Serena Lawfer, Germany, June 15, 2012

On Friday, June 15th, we drove to Betzhorn, a small village which belongs to Wahrenholz, Germany, to visit Drs. Helmut and Ingrid Surborg. Dr. Helmut Surborg is a veterinary school classmate of Dr. Hoenig’s and practices food animal veterinary medicine. His wife, Ingrid, is a mixed animal veterinarian and their small animal clinic is located within their house. In Betzhorn, we received a tour of a dairy farm owned and operated by Helmut Evers. Mr. Evers started the tour by giving us a history of the farm. The farm has been in his family since 1486 and it was passed onto Mr. Evers from his father in 1985. The farm used to have all kinds of animals, including cows and pigs. Now that Mr. Evers owns the operation, it is primarily a dairy farm. Mr. Evers also works with area farmers to manage the local crop land, where they raise rice, grass for silage, potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, hops, and corn.

Mr. Evers keeps all heifers born on the farm and sells the bull calves by 14 days of age. His herd is considered “closed” since he does not currently buy any cattle from outside sources. Whenever a calf is ID tagged, a piece of ear tissue is sent to the laboratory for BVD testing. The test results are printed onto the mandatory “passports” that are given to each individual bovine.

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The calves are kept with their mothers for one feeding and then moved to a separate hutch to be fed colostrum for five more days. The next pen contains calves that are anywhere from five days to five weeks of age. These calves wear transponder neck bands, which enable them to receive milk from a computerized feeder. The following pen contains calves five weeks of age up to five months. They are in an open headlock pen that is covered by a tarp and has an “igloo” hutch. There is a separate pasture for the dry cows and another pen available for cows that are close to parturition. The cows are artificially inseminated, which is performed by Mr. Evers.

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The dairy cows are kept in a free-stall barn, with headlocks and a feed alley in between the two pens. Mr. Evers currently milks 66 cows in a herringbone parlor, with six spaces on each side. The cows are milked twice daily and it takes a total of 75 minutes to complete milking. The farm’s milk production is approximately 2100 liters per day. Milk is kept in the bulk tank at 12°C and is picked up by a carrier every two days. It goes to a creamery to make butter as well as to a local bakery. Milk samples of individual cows are taken once a month by the Milk Quality Laboratory.

After completing our wonderful tour of the dairy farm, we then traveled to the local biofuel plant. Area farmers bring their manure to the plant, including Mr. Evers. Six years ago, the mayor of the village came up with the idea of the plant to provide electricity and heat for the village. He then talked to the farmers and got 22 of them to come together and construct it. It is currently operated by a supervisor and workers, most of which are farmers. Our tour guide was a retired farmer who typically works two-to-three hours every week. He did not speak very fluent English; fortunately, Dr. Hoenig came to the rescue and translated for us. He informed us that the corn silage pits were built first, followed by the manure containers. It takes one ton of corn silage to produce two megawatt hours (one ton of corn silage is equivalent to seven tons of manure). The manure is needed to keep the mixture “fluid-like” and 12.5 tons of corn silage is placed into each container to help “stir the manure.” The containers are then kept reasonably full and are emptied only twice a year. They are kept at 40°C to keep an optimum bacterial growth.

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The gas within the domes on top of the containers is made up of 50% methane, 47% carbon dioxide, and varying amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. If there’s a problem with the manure, such as antibiotics within the feces that kills the container bacteria, it takes about four weeks to correct the problem. Currently, the regulation of the antibiotics in the manure is an honor system between the farmers. Random sampling occurs periodically. The containers are monitored by a computer and controllers. The generator creates the heat and electricity, providing warm water to be sent to all public buildings and electricity generated for about 2,000 households in Wahrenholz. It is quite fascinating to learn how sustainable energy is being done, even in small cities like Wahrenholz, where there are approximately 5,000 inhabitants!

Once we finished our tour of the biofuel plant, we drove back to Dr. Surborg’s house, where he gave us a presentation on what life is like for a bovine practitioner in Germany. There are currently 13 million cattle in Germany, with 4.1 million dairy cattle. There are all sizes of farms, anywhere from 50 to 220 head. The northern and eastern parts of Germany mainly have Holstein-Frisians and the southern part has Fleckviehs. All medical work on farms is done by the veterinarian and not the farmer. Lameness and mastitis are the top medical problems for dairy farms.  Examples of emergency cases for a cattle veterinarian include uterine torsions, caesarean sections, fetotomies, and prolapsed uteruses. Internal medicine cases include retained placentas, metritis, mastitis, hypocalcemia, metabolic disorders, lameness, displaced abomasum surgeries, and reproductive medicine. Umbilical hernias are always brought into the veterinary clinic to receive surgery. Continuing education is 20 hours per year for a regular veterinarian and 40 hours per year for a specialist. Over time, the number of farms has decreased and the numbers of new veterinary graduates have increased. In 1982, Dr. Surborg serviced 160 dairy farms. In 2011, there are only 20 dairy farms left.

After our informational lecture, we received a WONDERFUL lunch at the Surborg home. It was my favourite meal of the entire trip! There was meat, potatoes, broccoli, red cabbage, tomato/corn salad, and French fries. Dessert consisted of vanilla ice cream with strawberries and a luscious sauce.

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We then drove to a nearby church, where a stork had built a large nest on top of the chimney. After taking pictures, we went back to the Surborg home and enjoyed coffee and cookies. It was such an amazing experience, thanks to the generous Surborg family, that we sadly bid farewell to them and drove three hours to Berlin, Germany.

Once we arrived in Berlin, we checked into our hotel (near Checkpoint Charlie). After settling in, a small group of us went out to explore the city. We walked around the area and enjoyed a few hours of sightseeing. As the darkness set in, we realized it had gotten quite late and there was not many eating places open. Luckily, there was a McDonalds nearby, so we enjoyed a late-night meal there. Overall, I felt this day was quite eventful! Since I am interested in dairy medicine, I thoroughly enjoyed what I learned!