Dairy farming in organic agroecology agriculture – GAEC du Soleil

GAEC du Soleil (Groupement Agricole En Commun) is a dairy cow farm owned by Bruno Gourdon in a low mountain area in the middle of France (Massif Central). It has been managed according to biodynamic guidelines since 2016 and an agroecological approach, which means that the farm seeks to use ecological processes to optimize its operations.

This 50 ha farm with 35 dairy cows is based on a grass or dry fodder diet during the winter period. Agroecological management practices are in place to ensure the well-being of the farmer, his animals and meadows. The agricultural income generated on the farm for the partners is 38,500 € per year.

The farm        

GAEC du Soleil is a 50 ha dairy farm located in low mountain range (1,020 m altitude – Massif Central) with 35 Holstein and Norman dairy cows. The current production is 6,200 l of milk (30 g/kg protein and 36.5 g/kg butter content) for 870 kg of dairy concentrates mixes per year. The milk produced is destined for the agricultural collective interest company of Laqueuille (SICA of Laqueuille – local dairy factory) for the production of blue-veined cheeses. There is therefore no direct sale or contact with the consumer. It is a grass-based system in summer and fodder-based system in winter (dry hay and regrowth type fodder). The entire farm is composed of grasslands and particularly permanent grasslands.

The GAEC du Soleil practices organic farming and is more particularly part of an agroecological approach. Here, agroecology is understood as a way of designing production systems that are based on the functionalities offered by ecosystems. It amplifies them while aiming to reduce pressures on the environment and preserve natural resources. The aim is to make maximum use of nature as a factor of production by maintaining its capacity for renewal. It involves the use of a set of techniques that consider the farm as a whole. It is through this systemic approach that technical and economic results can be maintained or improved, while improving environmental performance.

In addition to this, GAEC du Soleil is very involved in an association of breeders Eleveurs Autrement.  Mr. Gourdon, the farmer owner, is the president of this association which brings together farmers who wish to apply an agroecological approach on their farm. In this context, they are working on the implementation of innovative management practices.

The farm’s aim is to live for two people (a married couple) on a viable liveable system that meets the challenges of tomorrow (feeding people, carbon management, antibiotic resistance, climate and nitrates).

Development paths               

After completing an agricultural training course (higher technician certificate – Analysis, Management and Strategy of the Agricultural Enterprise – BTS ASCE: two years after baccalaureate), the farm manager worked for several years in a bank. He took over his father-in-law’s farm in 1995. He was alone on the farm with 10 suckler cows, 20 dairy cows on 33 hectares and 80,000 litter of milk as support. In 2000, the farm evolved: only dairy cows stayed on the farm, with the possibility of producing 120,000 l and then 150,000 l milk on 40 ha.

In 2009, the milk crisis caused farmers’ incomes to fall. The production system was challenged: they had to decide whether they would shut down the system or radically change it. They decided to do a radical change and to move towards an alternative and biological system, and engaged in organic farming. For that, they needed training in organic farming and practices before doing the conversion. In this context, the farm manager carried out 250 to 300 hours of training per year. Today, about 15-20 days of training per year are still carried out. The installation of solar panels on the agricultural building in 2007 made possible to manage economic uncertainties and the change in production systems.

In 2012, they had the possibility of expanding the farm, which lead to an economic reconfiguration: the farm increased to 35 dairy cows with a possibility of 249,000 l of milk on 50 ha (Holstein and Normand breed, 6,200 l milk with protein: 30 g/kg, and fat: 36.5 g/kg). Now, a second person works on the farm (Bruno’s wife). His wife kept another part-time activity up to the allowed hours (535 h/year).

In 2016, the farm became organic. Conversion times have been shortened due to the gradual transition since 2009 (1 year of conversion for land and 6 months for dairy cows). The milk is now sold organically to the SICA of Laqueuille, which produces blue-veined cheeses.

