Investment in modern buildings and equipment has improved the quality of life for a dairy farming family in the Champagne region of France, while allowing them to meet customer demands and increasing regulation.
Brothers Jean Charles and Didier Blanckaert are fifth-generation farmers at Bas de la Cense, St Hilaire au Temple, Marne, in the north east of France, and run a 75-cow herd of Holsteins in a housed system, with yields averaging 11,500kg per year.
The 160 hectares (395 acres) of flat exposed land on light soils is not grazed, but is utilised to increase feed autonomy, growing alfalfa, maize and cereals for cattle alongside sugar beet, potatoes, amenity grass seed and morphine poppies.
Jean Charles says: “The first cut of alfalfa is ensiled, the second and third baled, and the fourth goes to the dehydration plant.
“We also have good access to oilseed rape, waste beet pulp and potatoes, so a lot of the feed is home-grown or locally sourced.”
The herd is also fed extruded flax for the production of omega-3 rich milk, sold to dairy Schreiber Foods for Systeme U, parent company of the supermarket chain Super U.
For this Jean Charles gets a 3 euro cents per litre (3ppl) premium on top of the basic price of 32.4c (28p) per litre, but meeting the specification comes at an extra cost: flax is €660/tonne (£567/t).
With a cost of production about 31c (27p) per litre, margins are tight.
“How you view its sustainability depends on what you want to pay yourself at the end of the month,” Jean Charles says.
“It is easy to forget to take family labour into account.”
He suggests there is a gulf between consumer expectations of quality and what they are prepared to pay.
“The processors could do more to promote milk to the consumer,” he says.
Two years ago, the family invested in an 85-metre-long building and installed a pair of second-hand Alfa Laval milking robots, at a total cost of €500,000 (£429,895).
Average milking frequency is 2.8 times-a-day, and Jean Charles says aside from the benefits for the herd, it offers significant advantages for his family life.
“My eldest son is 15 and I was never free to collect him from school,” he says.
“Now I can take time off to watch the younger one play football.”
Bull calves are sold at two weeks old and prices are a concern.
“We used to get a good price from meat, but now it is barely more than the insemination cost,” says Jean Charles.
All breeding is carried out via AI, with the heifers receiving sexed semen.
The French dairy industry has campaigned to reduce antibiotic use and the brothers support this, avoiding antibiotics for the dry cows and otherwise aiming for no more than one dose per cow per year. Cell counts average about 150,000/ml.
When the new building was erected, slurry storage was also upgraded, giving 1,000cu.metre capacity, and with plenty of land to make use of the slurry, especially on the alfalfa, Jean Charles says he has peace of mind about meeting current legislation.
“But if regulations on emissions are tightened up, we may have to look at methanisation, and we could certainly use the digestate on the crops,” he adds.
While Jean Charles focuses on breeding, administration and determining rations, Didier takes care of feeding. A mixer bucket on a Manitou loader is used to prepare the ration of oilseed rape and flax with alfalfa and maize.
Cows are also fed 1-6kg of pellets at milking, depending on production.
Didier says: “We adjust intakes by adding alfalfa hay via a bale feeder, topping up throughout the day.”
He also undertakes most of the field work, with contractors coming in for the potato and sugar beet harvests. The farm is part of a local machinery co-operative which shares a combine harvester.
While the sugar beet has done well this year on the chalky soils, Didier says the alfalfa has suffered from the drought, for the second year in a row, with yields significantly depressed.
“We obtained a special permit to irrigate the maize, but although in theory we could water 90 per cent of the land, we cannot usually get the permits to irrigate, except for potatoes,” he says.
As the industry seeks to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 per cent by 2025, according to French LIFE Carbon Dairy project, Jean Charles highlights understanding the issue is one more challenge for farmers.
“It has not been made clear how carbon credits are established; the proposals are too simplistic,” he says.
“Alfalfa, for example, stores carbon by increasing soil organic matter and gives back 50 units of nitrogen to the following wheat crop, but currently has to be dried using coal, and the farmer cannot do the fieldwork without using carbon.”
Jean Charles adds perceptions of his farm’s carbon footprint can also be wide of the mark.
“We are seen as an intensive farm, yet 95 per cent of our feed is produced within 100km of here,” he says.
“Flax is the exception. It is grown in Brittany and processed in the north of France using products which are transported from this region before coming back here to be fed.”
Herd size has gradually increased over the past five years and Didier reckons the farm is now at its optimum capacity.
“I’m very happy in my work and investing in technology has freed up a little more time,” Jean Charles says.
“However, I would like my children to get experience in other professions before they consider getting involved in the farm.
“My older son is not that enthusiastic anyway, because he has seen first-hand how demanding the profession is.”
The family is keen to educate the local community about farming. Jean Charles points out his younger son is in a class of 40 pupils and is the only one whose father is a dairy farmer.
“We host school group visits, and one group of children found it so interesting they asked to come came back later in the year and bring their parents,” he says.
Didier is optimistic about the future of the farm, suggesting ‘the worst is over’ for the dairy industry.
But he adds that it suffers from farmers’ resistance to change.
“This is a big grain-producing region, so we have plenty of opportunities with locally grown feed,” Didier says.
“We need to make the most of our land and livestock farming is the best way to do that.”