Organic farmer weathers EU’s dairy crisis

Dairy farmer Markus Legge is coping with the European “dairy crisis” by lowering costs and increasing his margins through organic milk production. Photo Laura Rance

By Laura Rance
OrganicBiz staff

With its narrow streets and houses chiseled into the rocks, the ancient charm of Monschau in the Eifel region of western Germany serves as an inspiration to farmers fighting to survive Europe’s deepening dairy crisis.

Like the town that has reinvented itself through the centuries, some are mixing the old with new.

Dairy farmer Markus Legge, 53, converted his 80 ha dairy operation to organic production in 2004. But a key cost and labour-saving technology for his operation is two portable robotic milkers positioned in the paddocks.

The cows amble one by one out of one paddock up to the milking parlour and enter the stall. A robotic arm attaches the milker as the chute opens and offers them a feed of grain. When they’re done, the gate opens and off they go into a new  pasture where the grass is lush and green.

Situating the the robotic milkers where his 125-cow herd is grazing, as opposed to in a central barn, means Legge doesn’t have to move the cows one to two kilometres twice a day. That’s a huge saving in labour for him and less stress for the cows, which means he has to hire less help and he has more time to do other things about the farm.

Europe’s dairy sector has been particularly hard hit since the European Union ended its quota system, the last of its supply management program, in April 2015. Many farmers had expanded their production in anticipation of new markets in Russia, China and perhaps even Canada under it’s new trade deal with the EU. Those markets have yet to materialize. Instead, the market crashed under the weight of surplus production.

Today, milk is selling in supermarkets for less than the cost of bottled water, well below the cost of production. The EU Common Agricultural Policy recently stepped up with 500 million euros (C $720 million) in support for farmers who voluntarily curb milk production. Many would like to see a full return to supply management.

It would be the greatest mistake farmers can do. – Markus Legge, on deregulation of Canada’s dairy market

Because he is producing organic milk, Legge has lower production costs and he receives a higher prices for his milk, more than double what conventional dairy farmers receive when premiums for quality and subsidies for sustainable farming practices are considered.

Those more than make up production that is slightly lower because he grazes his cows three seasons a year instead of keeping them confined and eating concentrated feed.

A tourist destination in the Eifel region of western Germany, Manschau has stood the test of time. Photo: Laura Rance
A tourist destination in the Eifel region of western Germany, Manschau has stood the test of time. Photo: Laura Rance

Most of his farmland is only suitable for forage so it’s tailor-made to the organic method. And he has bred for resilience in his herd, using not one, but six breeds, including the standard Holstein dairy breed crossed with Brown Swiss, Scandinavian Rotvieh, Montbéliarde, Simmental and Belgian Blue.

“The cross-breeds are more robust,” he said, noting his cows have fewer foot problems. On average, he keeps his cows through nine breeding cycles.

But even the organic market goes through volatile price swings relative to available supply. Organic suppliers are routinely asked to limit their deliveries to their processor until markets recover. Legge is working with two other local farmers on a plan to build their own dairy processing facility as a means of securing a stable market for their milk. .

Legge has some advice for Canadian dairy farmers contemplating a deregulated market in exchange for access to export sales. “It would be the greatest mistake farmers can do,” he said.