What is Efficient Farming, Really?

November 18, 2019

From Grass to Milk

working with the rhythms of sheep and seasons

As you might have guessed from my cover photograph, I really like sheep. Sheep are a lot like humans, in a way. They can be the dearest, friendliest animals in the world. But they can also be the most stubborn and destructive ones. Since I wanted to learn more about sheep farming, I decided to work on such a farm for some time myself. And this is precisely where I’m writing from: a beautiful, small sheep farm in a tiny village in the North of Germany. Let me take you to the world of these lovely animals, of the farmers working there and of the tasty dairy products they produce together.

From sheep milk, all kind of dairy products can be made. These wheels of cheese are maturing in a special cooling chamber. Photo by Naomi Bosch

A sheep’s world

Schafscheune (“sheep’s stable”) Vietschow is, with its around 60 lactating sheep, a small-scale organic farm. On their 15 hectares of land, they are able to produce the full amount of forage for their animals. During the day, their sheep can graze on the pastures surrounding the farm. At night, the sheep come back inside the stable, where they get some aromatic hay to eat, which is an important part of their diet. Sheep spend much of their waking time eating, and they can be quite picky when it comes to the right choice of food (just like humans…).

This large barn hosts the stables, several apartments, a farmer’s shop, the machinery… Photo by Naomi Bosch

Believe me, it is such a delightful sight to watch the flock of sheep peacefully grazing under the setting sun, as you come to bring them back to the stables. It is pure joy to walk before the flock, leading them to follow you home. And it is a pleasure to bottle-feed the sick lambs. To hear them bloat merrily at the very sight of you with the bottle in your hand. But what might seem like a romantic, peaceful life in the countryside proves to come with long, strenuous work. From dusk to dawn, day in, day out.

Reality on the farm

A typical day of the farmer couple starts at 4 am in the morning. The mistress of the farm, who’s also responsible for the cheese making, heads to the cheese dairy. At a time when most people are still soundly sleeping, she’s already busy making cheese from the sheep’s milk. At 5 am, the couple starts the milking, which lasts for 2,5 hours. After the sheep are released onto the pasture, the milking parlour and the stables are cleaned, fresh straw carried in and the hay racks refilled for the evening.

In the milking parlour. Photo by Naomi Bosch

The hay racks are already prepared for the sheep’s arrival into the stable in the evening. Photo by Naomi Bosch

During the summer, the meadows are regularly mown in order to make forage for the winter. From the day’s yield of about 60 litres of milk, the couple produces all kinds of dairy products on the farm itself: yoghurt, curd, feta and barbecue cheese, all kinds of hard and soft cheese, whey and sheep milk. They deliver these products to various shops, restaurants and markets, or sell them directly from the farm’s lovely dairy store.

On Wednesdays, they offer guided tours and cheese tasting on the farm to visitors. After lunch, some work in the bureau needs to be done, and the aging cheese needs to be turned and salted in regular intervals.

Every evening, the farmers go to fetch their sheep back to the farm.
Photo by Steffen Honzera

Then, at 5 pm, the second milking of 2,5 hours is done, after the flock has been fetched back to the farm. Sick sheep and lambs are cared for, some more paperwork is completed, the fruits from the garden are harvested for the various kinds of fruit yoghurt…

Soon, it is 10 pm. It is not a rarity for the couple to go sleeping as late as 11 pm after a long day of work. The next morning, again, the alarm will ring at 4 am… And there are no weekend exceptions to this working schedule, as sheep don’t know the meaning of the word “weekend”. (1)

Everything a sheep needs to be content: food! Video by Naomi Bosch

After summer is before summer

The East Friesian Sheep, which is the race on this farm, gives milk only from mid-April to mid-November. After that, the pregnant sheep spend the cold and wet German winter in the warmth of the stable. Farmers use this time of the year to make necessary reparations on the farm building and prepare everything for the upcoming season. In March, the lambs are born; some 130 in number, since one sheep can bear up to 4 lambs! (2) And the cycle of seasons and work is continued…

In agriculture, the seasons dictate the rhythms of life. Sun and rain, long and short days, frost and warmth – all play their role in letting the food grow for us and our animals. In animal husbandry, it is also the seasonal rhythms of mating, birth and growth that mark life on a farm. The unpredictable weather makes all smoothly crafted plans go to waste and a drought can destroy the year’s harvest. A rainy day can lower the sheep’s appetite for eating, and thus reduce milk-giving. An infection of the animals can cause severe financial deficits in a carefully laid out yearly budget plan.

