agriculture?
If you haven’t turned 35 and have had an agricultural education you can get support money from the state. This is interest-free and needs to be paid back in 10 years. The amount you can get varies due to the size of your farm.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt as a new entrant?
That you must be prepared for anything to happen at the worst possible moment - mostly Sundays. We did learn to listen to our instincts. It doesn’t matter if this is about cows or fields. Nature can play funny tricks, so trust your gut and become part of nature.