There is still room for improvement, if you ask farmer Torben Brockman. He has visions of school children walking around his farm, learning what the business is like at first hand. He is also considering sharing stories about the farm on social media. And he imagines the small farm shop packed with his products becoming a local highlight, bringing local people together and getting them talking about his favorite topics: his land, his farm and his cows. “That would be a real dream,” says Brockman, 29, and smiles. If he had one wish, it would be for people to understand agriculture in a whole new way. They wouldn’t think of grumpy farmers who oppose progress or who don’t care about their cows. “Because that is nothing like the reality,” he says.
The young farmer runs a dairy farm with 250 cows in Scheeßel, Lower Saxony. The farm is now in its third generation, which makes him proud. After all, it takes courage to be an entrepreneur in a profession that is so challenging. But he is happy he can do what he does best, namely work with animals. “I want the cows to be well. That’s the only way they can maximize their performance.” At first, that may sound calculating and businesslike, but it is essential for his farm to function efficiently. A happy and healthy herd makes life easier for him, he says. He makes sure the cows have spacious stalls and has created resting areas for pregnant cows. He also ensures the cows get brushed to improve their skin and help their circulation. His cows graze in the summer, have good feed, plus there is his latest acquisition, two robotic milking machines. “I don’t need a fancy car,” he says. “Investing in these kinds of things is much more important.” That, too, is something he wants to talk about more. If farmers focus on running their farms well, ultimately that ensures their cows can live a good life too, he says.
He started using the automated milking system last fall. It looks fairly unspectacular and faintly resembles a car wash. Located at the back of the cowshed, there’s a barred sluice and partition wall with the machine behind it. The cows decide for themselves when it is time for them to be milked. First, the milking machine scans the cow, to establish how often it has already been milked. Cows are milked about every six hours, to ensure they have enough time to rest between sessions. Once the system says the cow can be milked, the gate opens and the cow is encouraged into the right position through a tasty feed concentrate mix. The robot cleans and prepares the cow’s teats for milking. The milk then travels through hoses to the milk tank inside the machine, which records the quantity of milk supplied. The cows wear a digital collar that has sensors on it, and the system reads and stores further details about each animal, from activity data to chewing and eating behavior. Brockmann can call up this information at any time. As the automatic system can only handle 120 cows per day, the other half are milked in the old milking parlor.
Brockmann’s partner Rike Klindworth, 28, stands next to him at the milking system, watching the process as the sensors scan the cow’s teats. Up until recently, Klindworth was helping milk the farm’s 250 cows in the traditional way, so this is all still pretty new for her. Focused on the future, but always thinking of his cows: Torben Brockmann is typical of the new generation of farmers who are taking innovative approaches to modernize their businesses. Milking robots play a starring role in his operation. The cows don’t have names but each has its own individual personality. Like her partner, Rike Klindworth loves cows and grew up on a farm nearby. The two made a joint decision to buy the robotic milking system. “It makes us much more flexible,” says the agronomist. It does not necessarily mean less work, but the processes are different, with the work now more technical. It means the farmers can access all the data from anywhere at any time with their smartphones. If a cow is not well, that is something they are able to spot sooner than in the past. “The milking robot is an enormous help for everyone,” says Klindworth. She says now, when they go to people’s weddings, they are a lot more relaxed than in the past, because they no longer have to look for someone to help with the milking right up until the last minute.
Brockmann says his partner helps him on the farm every spare minute she has, when she isn’t working as a trainee for DMK. Rike has been working in agriculture for more than a year, with a focus on raw milk. She focuses on reducing antibiotics, promoting veterinary herd care and learning about other parts of the business. “It is very important for me to understand the value chain in milk production,” she says. Understanding transformation Torben Brockmann benefits from the fact that Rike gets such deep insights into the dairy cooperative. As an entrepreneur, he is first and foremost committed to his farm, which sometimes shapes how he views DMK as a company. “It’s easy to criticize,” he says. But during the pandemic and then the energy crisis, the way DMK handled the situation helped him see how strong and united a cooperative can be when times are tough. That changed his thinking. “You stick together like a family,” he says. He had been doubtful about the company’s transformation efforts. But like DMK, his business is also having to adapt to change and embrace digitization, modern ways of working and enabling employees to balance their personal and working lives. All that is part of managing a farm efficiently these days.
Brockmann offers his five employees jobs that range from part-time to permanent roles. One of his employees who does yard work is deaf and she decides on her own working hours. Another is a local mom who comes by to work for a few hours in the morning before getting her children to nursery school at eight o’clock.
The farmer and his girlfriend value the fact that they can be flexible and make their own decisions about the way they run the farm. They see that as a luxury. Thanks to a good deal of advance planning and organizing, they even managed to spend three weeks in South Africa. Brockmann was astonished that during that time, he wasn’t distracted, thinking about agriculture. “We saw herds of zebras, it was like a sea of stripes. We also saw antelopes, rhinos,” he says. “That was fascinating and made me feel a lot stronger.”
Transforming his operation into a smart farm enables him to switch off better and let go at times. “That was not an option for the older generation,” he says. In the past, the work ethic was no different, but people had less choice in terms of how they managed their farms, in his view. He is always thinking about his family, though nowadays, patches of turbulence have become a matter of course for Brockmann and his girlfriend. He finds that switching off and letting go make him more resilient for the difficult patches and more creative when it comes to making his farm into an attraction for young and old alike.