The rhythms of sheep and seasons

This unpredictability requires a lot of flexibility. But working with nature, plants, animals and the seasons also brings immeasurable joy. The joy of living with the rhythm of nature. The joy of making a living in cooperation with the animals and the seasons. In order to live such a life, it definitely needs a lot of dedication and joy found from it. I can read both dedication and joy in the eyes of the farming couple, as I watch them gaze over their little flock of sheep with serene contentment.

It takes a lot of dedication to earn a living from grass to milk…Photo by Naomi Bosch

Almost 10 years after they bought and started this farm, there is still a spark in their eyes as they talk about their land and their animals, and what they have achieved with them since. I can also notice this dedication in the smile at every customer showing up at the farm’s front door wanting to buy some of their products. Or in the patient responses they give to each visitor of the tour, again and again. Finally, I feel there is meaning in their work, too, as I taste the sublime cheese they produce, knowing these animals and the land truly flourish under the care of these good shepherds.

…but this is the reward for all the hard work: the sight of these happy fellows. Photo by Naomi Bosch

Big Ag

What is Efficient Farming?

on dust storms and happy sheep

I have introduced you to the lovely farm in Vietschow, a farm where each sheep is still tenderly called by its name and where you can taste the freshest milk and the best cheese possible (very subjectively speaking). Now I want to take a closer look at the surroundings of this secluded spot in the world, a picturesque region called Mecklenburg. And a place where a hidden drama is taking place. A drama which, I believe, is being replayed in many parts of the world.

Dangers on the road

A dust storm on the road in Mecklenburg. Source: https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/mecklenburg-vorpommern/sandsturm234_v-contentxl.jpg

Imagine a warm summer’s day. You are driving around the countryside, when suddenly, you get caught in a sand storm. A huge cloud of sand envelops you, and you can’t see the road anymore! Luckily, in just a few seconds the storm is over and you drive on… but wait?!? There is no desert within a million miles from where you are, and the Sahara surely hasn’t just moved to your neighbourhood overnight. Where could this cloud of sand have come from?

A similar scenario has played out in Mecklenburg, Northern Germany, in 2011. The huge dust storm tragically ended in a pile-up on the highway. In this multiple collision of 80 cars, 8 people died and more than 100 were injured. But the dust didn’t come from any desert, nor from the nearby coast. It had been stirred up from the huge agricultural fields in the flat, windy area around.

The treasure beneath our feet

This is the drama of the most precious agricultural good we have, our soil. The soil makes it possible to grow food in the first place. But its fertility also guarantees that we will be able to do so in the future, as well. The most fertile component of the soil, humus or soil organic matter, is mostly found in the top layer. And it is precisely this indispensable part of the soil that gets carried away in these “sand storms”. When the wind blows strongly (which happens fairly often in this part of the world) and the fields lay bare, soil erosion is a common scenario. Each spring, when the corn is sown, one can observe the precious top layer getting irretrievably lost under the wind and rain.

Soil is the basis of our existence, our most precious good.

Whose fault is this tragedy?

To make soil erosion possible, a couple of factors must play together. Strong wind or rainfall, large fields that are not covered by any vegetation and slopes in the landscape. The main reason why in this part of the world soil erosion has such a dramatic impact is that the fields are usually huge. Several hundreds of hectares are not a rarity, and often, there are no trees or shrubs in between to slow down the wind. This makes it easy for the wind to pick up momentum. Additionally, farmers very often grow corn, which grows but slowly in the spring and leaves the ground bare for a long period of time. These factors combined make the perfect blend for a tragical loss of precious, fertile topsoil. If such events continue for several years, soil fertility decreases, meaning less yield or eventually no harvests at all.

Corn is often grown for feeding cattle. Photo by Alejandro Barón on Pexels

To make matters worse, a loss of humus from the soil also means a loss of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, since humus stores lots of carbon. Carbon dioxide, in turn, contributes to global warming and climate change. But this implies that the opposite is possible, as well: that the soil can store lots of carbon if it contains humus or soil organic matter. In this way, agriculture can contribute to diminishing climate change by storing carbon, or to making it worse by releasing carbon. The benefits from humus-rich soils are numerous, so we should try to store as much in our soils as possible, right? How can we do so?

