Finding the cheapest way to convert grass in high-quality food, that is our clearly defined goal. We need the ideal cow for that, but how do we find it?
We look at the environment
When you are looking for the ideal cow you need to ask yourself a few questions. Which product are you planning to feed the cows? Which products and residual flows does your area have in abundance? In our case, it was a lot of grass, clovers, herbs and wildflowers. These are all easy to cultivate. In addition to that, the crops can be harvested by the cows themselves.
It’s also crucial to ask yourself if your cows are the link between grass and milk, or if they are just mean to have a high production value. In this case, it doesn’t matter if you’re using grass or silage. The last question you need to ask is if you’re mainly producing meat or milk.
A cow for every region
Our farm is all about milk. We are trying to build a company that can last for a thousand years. The cow is the link between grass and milk. But which cow fits this purpose the best? To find that out we need to go back in history. In that time, big parts of Friesland were unsuitable for cultivation, including our area. In fact, these areas were only suitable as pastures. The Frisian peat meadows is a great example of this. To be able to turn nature into food the farmers bred a cow that was perfectly adapted to these conditions: the Friesian cow. They (almost) didn’t use any grains for this, simply because grains weren’t readily available. In agricultural areas, this was very different. The ‘blaarkop’ in Groningen was very popular for example. There the cow was used for the residuals of agriculture and their manure as fertilizer for the fields.
The Frisian dual goal cow
Because the Frisian lands were less suitable for agriculture, one of the main goals of the Frisian breeding programs was creating a so-called ‘dual goal cow’. This had to be a strong milk cow that had a high residual value. The rest of Europe made a strong distinction between milk cows and meat cows. Moreover, in the Netherlands, a good cow was a beautiful cow. At very popular cattle inspections the prettiest cows got awarded the most points. Then the bulls with the most points were selected for breeding. Because appearance was more important than production, this created short and round cows with a lot of meat, but that produced less milk. They knew better in Noord-Holland. They bought all the ‘milking type’ bulls that were regarded as useless in Friesland. They used these superannuated bulls to create livestock that produced more milk on grass.
A cow for every type of soil
What I especially like about the Frisian breed registry is that they used to select on lighter soils (sand and peat) and on heavier soils (clay and loam). Our farm is situated on a soil type of mostly sand and partly peat, so we can’t compare our cows with heavy soils. They used to say a farmer on sandy soil couldn’t purchase cows from clay soils, but a farmer on clay soil could buy cows from sandy soils. The cows from clay soils would simply fall over on the sandy soil.
Keeping that in mind, we need to create a cow that is very suitable for our soil type. We are grass farmers, so we want to produce off of our own lands, without external input. After all, an agricultural farmer doesn’t buy his barn already filled with potatoes either. That’s why we should look at the theories of grass farmers from the 1940s and farmers from New-Zealand and Ireland. What stands out is that the cows have a quite small build; they weigh in at about 450 kilograms. In comparison, the average weight of a full-grown cow is 600 kilograms.
Our choice: the Jersey cow
Like we mentioned earlier: we choose grass, not meat. To convert grass into milk we had a couple of choices. Goats are the most efficient, followed by the ‘small’ Jersey, Holstein and the meat breeds. That’s no surprise because the animals need less grass to reach adulthood and to maintain their bodies.
We had three choices:
Goats. These are ruled out because they aren’t suitable for grazing.
The Friesian-Dutch cow. There are no big breeding programs anymore and not a lot of good cows available.
The Jersey cow. There are a lot of cows available and the breed is in the spotlight at the moment.
For our vision (converting grass into milk), the Jersey cow is the obvious choice. That’s why my father and I travelled to Denmark in 2014 to purchase 120 Jersey heifers. These Jerseys are from housing systems so they are not really suitable for a grazing system on lighter soils. That’s why we started off with heifers that were not older than twelve months. That way they had a whole year to learn to graze. We probably can’t get their full potential out yet, so there is still room for improvement.
Developing the ideal cow
Through milk testing, we know how much milk the cows produce. We also know the protein content and fat percentage. That is actually very important because that’s what we are getting paid for. By analysing our data (spread over all of the cow’s lactations), we can find out the best bulls to keep. Around seven bulls are carefully studied during the rearing process until the best two or three bulls are left. These animals are exceptionally well suited for our farm. After all, the mothers have proven themselves and the bulls are well developed on just grass.
We use these bulls to fertilize all of our livestock, assuming the resulting calves will fit our farm even better. Better than the bulls from the breeding organisations anyway. We repeat this pattern every year. In 15 years our cows will probably still be brown and of the Jersey breed, but we think they will look different from the heifers we purchased in Denmark.