Sean McIntosh’s European Adventure

Sean McIntosh, 2018 Agriculture

From a young age I have had a passion for agriculture, growing this at school through to Tocal College. So when sitting in a quiet library at Tocal, a few months after it had been suggested to me to apply for the BBM award, I received an email of my successful application and inviting me to the presentation ceremony, I couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity I had just been given, and the adventure that awaited.


Oxenhope Dairy, West Yorkshire 

I met Robert at his small, family run dairy farm in West Yorkshire, with stone fences all around and green rolling hills. Having worked on dairy farms back home I was interested to see how they could produce off of such small blocks of land. The dairy is set on 140 Acres milking 300 cows twice a day, producing an average of 25 litres of milk per day in a 20-stand single side herringbone style dairy. After morning milking the cows are sent out to pasture to graze through the day on improved pastures of Rye grass and white clover. Pastures can be cut for silage 5 times a season and still then grazed after by the cattle. Soils around this area are quite fertile rolling black and chocolate loams, because of this not many fertilizers or nutrients need to be added to keep pasture production high, however Robert spreads Urea (nitrogen) and all manure sludge that comes from the dairy and housing sheds. The dairy also gets lots of consistent year-round rain fall, averaging 1500mm annually (where I live in The Oaks near Sydney, we have averaged 740mm per year for the past 10 years). Having the cattle on pasture gives Robert time to clean and re-stock the sheds where the cows sleep with fresh bedding made up of gypsum and fill feed troughs. The dairy feeds the cattle a ration mix of pasture silage, wheat grain, brewers’ grain and orange peel by-products. Some challenges that the dairy face include a short growing season as they can only produce good high-quality feeds for about 3 months through spring and summer before cool weather comes back and all but halts pasture production. The biggest disease that Robert faces on the farm in the cows is Digital Dermatitis. It is caused from anaerobic bacteria and causes severe lameness and can be formed in any open wounds or around the teat area.


Blackwater Baling, Essex 

Next stop was Gavin Strathern and his crew at Blackwater Baling, located in the south east of England in Essex only about 45 minutes out of London, where I was able to do a full harvest season with them. Blackwater Baling is a hay baling contracting company which services most of Essex and is the largest hay making contractors in the area. Blackwater employs 4 permanent staff year-round which then grows to 16 during peak summer harvest season (July to mid-September). The business owns 7 Tractors, 2 rental tractors for the harvest season, 2 telehandlers, 3 big balers, 3 small balers 1 mid sizer baler and 1 round baler, along with many other rakes and mowers. On average each year Blackwater produces around 200 000 small hay bales, usually pasture hay, and over 50 000 big bales, which are mostly straw (wheat, barley and canola). During the season we went flat out – doing 12-16 hr days, every day.

My observation of the costs for large straw bales is as follows, the farmer is paid £10 per bail which is then sold to the power station for approximately £40 per bail. The baling twine string that holds the bail together adds up to a cost of £180 000 per year. Diesel is by far the biggest expense, costing £15000 PER DAY for about 60 to 80 days to keep all machines running. The fuel truck makes a trip to our yard everyday to keep the tank full. This leaves labour as the lowest cost in the operation. All small pasture bales are sold for £4 per bail.

All small bales are sold to stock farmers or horse studs as feed for getting animals through the winter. The Straw however is primarily sold to power stations to be burnt to create electricity. What a great idea! The grain has been harvested off and it is just straw we bail, this creates a clean green energy as it saves a need to use coal and the straw would only go to waste anyway. Not all bails go to the power stations, as some straw goes to farms as a feed filler or to put down as bedding. The inside of the stalk of a canola plant is white, quite soft and very absorbent, because of this reason the stubble is sold and shipped to Holland to a horse bedding plant, where they can break it down and strip the insides out. However, with Brexit looming this may close trade deals into Europe so Gavin will have to find new markets for this or store it longer for the power stations to buy it. Brexit will affect all farmers in the UK, for contractors that have markets in Europe it can negatively affect them as trade deals may close and tariffs will be implemented making it expensive to send goods into Europe. For chicken and meat markets it may open doors to cheaper lower quality meats outside of the E.U. containing dangerous chemicals that could be let into the country, also negatively affecting British farming. It could, however, also have positive affects if the UK government implement tight laws on what foods and chemicals can and cannot be used it may help the UK to become self-sufficient and not have to import as many foods, if they are not exporting they can rely on their own farmers for quality food.

