There was once a conventional livestock farm in the Sienese hills. It had 150 dairy cows with free stabling (i.e. in a shed with a minimal concrete space for movement) and 400 hectares of land cultivated with cereals and legumes for feed. A farm like so many others, with modernization carried out over time to maximize production: at the end of the 1990s daily production was 32 liters of milk per head of cattle.
However, the soil was no longer responding to the copious chemical fertilizer treatments, cultivating the land was getting increasingly difficult, working conditions were becoming more stressful due to the intense effort and investments required. The owner, Stefano Freato, was worried about the situation and began to seek a different approach.
He met with Alex Podolinsky, an Australian farmer who was an expert in biodynamic agriculture and animal husbandry. From that moment the farm changed radically: the land was used for permanent pasture containing many different types of plant and the cattle allowed to graze using a rotational system, where animals were moved to a different plot of land after each milking.
In the first two years, daily production dropped to 12 liters of milk per animal but more satisfactory results then began to appear. The amount of milk obtained every day settled around 17 liters per cow, but there was a dramatic reduction in expenditure. Tractors were sold along with the equipment for cultivating, conserving and distributing feed. Health problems disappeared, such as difficult births, calf mortality, puerperal collapse and retention of placenta.
Expenditure on medicines such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and vaccines was reduced to zero. It was no longer necessary to purchase feed, supplements, fertilizers or seeds. The final outcome of converting to biodynamic methods was that the farm’s profits increased, the land was once again fertile, the milk better quality, the cows healthier and the owner happier. There were significant savings of water, humus and fossil fuel.
It is a nice story. It might not be enough to change the minds of those who are wedded to the unsustainable methods of industrial agriculture, but let’s hope it can be an example for many farmers in this country.
First printed in La Stampa on July 8, 2007
Adapted by Ronnie Richards