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Farming in Germany

It is no secret that Germany is a popular holiday destination for those all over the world. A country: rich in culture, history, foods, national places of interest, iconic designs and interesting people. I thoroughly enjoy my time in Germany and am lucky now to have friends in agricultural areas and within cities.

German Crop Calendar

Germany has a total population of 83.2 million and only an impressive 7.8% of all food consumed in Germany is imported. The country can sustain these statistics with a large farming community and a reasonable crop-growing season. I’ve sheared in most regions in Germany and despite the political ‘correctness’, Germany is still a noticeably split country. Once on the ‘right-hand side’ of Berlin, it’s pretty instant you can feel an invisible dividing line; buildings are beige/grey, the roads aren’t as well maintained, most people live in small villages with limited local facilities, farmland hasn’t had as much fertiliser and farm barns/buildings are often concrete shells. A lot of physical structures are a reminder of a communist past, unchanged on the outside but sometimes adapted for modern uses inside. On one of my first times in Germany, a farmer told me it wasn’t that long ago that his cousins (from the west) used to bring him oranges as a birthday present (eventually as a joke) as it wasn’t an entire lifetime ago that shops in East Germany didn’t stock imported fruits like Oranges.


250 Lambs Grazing in East Germany
250 Lambs Grazing in East Germany

The land in the North East is vast and flat, you can see for many miles and I’d compare it to Norfolk, UK, or the Canterbury Plains, NZ. It is unusual to see stock fencing and most beef/dairy (cattle) units are indoor barns. I’ve worked with quite a few farmers and am well accustomed to their setups, routines and methods. As always, I approach any new farm with an open mindset, farming cultures can vary to some extremes and whilst attitude is everything I must emphasise how important an open mind is when visiting other countries. Most agricultural folk are very willing to explain, discuss and share ideas (sometimes you might have to prove yourself through work first). I write very carefully when describing ‘East Germany’ - purely in a geographical context, but it’s an important factor to mention as these people are not only proud to be successful farmers but proud to be successful EAST GERMAN farmers. For this reason, I will continue to link posts and photographs to ‘East Germany’ out of respect for the farmers I’ve met. The land in the East is valued at approx 1/3 of the price per acre than equal farmland in the west, the reason given – is that rurally, it’s a less desirable place to live with often fewer facilities.


Sheep & Guardian dogs in paid grazing area
Sheep & Guardian dogs in paid grazing area

Sheep are often grazed on government/county-owned land and the farmer is paid to ‘naturally clean’ by grazing their sheep in a specified area. For example at Berlin Airport, instead of mowing the grassland around the runway, the company employs shepherds to graze the area with their sheep. Most sheep farmers' main income comes from their ‘grazing payment’ rather than breeding the sheep and selling the lambs. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that “we don’t need to breed the sheep so any lambs are just a bonus” this has led to (not all) but many sheep breeding without intervention/monitoring. (Some) Flocks of sheep are of poor quality and decreasing breed standards, this led to many farmers relying on quality bloodlines from Ireland and the UK. Due to Brexit, importing live sheep from the UK is no longer possible without importing to Ireland first and then into the EU (not cost-effective at all). Semen/AI are also not a viable option, often the drugs required for treatment aren’t available in that region.


Dog gathering a flock of sheep & goats
Jane gathering a flock of sheep & goats

Goats are common in sheep flocks, they are easy to spot as they ‘segregate’ themselves from the sheep, in their own group. The farmers who get paid for ‘clearing’ areas with livestock require goats to eat the small trees (eventually the plant dies and stops growing) as most sheep won’t eat bark or trees. Goats also love to climb and are able to eat lower hanging branches from the larger trees too. It’s important to note that the goats will usually eat the grass first and when left with limited food, then eat trees/bushes, it’s a common misconception that goats prefer to eat weeds but as graziers, their preference is usually grass. Often horned, the goats have the potential to give extra protection in the event of a wolf attack. Goat meat is a lean source of meat, favoured by bodybuilders its popularity has increased in the UK: with minimal fat and high protein content. A couple of nanny goats are often kept near a farmhouse and used to feed adopted/orphaned lambs. Powdered colostrum and lambing equipment are mainly imported from England by large companies and have an inflated price tag making it uneconomical to bottle feed many lambs.


