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Loire Valley farmers step up to industry challenges


French dairy farmers are faced with similar issues as farmers on this side of the channel, but they are also operating with smaller herds and in some regions farming in drought conditions. Laura Bowyer visited the Loire Valley to find out how they are adapting their businesses.

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The Maine-et-Loire department, which lies in the Loire Valley has not received any rain since 20 June and is thought to have a moisture deficit of 260mm. Drought, coupled with a disappointing milk price and increasing regulations, can make this, at times, a challenging place to farm.
Gaec du Lathan is a dairy farm in this area which was formed in 1992, when three farmers pooled their resources and joined farming businesses. Since, two others have joined the business and now five associates run the farm, which can be suggested in the farm’s name, with ‘gaec’ meaning collective.

Holstein herd

Now, they jointly run the 230 cow pedigree Holstein herd, with all partners taking responsibility for a certain business element.
Michel Ruault, partner of Gaec du Lathan, says: “Before we joined together in the same business, the three of us were working together, pooling machinery and genetics.

“Since, we have really benefited from the organisation of our work loads, especially on the weekends. All five partners share an equal capital share, and receive a wage from the business.”

The business took on another farm last year and now runs 340 hectares (840 acres), with the aim of producing 2m litres of milk, with 1.5m going to their buying co-operative.

In 2009, the farm started processing yoghurt, which then led to the production of cheese and pasteurised milk under the brand name Douceur Angevine.

Using this name, the farm processes 300,000kg of its own products, with 40 per cent of their output being sold through supermarkets, such as Carrefour and Leclerc, and the other 60 per cent into the catering service, to hospitals and schools and such like. A small amount is sold directly from the farm.

With two thirds of the milk processed into yoghurt, one third is sold as pasteurised milk, cottage and a local hard cheese known as Tomme Angerine. This local delicacy is sold at €15/kg (£12.94/kg) from the farm’s shop and requires 12kg milk to produce 1kg cheese.

The majority of the farm’s milk production is sold to Lactalis, and the farm receives €260/tn (£224.35/tn) for their milk and sometimes €285/tn (£245.92/tn) as they are paid on constituents. They say average production cost is €290/tn (£250.24/tn), increasing to €340/tn (£293.38) once labour is taken into account.

Running an all year round calving system, male calves are sold at two weeks old to be killed and all Holstein females are kept for breeding. The cows are pedigree, with blood lines going back 10 to 15 generations.

Heifers are inseminated at 15 months of age, with a target weight of 350kg. Pedometers are fitted to females to aid heat detection.
Mr Ruault says: “We want heifers to have their first calf at 24 months, but in reality it is more like 26-28 months.”

Belgium Blue semen is used on 25-30 per cent of the herd to gain a higher price for the male calves, with these beef cross calves fetching €250 (£215.72) per head, while the Holsteins make significantly less at €40-50 (£34.52-£43.14).

Calves are fed milk for the first three months of life, followed by hay pellets, as well as grazed grass although only heifers and young cows are put outside to graze, in an area which can struggle for grass growth during the summer. Inside, ventilation and sprayers cool the atmosphere when the weather is hot.

Mr Ruault says: “We like to ensure animals are comfortable and bed the milking cows on mattresses and straw, which we change every morning. The automatic scrapers help keep things clean.”



These days, 300,000 litres of milk is used in the production of yoghurt and cottage cheese with a total of 1.8 million litres of milk are currently being produced, but the farm wants to sell more.

Mr Ruault says: “We want to increase the volume of milk we process to 500,000kg but we are not there yet. We do not want to produce any more milk, just process more.”

Cows are producing 8,000kg/year at 3.25 per cent protein and 4.1 per cent fat with 360-390 days between each calving.

Mr Ruault says: “Beans are also doing well economically and we are also glad we grow maize seed as, again, we do well from this enterprise.”
Cows are fed a TMR of maize silage, lucerne, rapeseed, soya and maize grain, with cows receiving 18kg DM/day. Maize grain is crimped and ag-bagged on the farm and contractors are used for silage making.
Sorghum is bought wet and crimped to be included in the ration. They have decided to buy the sorghum as they are trying to focus on growing the herd and distillers’ grains are also purchased to be included in the ration.

The problems faced by this farming business mirror those of the UK, with the main one being they do not feel they are receiving the right money for their milk and struggle to be anything else but price-takers.

Increasing environmental regulation, but Mr Ruault says they must abide to these regulations in order to get the best price for their milk.

They are not the only ones processing their own milk though, and Mr Ruault believes there are about 10 farms in Maine-et-Loire doing the same, which he says equates to between two and three per cent, bringing an amount of competition to the local market. Much of the farm is rented and Mr Ruault believes the case is the same for 70 per cent of the region’s farm, with their farm alone having 50 landlords.

France is the largest exporter and second largest producer of maize seed in the world, and the Loire Valley is one of the country’s major areas of production, believed to be a great financial benefit to farmers in the regions. It is said it is not the farmers of the Loire who take to the streets in protest.

French dairying

France is also the second largest milk producer in the UK, after Germany and followed by the UK. Its main milk fields are Normandy, Brittany and the Loire, also the greatest maize producing regions.
With 70,000 dairy farms in the country and 3.6 millions cows (source: Maison du Lait), milk production sits at an average of 380,000kg per farm per year, and is increasing due to changes in farming practices, adjusting to climate changes, and genetics.
There has been investment from China into the French dairy industry, including into a milk processing plant in Brittany.

A typical French dairy farm

  • 52 dairy cows
  • 330,000 litres of milk
  • 88 hectares
  • 54 per cent run as farm companies, either as co-operatives or limited companies
  • Source: Maison du Lait

Business cropping

  • 200ha (494 acres) forage
  • 10ha (25 acres) strawberry plants – not a common crop in the Loire
  • 15ha (37 acres) – beans
  • 55ha (136 acres) – seed maize – sold to Limagrain
  • 100ha (247 acres) – pasture
  • 80 (189 acres) silage maize
  • 25ha (52 acres) – sorghum
  • 25ha (52 acres) – lucerne
  • 45ha (111 acres) – wheat

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