Editor’s note: While in the Netherlands visiting friends, ASA’s Emme Troendle met two Dutch Fleckvieh dairy farmers who are on the board for the Fleckvieh Studbook; received a farm tour, and discussed how the dairy-side of Simmental is used in Holland.
A Brief Brush up on the Origins of Simmental
Simmental cattle derive their name from their place of origin, the Simme Valley of Bernese Oberland in western Switzerland. These cattle were valued for their ability to work; produce milk, calves, and meat, as early as the late Middle Ages (1250 to 1350).
In the late 1800s, Simmentals were exported throughout Europe where cross-breeding and selecting for different traits changed the cattle. As Simmental cattle grew in popularity, they became known by different names, the color changed, and the type was modified to meet environmental and market demand across Europe.
In Germany and Austria, they were called “Fleckvieh,” translated into English as “Spotted Cattle”. In the high valleys and mountains of France, the “Abondance” line was started, raised for both meat and milk. In eastern France, the “Montbeliard” was developed for milk production, particularly cheese making. In the rest of France, the Simmental breed was known as “Pie Rouge”.
The importation of Simmental into the US began in the 1960s. In fact, Parisien, the first animal in the ASA Herdbook, was originally from France and considered a Pie Rouge. Today in Holland, the Simmental breed is influenced by Germany, where they share their eastern border. The breed is dual purposed as a dairy cow and meat producer. (Reference: Hough, Bob. 2018 b. Simmental’s American Journey. Bozeman: American Simmental Association.)
It Fryske Hiem Farm
“As a part of the Studbook, it is our goal to support the purebred Fleckvieh breed,” shares Klaartje Van Wijk (pronounced K-lar-Che Van Vike), from Bakkeveen, “But it’s common practice in Holland to crossbreed.”
Van Wijk co-owns and operates, with her husband Hans Van Wijk, a 100-head Fleckvieh and Fleckvieh-cross organic dairy farm called ‘It Fryske Hiem’ (which translates to ‘the Frisian Home’, Fryske being their geographic location.) situated on 200 acres in the northern part of the Netherlands, about 56 miles from the German border. The original farmland dates back to the 18th century past when the Van Wijk owned the property, but Van Wijk’s husband’s great grandfather started farming in 1930 in Drenthe (4 miles from Bakkeveen). She shares, “We bought this land in 2006 because of the future opportunities since the other property is near a town there are a lot of restrictions and no expanding possibilities. That is why we moved the cows to our farm in Bakkeveen.”
Until 2008, Van Wijk utilized Holstein cows in their dairy operation — a common dairy breed in the Netherlands, but started to crossbreed with Fleckvieh. Today, the operation runs a variety of percentage Fleckvieh and Holstein females, the majority of the cows range from purebred Fleckvieh to ½ Fleckvieh, including three purebred Holsteins who are over 10-years-old. Van Wijk says, “We found that Holstein cows were so focused on giving milk that they were prone to illness. We started looking for a more hearty cow and started crossing with Fleckvieh.”
In Holland, it is standard practice for dairy cows to calve at 24months-old, but It Fryske Hiem waits for the heifers to be older. She explains, “Our heifers calve at 26 to 28 months old. With the soil being lower in nutrients, we allow our heifers to grow a little more because we choose to maintain them on grass and supplement as little as possible. They grow a little slower, but we want them to be big enough to have a calf.”
Milking dairy cows are normally done with robots, but Van Wijk milks by hand, “We used to use milking robots, but we like to milk ourselves. We built a milking stand, and we start milking by hand this year.”
In addition to the dairy, the Van Wijk’s also used to run their own meat shop but closed the shop because of time restraints. “We had a meat shop, but because of Corné and Neeltje, our young children, we decided to close it,” she says. There are talks of re-opening the shop when the children get older. Primarily, cows are kept on pasture as much as possible and only receive additional feed if the milk production is more taxing on the cows than the nutrients they retain from grazing. Van Wijk’s Farm is on sandier soil than a lot of other locations in the Netherlands, and they find that supplementing their cattle helps maintain the pastures.
“We don’t have as much water in the soil as other areas, and our soil works well with grass, but not many other crops,” Van Wijk’s shares, “We think that Fleckvieh handles the sandy environment better than other breeds. Since we started with Fleckvieh, we’ve seen the vet costs go down, and the health of our cows improved dramatically. The biggest advantage is that they stay healthy longer and because they are healthier they are more productive.”
Van Soest Farm
“We use Fleckvieh because of the health of Fleckvieh cows,” says Hans Van Soest (pronounced Hanz Van Zoost), describing his breed of choice for his 85-head dairy farm in Harmelen, Netherlands. “They tend to live longer, have lower veterinary and feed costs, and when they are sold, they are sold at a higher price than other dairy breeds.”
Located on 50 acres, the Van Soest Farm focuses on utilizing purebred and percentage Fleckvieh cows that are sustainable, low input, and will produce quality milk. Toos, his wife, further explains, “Our Holstein cows required more supplement than Fleckvieh — it was more expensive to keep them.”
Hans is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. His mother was born on the farm, and his father’s family moved to Harmelen from a farm in Utrecht. Hans is the oldest of five children. His grandfather was born two kilometers (1.3 miles) from today’s farm and moved to the current location when he was two-years-old.
Toos also grew up on a dairy farm, 19 miles from where she lives today. While her family sold out of the dairy business in the 80s, Toos remains closely tied to her roots.
Fifteen years ago, Van Soest Farm used Holstein cows in their dairy operation. They found that with the high costs associated with health, common use of line breeding (called ‘Inteelt’ in Dutch, which translates to ‘inbreeding’), and the general upkeep, they wanted more genetic variety in their herd. Toos says, “Normal healthy people don’t need medicine to do their work. We believe that our cows shouldn’t need it either. We chose Fleckvieh because it fits our operation.”
When the Van Soests introduced Fleckvieh to their operation, their annual milk production lowered. Toos shares, “Our milk production decreased a little bit because Fleckvieh is a dual purpose milk and meat breed, but the cost to reach that milk production decreased much more. We earn more with less milk.”
The cows are kept primarily outside from March to October and their production is the highest in the spring. Typical to the Netherlands, Van Soest Farm focuses on maintaining a sustainable operation and maintaining their cattle without supplementing feed is important. “In Holland, agriculture is focused on sustainable practices. Our cows are allowed to be outside or inside as much as they want. Our land can maintain 85 Fleckvieh and Fleckvieh-cross cows without much additional silage and feed. Our feed costs are much lower since we introduced Fleckvieh,” says Toos.
Many Dutch dairy herds raise their own young stock to replace culled dairy cows. The total cost of raising includes several cost factors, such as the costs of feed, housing, labour, breeding, and healthcare. When looking for replacement heifers, Soest Farm sells all calves born on their property and sources out-of-country for their genetics. Hans says, “Raising replacement cows can be expensive here in Holland. We buy Fleckvieh-Holstein heifers from east Germany. I tell the farmer what kind of semen to use and he makes the choice for the cows. That is pretty unique to our operation. The advantage is the expense.”