With 135 employees, who generate an annual turnover of £20 million Euro, Agrargenossenschaft Rhoenland eG [Rhoenland Agricultural Cooperative] in Dermbach, Thuringia, situated halfway between Eisenach and Fulda, is one of the most important employers in the south-west Wart-burg district. The company, which evolved from an LPG (Agricultural Production Cooperative), is operated as a mixed farm comprising 4200 hectares of agricultural land and pastures, as well as substantial livestock. The spectrum ranges from one of the largest dairy herds in Thuringia to 2500 fattening pigs, 900 sheep and several hundred beef cattle, to 1200 ducks, 700 geese and 84,000 laying hens in free-range and barn facilities.
“We stand for sustainability and honesty in farming”, emphasizes Rhoenland’s managing director Dr. Gerold Ditzel. “Not only because we live and work here in the countryside, which UNESCO recognized as a biosphere region in 1991. This also comes from our passion and conviction.” A brief look at the graduate agricultural engineer’s operation explains what he means. Keeping animals in their natural environment is paramount.
From accommodating fattening pigs on deep straw without split flooring to keeping cows in a bright, well-aerated stall with a large pen and plenty of space to feed and lie down. The importance of sustainability and recycling management to the Rhoenlanders is evident on the farm’s own bio-gas plant, which is among the largest power stations of this kind in Thuringia.
Only secondary products accruing on the farm are fermented: specifically poultry dung, slurry and solid manure. From the bio-gas, 4.5 million kWh of electricity is generated annually from a block heating station and generator. “This quantity, which is enough to supply 1500 households, makes us completely self-sufficient energy-wise,” Dr. Ditzel says.
Sales are also worth noting. Direct sales account for just under 40% of the cooperative’s turnover. There is a butcher’s shop, which processes its own pigs and cattle into meat and sausage products. For years, the cooperative has been the proud owner of a pasta factory, which produces 1.5 tonnes of homemade quality egg pasta every day – making clever use of up to 10,000 fresh undersized and oversized eggs in the process.
The Rhoenland specialties are sold in the farm shop, over dedicated counters in regional supermarkets, from a fleet of mobile shops, which travel into neighboring Hesse and Bavaria, in the online shop and at monthly farm festivals, which attract up to 1,200 visitors.
The most important mainstay economically is milk production, which accounts for around 40% of the total turnover. “With a milking stock of 1350 animals, we produce 42,000 litres of milk a day”, explains agricultural engineer Heiko Burger.
Born in the Rhineland, Heiko Burger heads the milk production department which employs a good 30 people. With an average herd output of 10,000 litres per year, the Rhoenlanders are regularly among the most productive dairy farms in the free state. The importance of quality is clearly demonstrated by the numerous certificates hanging above Burger’s desk – confirming the highest raw milk quality for the farm.
The cows are milked twice a day in a modern 40-bay milking carousel. The animal steps onto a rotating platform, on which highly-sensitive and self-cleaning milking clusters are installed. One lap of the carousel, which has space for 40 cows at the same time and which is equipped with a host of high-tech features, takes ten minutes.
The milking process is completed within this time. Transponders, which communicate with the identity chip in the digital collars, record the milk yield of each individual animal. The carousel, which is designed as an inner milker and has been in use for five years now, has two operators. They are responsible for cleaning the udders and also for positioning the milking clusters – everything else is done automatically. The two milkers are assisted by a colleague, who drives the cows in groups into the holding area, from where they are guided onto the carousel. “For the animals, milking is stress-free, which also shows that our cows are completely relaxed as they chew the cud during the carousel ride,” grins Burger.
Hygiene and cleanliness play a key role in the milking parlor, which is operated in two shifts – from 05.00 to 14.00hrs and from 17.00 to 02.00hrs. Automatic rinsing and disinfecting systems ensure that the milking clusters are clean and micro-biologically impeccable after every lap. Each shift finishes with a thorough maintenance clean of the entire milking shed. The pressure washer cleans and licks into shape not only the milking carousel but also the holding areas and departure routes. Tiled walls and floors and a great deal of stainless steel in the technology and pen equipment create the best conditions for fast and thorough cleaning.
The power for the clean-up operation is provided by a rugged pressure washer from German cleaning device manufacturer Kärcher. This was purchased when the milking carousel was new in 2009 and has worked tirelessly since then. “A high water output was important to us. That’s why, at the time we went for a device from the cold water cage series,” reports production manager Burger.
Among the special features of this unheated pressure washer, which is designed for specific applications in the agricultural sector, is its high delivery volume: Even large amounts of dirt are loosened at 150bar of pressure and reliably removed with a water output of up to 2200 litres per hour. These functions especially are required in the milking parlor, where any shift sees the accumulation of manure and urine.
The mobile device is equipped with four wheels and a rigid stainless-steel frame and is used statically in the milking parlor. The machine is permanently positioned in the centre of the milking carousel. Here, it is easily accessible for the two milkers who also see to the 30-minute clean at the end of each shift. Pressing the main switch of the three-phase current driven pressure washer, the four-pole motor of which is rated for low speeds is enough to start the clean-up operation. A 20m long high-pressure hose ensures an adequate working radius, which is able to reach even the last corners of the milking carousel. To prevent trip hazards, the HP hose is wound round a stainless-steel drum with automatic retract function.
The high-pressure lance is equipped with a pistol, on which water quantity and pressure can be infinitely adjusted. The operators find this a real help. A slight turn of the servo controller is sufficient to raise the pressure from 30 to 150bar. Consequently, the Kärcher device can be used for the gentle cleaning of sensitive components or to rinse off coarse contaminants without a problem. Instead of mains water at 12 to 15°C, the high-pressure device is supplied with hot water at a good 40°C. And the heat is practically free-of-charge: It is fed via heat exchangers from the milk re-cooling system, where over 40,000 litres of the white foodstuff is cooled down from 38 to 4°C every day.
“Heat accelerates the cleaning process – for example by breaking up encrusted dirt or milk fat emulsion, which we cleverly use for our milking parlor hygiene”, says Burger. Estimates suggest that even now, the conveniently heated supply water makes cleaning around 25% quicker and more efficient the cold water method. “Here, we are able to go one better by systematically tapping the secondary heat of our bio-gas system – bringing the supply temperature up to 60°C,” explains the manager of milk production. “We are currently thinking in this direction.”