Mr. Gourdon’s system change required training in alternative methods. This encourages exchanges with other farmers also on these issues. Then Mr. Gourdon is one of the founding members of the Eleveurs Autrement association in 2016, of which he is the president. This association brings together breeders who wish to work differently, with greater respect for their work, their animals and their meadows.

Mr. Gourdon is also on the Board of Directors of SICA of Laqueuille, to which he delivers milk. He is a volunteer firefighter and had a role in the management of the municipality (municipal councillor).

Concerning the close social environment, relations with neighbouring farmers can be complicated because of a choice of alternative systems is sometimes considered as “counterintuitive”. However, there is some support from a few neighbours.

Business model

Financial results

The GAEC du Soleil is an agricultural grouping of exploitation in common between two spouses, partners on the farm.

The gross operating surplus is 54,000 € for 2 people. The annuities and financial expenses represent 11,000 € and the self-financing 4-5,000 €, which leaves an agricultural income for the partners of 38,500 € per year or approximately 1,600 € per Annual Work Units (AWU)(French minimum salary at 1,521 €). Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies (direct payments) contribute up to 63% to the gross operating surplus of the farm.

Workload:

Mr. Gourdon works 35 hours per week. The reduction in the use of technology and the choice of a hay system have allowed him to reduce the workload to his current working time. Indeed, moving from a silage system where there is a strong dependence on mutual aid and a long working time to a system that is more economical in terms of time and manpower is a key step in the system. To this must be added a choice of work tools (e.g.: multi-performing small tractor) and a strategic layout of the building.

Innovative practices              

  • Use of osteopathy on animals: this method of removing tensions from animals and replacing displaced body parts is the main innovative method. It allows you to “feel with your hands” without being dependent on an outsider. Before that, it was the responsibility of the veterinarian. The impact on the animal’s behaviour is significant and this then affects the functioning of the system;
  • Use of feeding practices based on the involvement of humans and animals. Forage distribution during winter is panned in 3 steps:
    1. Identification of the stock present at the end of summer for the winter season (forecast of forage quantity and quality);
    2. Identification of the quantity of fodder to be distributed to animals during the winter period;
    3. Adaptation to the animals. In the first two steps, it is the farmer who calculates his winter ration. From this stage on, it is the animal that adjusts the ration using the feeding diagnosis based on the Obsalim® tool. This step requires a knowledge of the power supply diagnosis. It also involves an exchange with the animal (communication);
  • Use of animal communication: this involves exchanging with the animal to promote its well-being and behind a better functioning of the system. This management practice is implemented in to feed animals for example;
  • Use of homeopathy according to Halmann concept: animal care is provided through this approach;
  • Use of geobiology: building design and system operation adjustments are based on this management practice of considering magnetic fields and groundwater currents in building design.
  • These innovative management practices are all based on SIGN OBSERVATION. Practical implementation is the key. These management practices must be implemented gradually.
  • These management practices are proposed in the association Eleveurs Autrement in the form of training courses. The association chooses a management practice if:
    • It is easy to implement;
    • It is easy to learn;
    • It shows results;
    • It is economically justified;
    • It shows a logic in a systemic approach to the farm where everything is linked.

Finally, it is necessary to encourage exchanges within groups of breeders.

Future             

The farm is currently in a certain rhythm but there is an objective to improve the existing system, to pursue experiments and to make new discoveries in the continuity of the practices and approaches put in place.

Tips for the learner                

To build a successful business it is important to be open to new developments and news practices.

However, it is important to ensure that you are well supported in the training and implementation of these management practices. Be careful not to choose a management practice that seems alternative but requires a strong dependence on an outside source or that has a very high cost and which therefore penalizes the operation of the farm (e.g. essential oils). Be sure to anticipate the technical constraints on the farm and the cost of implementing a management practice.

Communication and the exchange with potential other farmers are indispensable in order to discover new management practices and assist in their implementation.

Practical training in agriculture is also recommended. A theoretical university education can also be helpful in some respects, but more importance is attached to practical training because it contributes significantly to gaining experience and being able to better assess new situations in the course of setting up one’s own business.

Authors: Adeline Vedrine, Audrey Michaud