A short study tour to Slovakia
Towards the end of June, a group of 10 farmers, accompanied by Mark Causey from CMC, embarked on a short study tour to Slovakia, to see how post-communist countries where developing their dairy industry. Working from their base in Bratislava, the group and their local guide Dagmar, visited various farms within a 120 km radius. The locals were friendly, but very few farmers spoke English so Dagmar’s role was vital.
The first thing that soon became clear was the farm and field size. When the communists seized power in 1948 all land was confiscated and huge co-operative farms created. These were initially run by ministry bureaucrats and where hugely inefficient, but as time went on the level of farmer knowledge increased and they became more productive. During this time hedges were removed and field sizes ranged from 10 ha up to 500 ha !!!. This has created a good environment for large machinery and driven many farms to arable production. After the communists were gone, the land was handed back to the descendants of the people it had been confiscated from, so with a 40 year gap, there was turmoil once again. Teachers, bankers lorry drivers etc all owned a bit of land with no wish to farm it. This is gradually being sorted.
The majority of building were of communist design, lots of concrete with little light or ventilation. However, with the use of fans and lower stocking rates the farmers were trying to make the best of what was available. There was a heat wave (30 degrees plus) during the visit, but temperatures dropped to minus 20 during the winter making building design an issue. There was some reinvestment on a few of the farms visited, with the most impressive being a 3200 cow unit that was owned by a large Danish pig producer. The cows were milked 3 times a day, on a rotary and the whole system followed the American Wisconsin system, indeed the farm dairy manager had been trained in America. The large levels of land available did make the project seem feasible, but with a shortage of skilled labour and the milk price being in the 26 euro cents per litre region there were pressures on this business model. On this unit and most of the others, the calves were kept in hutches.
All the cows, bar the large unit on green bedding, where bedded on straw. Some were on cubicles and others loose housed but there were no slurry systems. The ‘scrape passages’ were bedded with straw and then the this was removed each day. This then created only solid manure. Some of the straw was baled but some was stored in great outside heaps ( collected by a forage wagon) and used loose.
So many red cows!
The tour visited a farm with 600 red Holsteins. It was quite a sight to see so many red cows, but it was a concern that in order to retain the red bloodlines, the genomic pool of bulls would be very narrow and could lead to problems in the future. The farmer had just invested in a new shed, with 300 cubicles, and another one being constructed. When quizzed if it stacked up financially, he just shrugged his shoulders and said that he loved dairy farming and it was what he did. Some things don’t change whatever the country. He didn’t really expand on where is finances came from, but thought with us leaving the EU that would be the last shed he would able to erect !.
Maize. forage and barley
Maize was the major forage grown, with wheat, barley and rape crops also in abundance. Two of the farms grew sugar beet with the cows being fed the moist pressed pulp from an AgBag. The barley harvest had just started but due to the fact they had only had 3 inches of rain since Xmas, yields and bushel weights were down. Again, due to field and unit size, there was a high level of mechanisation. To see 4 large combines leave one yard at once to head off to a 200 ha field was not something you would find in Holsworthy. However, that unit ( 13,500 acres) employed 1120 workers in 1989, now it employs 83. The drive to reduced labour was evident in all areas.
The group visited a vineyard and part took in some wine tasting. The vineyard was owned by a lady who was extremely passionate about her wine and the frustrations caused by the part ownership of hundreds of different small pieces of land. Expansion was impossible because the next plot had 10 different owners who couldn’t agree to sell or not. However, she produces wonderful wine that she had just started to export.
The future for dairy farming in Slovakia
During the short trip, all the farmers met were apprehensive about the future for dairy farming in Slovakia, mainly due to the lack of skilled labour. Like so many places in the world, the lack of specialist diary knowledge and stockmanship soon become apparent, with all the animals seen looking healthy and well cared for but the attention to detail was missing in some areas. Milk price and labour were the two major concerns for most of the farmers but land availability did not seem an issue. The group felt that even with substantial outside investment, the Slovakian dairy industry would struggle to produce milk as cheaply and to as high a quality as that in the UK. The theory of vast land masses and cheap labour may be correct, but from what the group saw on the ground the reality is somewhat different.
A great visit
With this in mind, Slovakia, and its capital Bratislava , did not seem backward in any way. Cars, buildings and infrastructure seem good ( no loss of phone signal here !!) and the all the farmers seemed focused on what they wanted to do. The group enjoyed the visit and sampling what Slovakia had to offer and gained a great overview of what was happening over there if not being educated in the finer points of milk production.