As we’ve been farm hunting, I’ve been checking out how people here farm cows for beef. I’ve collected a few of the basics that are common among local farmers.
A cow a hectare is the standard limit
In general they have about a mother cow per hectare (about two and a half acres). Under the terms of the CAP (the EU farm subsidy program), cow farmers get an allowance per mother up to a limit. The government sets the limit on the number of cows subsidies: some technician looks at the farm and says, ‘Your 30 hectares can support 30 mothers.’ This subsidy limit has nearly always been a cow a hectare.
Subsidies are important
Each farmer always goes up to the limit to get full subsidy value. A cow subsidy is about 280 euros per cow per year and when you add in extra subsidies for land productivity and other special zones (e.g. Mountain or Natura 2000) the subsidies can quickly add up. Several farms we looked at had subsidies running at 40-55k euros a year. At that point the farming doesn’t need to be very profitable since the subsidies pay for a very good lifestyle.
[Note: The farm we’re targeting to buy does not make a subsidy anywhere near that. Our plan has been to farm and make business decisions under the assumption the CAP is going to disappear imminently. Subsidy values are factored into the sales price anyway.]
Farmers always make hay or silage
To keep fields under control in spring and to provide for winter feed they always make hay or silage. Hay seems to dominate, maybe because farmers have equipment for that without hiring outsiders. There is some trading in hay bales, a big round ball of about 200 kg going for about 20 euros.
The most extreme case of this I have seen is a 96 hectare farm where 90 cows have 16 hectares to run around and the other 80 hectares are used to make grains and hay for cow feeding and sales. This farm makes a lot of revenue but spends a lot in fertilizer, fungicides and herbicides. I think it is degrading its soils.
There’s a lot of weak pasture
Farms seem to have been grazed too low to the ground leaving a lot of bare earth exposed.
This limits the sun-capturing abilities of the pasture and slows regrowth. I wonder if the reliance on hay or silage means they can take less care of the pasture?
Prices are in Francs
This threw me at first: cow sales are in Francs, hay sales are in Francs. Euros change hands, but farmers and dealers do all their calculations in Francs and then convert to euros at the end.
Cows stay in barns for the winter
Most farms have housing for cows in Winter. This isn’t universal, but is true for the larger farms in the majority of cases I have seen. This goes hand in hand with hay and silage making because Winter barn feeding needs dried food, either grains or hay. Half the barns have open areas for the cows to wander around. Half have cows chained up. I find the idea of cows being chained up for five months of the year totally inumane.
I’ve seen straw and shit accumulating on the floor of barns over the winter. This is part of the manure-making process, and it gives off heat for the cows but the cows get messy on their legs. As more straw is blown in and more shit is dumped the layer builds up in height. In spring the manure gets taken off and either dumped directly on the fields or stored in a pile to make better manure to get dumped later. Other cowsheds have a ‘chain’ which drags the straw/shit mix out each day and dumps it on a pile outside. There are some gains in manure quality to this system as keeping the manure pile makes some of the nutrients more fixed and less liable to leach than cow pats that have been laid on pasture in winter. I have seen large silage mounds being fed in one place outside through the winter but the area becomes a muddy pool of shit and urine very fast.
Blonde d’Aquitaine, Gasconne or Limousin?
Most herds are Blondes. They make the most money at sale and they are sweet natured and reliable. There is a strong market for Blondes all over France. The one successful direct sales operation we saw used Blondes. They are big cows.
Gasconnes are less common but are an older breed and one of the races that was mixed to make up the Blondes last century. They are from the Pyrenees so are good for outdoor wintering. They are smaller than Blondes.
Limousins are very hardy but a lot grumpier. They are an ancient cow type that are also good for outdoor wintering.
[Note: we’re thinking Blondes because they have the market strength. You can winter them outside, but they aren’t as tough as the other two races.]
Nobody does daily cattle moves
I read about this a lot in the USA articles, but no beef producers seems to move their cows often at all. Maybe the dairy herds do.
Cows are born early in the year
I’ve seen farms plan for births as early as December, but mostly in late winter and spring. If they are wintering inside a building it doesn’t make a big difference. I’m yet to hear of a June birth plan although I’m sure some folk do that, especially ones that put cows on pasture year-long.
Male calves sell off at 4-5 months to feedlots
Farms sell off their male calves to agents for feedlots. Most of the time these feedlots are in Italy but I have also heard of Spanish ones.
I wonder if they can then sell them back to the French market as ‘origine France’?
Heifers sell as yearlings
The market for heifer calves is weaker since feedlots prefer steers – they put on more weight faster. But there is a market for yearling heifers. Several farms use this option for their female calves.
Few people finish
I’ve seen only one farm do finishing, and that was the direct sale one. The others sell their calves or yearling to feedlots for finishing.
We want to reduce our risk by copying a lot of what the local farmers do, but still do things in line with what we believe. Our ideal farming system with direct sales is years away, but we need to start somewhere. The backbone of the farm will be a beef cow operation. We will keep some of the common elements of the local farmers but vary in a couple of ways. We also need to start the direct sale side. The current plan is to have a couple of cows for direct sale and as we grow that side of the business switch the focus more in that area.
So we’re thinking of this for our starting model:
- Blonde d’Aquitaine cows
- About a cow a hectare until we learn how the farm handles that
- Pastured with daily moves (more often if the ground gets too soggy)
- Pastured year round (cow moves, grass stays still)
- New electric fences
- Sell male calves and female yearlings
- Finish a couple of cows for direct sale at the end of summer – one Blonde steer and one steer of another breed to see what sells. Perhaps an Angus or a Galloway (if I can find one)?
There are still plenty of open questions. The biggest early one is whether we make hay as a supplement to winter pasture (expensive in terms of machinery depreciation) or buy hay if there’s enough available and work to minimize the demand for hay by improving our winter pasture stockpile. If we want to minimize costs then we should move towards having less capital tied up in equipment.
Do we fence the farm well enough to contain sheep as a supplemental source of income? Do we start direct sales with chickens before we’ve figured out the cow operation? Do we go organic? Do we allow hunting on our land? What farm will we end up with?