Preserving our soil

This is where we are taken back to our little sheep farm in the middle of this wide, beautiful countryside in the North of Germany. Here, about 60 sheep, plus lambs, are grazing on 15 hectares of pastures. Pastures and meadows have the remarkable ability to build up humus in the soil. They do this through a huge network of grassroots, ever growing and dying, from spring to winter, year in and year out. This creates a lot of organic matter in the soil. In this way, pastures can store even more carbon than forests can! The sheep farm in Vietschow, viewed as a whole, actually stores more greenhouse gases (through the carbon in the soil) than it produces (through the animals’ methane emissions and the energy the farm is using).

Grazing sheep are very beneficial for the soil. They naturally fertilize and preserve it.
Photo by Naomi Bosch

Fertile landscapes

Knowing all of this transformed my vision of Mecklenburg’s landscape of small villages scattered among the vast fields of corn, and very few pastures… A landscape too familiar in many parts of the world, from the corn belt of the USA, to the endless fields of the Ukraine or Russia. These are all very fertile areas that once used to be wild pastures or prairies. In the Ukraine, erosion has cost the soil approximately half of its humus in the last 100 years. The question is, for how long will these areas remain as fertile? How many sand storms will it take to wipe out the organic matter from the soil?

As always, matters are not that simple. Farmers here have such huge fields because the Communists in Eastern Germany introduced so-called LPGs. These are agricultural enterprises in which several farms were combined into one. The agricultural policy of the European Union also stimulates such large-scale farming through its subsidy system. Farmers are given subsidies based on the amount of hectares they possess. More hectares means more money. And this, in turn, results in fewer farmers working more and more land. It’s not that the farmers are lazy or don’t want to conserve their soil. But time and space dimensions make that an impossible task. In the narrow time frame for sowing, say, cover crops, they cannot possibly work all their fields with the limited workforce appropriately. The typical farming dimensions in Mecklenburg are 4 farmers per 1000 hectares.

That’s “efficient” farming – large fields, few people employed, good harvests, efficient machinery.

But what is efficiency really?

In the case of the sheep farm in Vietschow, two people are working 15 hectares of land, producing 10 000 kg of milk in a year with their 60 sheep. The typical farming dimensions in Mecklenburg are 4 farmers working 1000 hectares. 1000 hectares of corn can feed roughly 1000 cows yearly, each producing 10 000 kg of milk per year. But knowing about the above-mentioned environmental impact of large-scale farming, especially of growing corn, suddenly changes the picture.

A pasture with a corn field in the background. Photo by Naomi Bosch

So, what is more efficient? While many would belittle these tiny, “inefficient” farms, like the sheep farm in Vietschow, it is interesting to put things into perspective. On average, the sheep farmer needs just 7.5 hectares to make a living, while the large-scale farmer needs 250 hectares to do the same. Added to this comes the environmental balance of both systems, measured in the greenhouse gases they store or produce.

Black or white, or…

I’ve now compared two extreme examples (large-scale versus small-scale farming), to prompt you to overthink what efficient farming really is. But I do not think there is one “right” and one “wrong” way, since life is much too complex for such simplicity… There are so many ways to do farming, so many exciting options for building a sustainable future on the planet.

In many parts of the world, we are now feeding ourselves through intensive, large-scale agriculture. But the price of this kind of agriculture might be too high. It is the price of losing our most precious good, fertile soil and an intact environment. We can do better than that. The farming of the future will definitely have to consider the impact it has on our environment and all of us living on the earth, ultimately. And it will need smart solutions for the problems we are experiencing in the face of an ever-growing population on the planet.

Through my blog, I hope to inspire this kind of smart, sustainable agriculture. Or, as I like to put it: inspire plentiful lands. There are many ways to support such an agriculture, so stay tuned to find out how!

(1) The milking, just as the feeding of the animals and the cleaning of the stables, need to be done every single day, without exception.
(2) Sheep and cows need to bear lambs/calves each year in order to give milk.

Naomi Bosch

grew up in Croatia, having a garden & nature close by. In 2017, I moved to the North of Germany to study agriculture. I have worked on various farms since. To me, it is always a pleasure to work in agriculture and discover the way farmers live. Through this blog, I want to invite you on a journey to discover plentiful lands all around us.

Tags: building resiient food and farming systems, carbon sequestration strategies, sheep farming