Germany's agriculture: after the wall came down

German unification occurred in 1990 and the political developments within the country have helped forge major advances within the economy

Rhinmilch-Verbund's underground milk recording facility
Rhinmilch-Verbund's underground milk recording facility

German unification occurred in 1990 and the political developments within the country have helped forge major advances within the economy.

Agriculture plays a significant role within Germany and combining two diametrically opposed systems and philosophies after the collapse of the Berlin Wall presented immense challenges for the former GDR state-run collectives.

The average herd size in Bavaria is 35 cows, 62 is the national average and, in the five former GDR states, the figure is 200.

However, that is only part of the picture. Milk production per cow in the five states has more than doubled – almost tripled in some cases – and cow numbers have halved.

Unification also, of course, resulted in a re-evaluation of the national milk quota.

Rhinmilch-Verbund (R-V) is a former state collective farm, 75 kilometres north of Berlin.

The 4,000 hectare (ha) enterprise, prior to 1990, had 705 members who effectively farmed the land.

Restructuring the business model was extremely complex, resulting in 94 members deciding to form a limited company to purchase the collective farm and business assets.

External valuations were set in place for those who wished to remain or leave, resulting in a value of 8.5m Deutch marks or 4.2m euros, according to company president, Helmut Riestock.

He said: “The limited company became the owner of the former GDR land, cattle, buildings and facilities. We were confident we could raise the capital against the value.

“R-V acquired funding from the bank, which was not easy, and we sold property and buildings as a form of capitalisation.

“Since then, 40 shareholder members have left the business, owing to old age and retirement and R-V now consists of 44 members, 25 being actively employed.

“When someone wishes to leave the co-operative and withdraw equity, we have to buy out their share at current market value.”

Helmut Riestock
Helmut Riestock
 

 

LARGE-SCALE BUSINESS

The farm operation is on a massive scale.

R-V has 2,500ha in arable and 1,500ha in grassland. The area has low rainfall – 20ins per annum – and grows 900ha of wheat and barley, 300ha oil seed rape and 1,100ha maize.

The business has over 600 beef suckler cows, its own on-farm slaughterhouse, two on-farm vets, three bio-gas plants (anaerobic digesters), an electricity generation plant, and its own kindergarten.

Prior to 1990, the state collective farm employed 518 staff – under the former GDR regime, seemingly, everyone in the village had a job.

One year later 193 staff remained employed. Today, 84 workers are involved in the operation of crop production (21), dairy (41), technical (8), bio-gas (2), slaughterhouse (6) and the administration of the company (6). A land ratio per worker of 47ha; compared to 7ha per worker in 1990; an increase of almost 700%.

 

DAIRY HERD ADVANCEMENT

Similarly, the scale and the advancement of dairy operations has been astounding as a result of developments in management and breeding.

In 1990, the herd consisted of 3,600 cows averaging 4,300kgs at 3.85% fat (protein testing started in 1996). However, under complete state control, a cross-breeding policy produced the Schwarzbuntes Milchrind (SMR) breed involving a combination of 25% Friesian, 50% Holstein and 25% Jersey bloodlines.

Subsequent advances in management and feeding resulted in yields increasing to an average of 6,300kgs at 4.4% fat in 1993. Today, owing to the use of Holstein sires, the herd averages 10,820kgs at 3.85% fat and 3.23% protein.

Over the past 20 years, the herd has reduced from 3,600 SMR cows to 1,800 Holsteins. Two-thirds of the herd is milked on a thrice-per-day basis, with lower yielding animals being milked twice daily. The farm was allocated 70% milk quota and over the years has purchased an additional 5.5m litres, which is now virtually valueless in the EU.

Cows are milked in a 34/68 stall milking parlour operated by teams of three staff plus one additional team member assisting with back-and-forth cow movement. Parlour throughput is 260 cows per hour, albeit resulting in long days for staff and cows and creating virtual round-the-clock production.

The unit has an additional milk recording facility directly underneath the milking parlour. The official milk recorders are based in the underground computerised facility in order to record milk volume and fat and protein sampling. The environment is clean and tidy and reduces stress for farm staff, milk recorders and the cows.

 

BREEDING

The herd produces between 50,000 and 60,000 litres per day and the milk is stored in huge twin bulk tanks. The increase in milk production is a result of genetic advancement as well as increases in management and feeding, says Mr Riestock.

“Prior to unification, the SMR breed had average lifetime yields of 17,000kgs per cow,” he said. “Today, our Holstein cows are producing lifetime yields of 31,000kgs and we now expect this to increase to 33,000kgs.

“After 1990, we used Holstein sires from the US and Canada as well as a few bulls then proven in West Germany. Today, we are using close to 90% German bulls across the herd. Our breeding emphasis is also changing, owing to the development of genomic technology.

“Currently, R-V is using 50% progeny tested bulls and 50% genomic sires. However, under EU law, genomic bulls are considered as being proven and we are capitalising on a new generation of leading-edge sires as well as renowned proven bulls such as Guarini.”

Germany has developed numerous world-beating sires, including Guarini, a Goldwyn x Oman Justice son marketed by UK-based Bullsemen.com. In August 2013, Guarini was listed in pole position in the DairyCo UK evaluations with a PLI rating of +262 points and offers a Holstein UK Type Merit score of +2.33.

 

FEEDING AND NUTRITION

Advances in feeding and nutrition have played an integral part in increasing production levels. The herd, previously outdoor grazed, is now housed and fed on a TMR diet and due to the number of animals involved, the cows are split into 28 groups. The herd is fed on two rations, one for high yielding animals and a separate ration for low yielders.

Cow housing is located in numerous buildings, mainly former collective-type free-stall structures with slatted floors. The TMR ration is mixed and loaded into huge skip-type containers and is subsequently fed through an automated overhead conveyor belt system, delivering fresh feed ten times per day to the herd.

Milk price in the region has traditionally been lower than other areas of Germany. R-V is receiving just over 30 euro-cents per litre (25ppl), almost 2ppl below the cost of production. Milk production accounts for 50% of R-V turnover and the co-operative needs to produce milk worth in the region of €5m to make a profit.

 

ANAEROBIC DIGESTER

In order to aid overall profitability, R-V diversified into bio-gas production and constructed an anaerobic digester in 2001. Since then the business has constructed two more bio-gas plants in 2005 and 2011, with a total project investment costing over €6m. The three combined units are producing over 1,749kw and R-V has its own electricity generating plant.

The bio-gas plants have proven a sound investment, according to Mr Riestock. “Milk price in 2001 was 33 euro-cents per litre and decreased to 22.8 euro-cents by 2009,” he said.

“R-V milk sale turnover had decreased by 1.3m euros within nine years. Annual turnover income from the bio-gas facility is now 2.5m euros.

“Today, the bio-gas plants are much more valuable than our dairy production.”

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