Sarah Trickett, UK

Writer gives a nod to small-scale farming

IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism Award recipient 

Small scale family farming is still at the heart of the Belgium dairy industry, as Farmers Weekly’s Sarah Trickett found out when visiting Lietaer-Vangenechten dairy farm near the town of Geel. 

In the UK, expansion is currently the ‘buzz’ word in the dairy industry, but in Belgium it’s sustainability farmers are driving for. There, 85 cows are considered a large herd size, with most dairy farms family run, which is in direct contrast to a recent proposal for an 8500 cow unit in the UK.  

And when visiting the farm run by Griet Vangenechten and husband  Stijn Lietaer, it was warming to hear they are now the fourth generation to run the farm.  

Griet explained. “Initially when we got married in 1992, Stijn brought 35 cows with him from West Flanders and we ran the farm jointly with my parents milking about 50 cows. However, when they retired in 2002 we took over the rest of the farm and from then on began to grow to the current size of 85 cows,” she said.  

But apart from increasing cow numbers, the family have also made huge developments in genetics with a move away from dual purpose breeds, she explained. “When we were milking dual purpose cows we were averaging 2000l/cow/year, but that wasn’t enough so we started incorporating Holstein genetics. However, we were careful that we didn’t just select on yield and so we incorporated genetics from USA, Italian as well as Dutch Holsteins.”  

Now cows are averaging 9500l/cow/lactation, although Griet did admit fertility wasn’t as good with Holsteins. “When cows were producing above 35l we started to see more fertility problems. Cows were also only lasting on average two lactations, so it is also our aim to increase this,” she said.  

However, the aim of this family farm is to be as sustainable as possible which is why only 850kg/cow of feed is bought in each year. “We don’t use much external feed, with much of our feed grown on 63ha of land including triticale, potatoes, grass and maize,” said Griet.  

“And because our feed bill is kept to a minimum it means when the milk price is at its lowest at 20 cents, for example, we are still not loosing any money. At the moment we are receiving 25 cents so are doing quite well.” 

And the fact this family farm is generating money makes the prospect of continuing the farming tradition appealing to Griet and Stijns two teenage children Leen and Sofie. “Dairying is a good living which is why our two children are interested, but they also realise that you do have to work for it,” said Stijn. 

Thinking about the future, the family also planned to expand. “We plan to grow the business by 2-3% a year and this is a healthy way of expanding. Those farmers with 1000 cows or more are simply not farmers but managers – so if you want to do the work yourself you can’t also manage with this size of herd. Family farming also means money stays in the family,” he said.  

Author’s note: What I learnt from the trip to this dairy farm was that bigger isn’t always better. While it can be easy to assume the biggest dairy farms are often the most profitable it would be wrong. This type of farming system would likely see more people attracted in to the industry in the UK, if they knew there was money to be made. It’s not long hours for very little return, Griet and Stijn were working hard, but also playing hard. They were making money by keeping costs low, which was allowing them to invest and advance the farm. I think sustainability is an important message that more farmers need to adopt.