Guardian dog protecting it's flock
Guardian dog protecting it's flock

Wolves are now an issue for farmers across the whole of Europe. It wasn’t too long ago that wolves could be hunted legally and shot for the protection of people and livestock. As laws have changed and become stricter (e.g., In Germany, you would receive 20yrs in prison for shooting a person, for shooting a wolf you would be sentenced 50yrs). In all European countries I’ve sheared in, farmers have had issues with wolf regulations and protecting livestock. Only in the last year (2021) have wolves been sighted and recorded killing flocks in Belgium, a previously unchartered wolf country. These wolves have originated from Russia and moved West, an increasing population means the need to expand their territory/hunting ground. Wolf populations are denser in the East of Germany and coincide with an increased number of wolf attacks. The German government does pay the farmer if a large number of sheep are killed but ONLY if a number of requirements are fulfilled, officers are known to be scrupulous with these checks. Electric wire or fencing must be at a certain height around the whole perimeter of fencing, the number of guardian dogs per head of sheep, the level of voltage running through the fence and many more.


German Guardian Dogs
German Guardian Dogs

Guardian dogs are present in all flocks I’ve seen that are based outdoors. In Germany, the breed of dogs is usually Pyrenees or the occasional Maremma (from Italy), there’s no form of registering pedigree or any breeding in fact. I’ve spoken to farmers who would like to change this and add some form of recording litters or even regulation. Guardian dogs live outside with the flock 24:7, it’s within their genes to protect the flock. The dogs are the size of Great Danes but with huge fluffy coats, they live outside at -30°C. Farmers can’t rely solely on genetics, dogs must be trained to respect people and other working dogs, to respect the electric fence and not to run when the fencing is moved. In my experience, most are lovely dogs and once inside the fence, big softies! Only on a few rare occasions have the dogs been put on chains or in a trailer for me to enter the fencing and shear the sheep. Jane (my working dog) completely ignores any guardian dogs and is solely focused on the sheep, after a sniff and acceptance, the guardian dogs tend to leave her alone too.


Shearing in West Germany
Shearing in West Germany

In contrast to any other countries I’ve worked in, slaughterhouses don’t pay by the dead weight of sheep. Bizarrely they weigh the sheep live as they enter the slaughterhouse. There is still a vet present to maintain animal welfare e.g. An animal with a broken leg would not be accepted to be processed by the slaughterhouse. However, if the sheep have dags (poo stuck to the wool at the back end of a sheep) obviously they weigh more, so the farmer is often paid more as the live weight of the sheep is higher due to the extra weight of the dags. This can incentivise some farmers to leave the dags on their sheep but leads to an increased risk of flystrike (maggots). Some farms won’t have their sheep shorn for 2-3 years if their ‘usual’ shearer is unable to get to them or they ‘forget’. The extra wool can cause the sheep to overheat, attract lice, flystrike, and become uncomfortable if it is cotted. Shearing a sheep with more than one season of wool growth is harder as the fleece is regularly full of dirt, cotted and the increased weight pulls on the skin of the sheep, weakening it. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence in Germany and I don’t believe there are any welfare rules for sheep shearing, or at least, none that are enforced.


Shepherd Hannes with  Guardian Dog, Flock of Skudden Sheep and Highland Cattle
Shepherd Hannes with Guardian Dog, Flock of Skudden Sheep and Highland Cattle

All larger beef units that I’ve seen have been indoors. A few friends that own cows (suckler herds) keep them on grassland with a variety of seed mix, rotational grazing with electric fencing on large 10ac+ breaks. For these smaller herds, calving is all outside and there is usually only housing for emergency exceptions (e.g. A heifer + calf whose milk is yet to drop). I did notice that the cattle herds living outdoors 24:7 with minimal maintenance, handling, or interference are usually more native breeds; Highland Cattle, Belted Galloways, and occasionally a more native-looking Angus. These native breeds are then crossed with a more commercial bull for a faster-growing, efficient calf. Most of my time in Germany has been spent with predominantly sheep farmers so my experience with German Cattle is limited.


Puppies
Guardian Dog Puppies

This article is based on my personal experience, repeating much of what I’ve been told by German Farmers. Events, places are described from my own point of view and are written for educational and interest purposes. Where appropriate, I have researched figures relevant to the topic, and all references are stated below. I do not mean to offend or upset anyone with my writing.


In this blog post, I’ve generalised several aspects of German farming, if you’d like me to specify anything imparticular please get in touch.


If you have any issues please email me theglobalfarmher@gmail.com


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