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Minimalist cowshed helps needy farmers

The new shed is built of wood blown down in Hurricane Lothar three years ago

(swissinfo.ch)

Cash-strapped dairy farmers hope a new low-cost cowshed could save them from an uncertain future.

The modular shed, which costs half the price of a traditional barn, is designed to help them survive falling milk prices and increased competition.

The Meili Minimalist Cowshed has already been in use for nine months at a farm near Anwil, about 30 kilometres south east of Basel - and early impressions have been positive.

"It's a very good concept and a step in the right direction," Robert Müller, a local agricultural officer, told swissinfo.

Hurricane Lothar

The shed, which is built of wood blown down in Hurricane Lothar three years ago, is the brainchild of Eric Meili, who works at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick.

"The whole concept was to have very efficient and low-cost milk production so we had to start with a low-cost barn," he says.

"The traditional cowshed used to be a big barn. This is more of a shed and it's the minimum the cow requires for all its needs.

"It has somewhere to feed. It lives in a stall with straw. It can move around and the cows are milked in a milking parlour."

Falling prices

In Switzerland, some 650,000 cows produce about 30-35 million tons of milk a year.

But prices are falling, production costs in Switzerland are expensive, and in order to survive, the emphasis is now on efficiency.

Over the past decade the number of dairy farmers in Switzerland has dwindled by a fifth and now stands at less than 40,000.

"We have a big problem in Switzerland that our production costs are too high," says Müller. "To build a barn, we previously forked out about SFr30,000 per cow. The goal is to halve that or cut it even further like here to only SFr10,000-11,000.

"A building can't cost more. When we look over the border in neighbouring European Union countries like France or Germany, we're still more expensive in comparison."

Cow share

Three dairy farmers - Matthias Schaffner, Beat Speiser and Johannes Gysin - joined forces for the project, keeping their cattle under one roof to lower costs even further.

Between them, they have about 75 hectares and 80-100 cows. Around two-thirds of their combined holdings provides pasture and grassland for their animals. Together, they produce about 400,000 litres of milk a year.

"With this project, we think we've found the solution," says Schaffner. "We're ready for a hard fight but we're placing our hope in the consumers.

"If they really want this product, then we hope they're also ready to pay the right price and I'm confident of that."

The cooperative near Anwil is significantly bigger than the average dairy farm in Switzerland, which has about 20 cows. With the modular way of building, more cows mean less cost.

"We would recommend this as an ideal solution for the dairy industry," adds Schaffner. "Admittedly we've got superb conditions.

"Our farms are adjacent, we've known each other for a long time, we've already worked together and we're open to new ideas. That's not the case everywhere."

Teamwork

Schaffner admits that it is not always easy working as part of a team.

"We have been in this shed nine months and at the beginning we had to learn to live together. We've probably had more problems getting on than the cows have.

"I am still very conscious of the difficulties that can crop up when three people decide to work together on a common project. We knew that before we started so we drew up a lot of contracts and every day we have to tread carefully."

One unexpected consequence of their collaboration is that they have more free time and one of his colleagues is currently taking a holiday - something that is almost unheard of for a dairy farmer in August.

"Free time has come as a bit of a surprise," says Schaffner. "We found it difficult to know what to do with it at the start. But it's a great relief to know that someone is around. Before that, we always had to be present."

Animal welfare

Ursula Linder, animal protection officer for cantons Basel City and Basel Country says the sheds offer the cows plenty of air, space and light.

"They can move around where they want and when they want," she told swissinfo.

Meanwhile Meili dismisses fears that the cows will die of cold in the winter. "A cow doesn't freeze," he explains.

"It can be minus 20 degrees Celsius. It's the farmer who's going to freeze, not the cow. So it's just a psychological barrier for the farmers."

The milk yield at Anwil is about 6,000-6,500 kilogrammes per cow per year.

"Low input production tries not to hike up the milk yield too high because we want to cut down costs, also for concentrated feed," says Meili.

Low input countries include Ireland, New Zealand and Western France. By comparison, the high input systems in Germany, Holland, Canada and the United States can achieve yields of about 10,000-12,000 kilogrammes per cow.

"The Irish milking farmer earns the most money in Europe," adds Meili. "He's the most efficient and he's a low input farmer so we're trying a little to copy their way of producing milk."

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

New shed costs half the price of a traditional barn
Helps farmers cope with falling milk prices
Switzerland produces 30-35 million tons of milk a year

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