Whilst with the team at Blackwater I learnt how cropping farmers in the UK can get large yields off small blocks of land. I had the opportunity to speak to some farmers and ask about their operations and what get out of the land. Most farmers operate on lots of small blocks scatted around areas with anything from less than 2 hectares (Ha) up to 20 Ha, with the occasional “big block” that could be 50Ha.  and have an average yield of 9 tonnes per Ha for cereal crops,  ranging from a low 6T/Ha to a high of 14T/Ha. This year was a low year with lower rain fall and an “extreme heat wave” with temperatures up to 35°C for a few days before cooling off again.  I was also able to get my eye in to be able to look and feel at a crop to see whether it can be baled or if it needs to be turned and let to dry another day. I was also responsible for driving very big loads down very small British lanes!


The Floating Farm, Rotterdam 

I then travelled across to the Netherlands.

Rotterdam’s Floating Dairy Farm is the first of its kind, worldwide! The floating farm was created with a vision to bring whole food production close to the consumer market, to eliminate waste, to be fully off grid sustainable and circular. The Dairy is currently milking 32 cross bred cows producing 800L/day with an average of 25L per cow, which is about its capacity. The cows are a 75/25% dairy beef breed mix so after the cows have reached their peak lactation periods (about 10 years) they can be sold for meat production. Cows are milked in a fully automatic milking system where the cows can be milked whenever they feel its needed. Milk is stored like any other dairy in a large VAT cooled to 4°C, however instead of sending the milk to a processing plant, it is completely refined, pasteurised and homogenised on site, Then the milk is bottled and sold. This process happens about 4 times a week. As well as this on the floating farm they also have the facilities to turn the milk straight into yogurt which can be bought onsite.

As the farm is trying to be completely circular all manure is recycled. There is a robot that collects manure and moves it to a collection point where urine and solid faeces are separated as quickly as possible. The quicker this process is completed the less ammonia is released into the atmosphere. Liquids are stored and sold to farms as fertiliser to spread on crops, whilst solids are dried, broken down and reused as bedding for the cattle. The farm is looking into ways to break down the urine to reuse as drinking and cleaning water.  The farm gets its water from the harbour it floats on with a small desalination plant on board, this and the rest of the farm is powered by solar panels on the roof and floating next to the dairy throughout the day, but must use mains power at night with no battery’s currently installed. The cattle are fed hay and silage which has to be trucked in from farms, however the bulk of the rest of their diet consists of food sources found in or near by the city, such as orange peels and pulp from juice makers, brewers grain, the by product of beer, and potato peels. The dairy (when I visited in November 2019) had been open for 4 months and was yet to make a profit, it has been relying on donations of money and equipment from companies to ‘stay afloat’ and keep running, as well as a small income from tourism and the sales of milk. At the moment all water that is cleaned from manure is let back into the water it sits on instead of being reused. It is the first of its kind with potential to grow maybe not in the dairy industry but in small animal production, chickens and eggs or horticulture, flowers, fruits and veggies. And the milk, well it’s just “milk that tastes like real milk”.


Kiepflower, Rotterdam 

Kiepflower is a large scale family run Chrysanthemum flower producer just out of Rotterdam in the Netherlands growing 1.3 million stems per year 40-70 flowers/ sqm per harvest. They do not breed or grow the flowers from a seed but buy them as small week old seedlings and finish them to full size flowers.

The full process from planting the seedlings to harvesting the full flower only takes 10 weeks, meaning they can get around 5 full harvests every year. As the Netherlands can be quite cold during winter the whole operation is in a big green house. All up there is about 11 Ha under glass roofing, providing a constant temperature around 22-25°C. The green house has large black curtains that can cover over the roof blocking the sun or to keep heat in, or run the length of the green house to create sections with different climates for different growth stages. In the houses there is also large lights to create heat and light for the flowers during short winter days. Kiepflower sells primarily to supermarkets with about 60% of all flowers sold to them for around $1.50 each. Being a high production, high turnover facility, it is vital that pests and diseases are kept low in the flowers, to achieve this Kiepflower shut off sections of the green house and super steam the soil until it has reached a temperature of 50°C at 50 cm of depth. In doing this it kills all aerobic and anerobic bacteria, and all organisms living in the soil, even good ones, however this is a risk they take as it is easier to reintroduce positive organisms to help keep out pests. As well has this, pesticide and herbicides are also applied after planting and mid way through growth.


To wrap it up,

The BBM scholarship has made me more independent. To be on the other side of the planet and to work in totally new environments, with different equipment and meeting new people has been an experience of a lifetime. It has taught me how to better communicate with people using methods other than spoken language in countries that don’t speak English. I have learnt ways of farming and making a profit off small amounts of land which I can take with me into the future. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that I have been given, I have learnt new things, met new people and had experiences that I will never forget! I would also like to thank James Hooke and the Tocal staff for encouraging my application.

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