Cornell Dairy Science Goes To Germany

The CUDS trip to Germany was divided, for me, into two experiences: the dairy industry and German history.  On the dairy end, we visited several farms of varying sizes, Mueller, the largest milk processor in Germany, and Forester Technique, a manufacturer of automatic milk feeders and milk pasteurizer. The dairy industry had many similarities and differences compared to the US. When we weren’t visiting dairies, we got to know a lot of the history of Germany from our tour guides and Wolfgang, our German interpreter. I know World War II from history books, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and some veteran interviews on the History Channel. That’s it. Most veterans are dead now, Hawaii is the only American territory that suffered damage, and since I’ve been born, America has been in charge of the world, so I really don’t really know that much about it.  Traveling through Germany, especially East Germany, the deep history, and very real facts that World War II happened, were all around us.

Dairy Industry

Even among the dairies, the history was profound.  The German dairy industry is in the middle of a transition from the East German style concrete buildings to look more like commercial dairies you would find in the US.  The GDR (German Democratic Republic) dairies were designed knowing that there would be lots of human labor available. It was impressive to see how inefficient the old dairies must have been. I can imagine being one of the architects or engineers working for the East German Government, actually designing something to be extremely inefficient to keep people busy. It must have been frustrating.

One of the GDR concrete buildings

Many of the new barns looked like conventional dairies in the US.  Interestingly, one farmer we visited talked about how it was only in 2004 that he started to realize that he could build more efficient buildings than the East German model. I was surprised that the Germans weren’t researching the technology of other countries and seeking ways to adopt it and improve themselves.

A major difference between the US and German dairy industry is that in the US, we make money by selling milk while in Germany they make money by selling energy through methane digesters. Because of this, the dairies don’t strive to improve their herd performance and they can still remain profitable. One dairy we visited had around 1,000 cows and fourteen robotic milkers. They milked Holsteins 2.9 times a day and were only making 60 pounds of milk per cow per day.  The dairies in Germany all operate as energy farms because they have government subsidized methane digesters. They receive a really good price for the byproduct of waste feed and cow manure and end up making a more significant margin by selling energy to the grid than they do selling milk to processors.  This fact was made clear many times throughout the trip and to me, was the biggest contrast between our dairy culture and the Germans.  In the US, dairyman face an extremely competitive market, thin margins, and a dynamic prices. There is a reward for being savvy, crunching numbers, and wisely investing in new technology. In Germany, it they simply aren’t under as much pressure to improve.

One of the farms fed everything exclusively with conveyor belts.  They put their feed in the mixer wagon and dumped it all into tubs which spread everything out across the farm through an elaborate conveyor belt system.  The dairy had between 700-1,500 cows. The process was extremely efficient at feeding cows and didn’t take a lot to maintain. We discussed one farm in the US that was looking to adopt that same kind of feeding system. He wanted to have two workers feed a few thousand cows. This follows the trend in almost all industries toward automation. We see this in tractors controlled by satellites and in dairies that milk with robots. Margins for commercial dairies in the future are going to depend on to some extent on increasing the number of cows per worker.  If conveyor belts are dependable, they may catch on in the US as costs increase.

I am from a small organic dairy and would have liked to visit a small farm selling its products to local markets. The organic market in Germany is a lot like that of the US: small, but growing rapidly. The Germans who worked in milk processing had the organic market on their radar, but it didn’t seem to be surrounded by the same kind of buzz as it is in the US.

History

Germany felt old. It’s the same feeling you get from returning to the East Coast after visiting Los Angeles or San Francisco. It was even more profound though, going from the East Coast in the US to Germany. Even though we missed first two days on the itinerary (because of an over confident and stubborn bus driver who drove us 50 miles into New Jersey before realizing we were going the wrong way), we still got to see lots of monuments and notable sites of German history.

The first was an old German castle that sat on top of a formidable hill that, as you may have guessed, we had to hike. In the rain. It actually reminded me of walking to class at Cornell:  we reached the top and everyone was wet and cold, yet still sweating. The architecture was pointy, tall, and imperial, like most German architecture.  We toured the castle and the first stop was a fascinating royal family tree. It was painted on a domed ceiling, displaying about a hundred different kings and queens going back hundreds of years. On display were flowing royal dresses, jeweled snuff boxes, and regal scepters. Today, it is owned by German royalty. However, instead of commanding a throne, the young couple both study economics  in Berlin.

Standing at the base of the castle

I loved Berlin. We visited a concentration camp, some famous points of Berlin’s past, and I got to visit my friend who I studied abroad with in 2008 in Argentina. The Berlin Wall was officially torn down on November 9, 1989, when I was almost four months old. Twenty-two years later, the hardships and difficulty that Berlin suffered is extremely noticeable.  Most buildings are not more than twelve years old, as the city had to recover financially before it could really ramp up reconstruction (The city of Berlin still suffers from massive debt). It is an extremely modern city, but parts of it were still scarred from a history of violence.

During World War II, there was a concentration camp outside of Berlin. It was called Sahcneshousen. We visited this camp for around three hours. No doubt this was one the most memorable parts of the trip for me.  In the US, we often see flowers left as memorials in cemeteries. I saw people leaving flowers and memorials at certain buildings within the concentration camp, a constant reminder of what took place only 70 years ago.

I tagged along with one of the tour groups that moved through the camp. Not sure if it was a free tour, but I was going to listen as long as the guide would let me.  I’m glad I did this, because he explained one part of concentration camp society that I always wondered about: If there are 100,000 prisoners and a hundred guards, where was the revolt, the organization, the team work? There were some cases of TNT being smuggled into the camps, but not that much.  Why weren’t these guys working together to get out?

The guide explained that not everyone in the camps were Jews.  There were communists, gypsies, homosexuals, and other factions of what was considered alternative to the views to National Socialist German Workers party (what NAZI stands for). The camps had diverse ideologies, and even though everyone was in the camp together as prisoners, their different ideologies kept them from working together. Highlighting the differences, the Nazi attached different colored triangles to the different groups, sort of an off-shoot of the “divide and conquer” strategy of war.

Further separating the prisoners, each block, or group of houses where prisoners would sleep, had one prisoner who was charge of disciplining everyone who broke whatever the rules were.  For carrying out this job, they received more food and better treatment than everyone else. Naturally, this title was sought after, and if it wasn’t carried out correctly, the person was often killed.  Then, another person would replace them.  The hierarchy between all the blocks was a strategy to keep prisoners from organizing into larger groups.

 


Ruins of the crematoriums


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Panoramic view of an older section of the camp  

 

Prisoner uniforms with triangles and ID number  

After high school, I was a Rotary exchange student in Argentina.  My German friend, Alex, was there with me for the whole year and I had not seen him since 2008. He’s going to law school in Germany, and happened to be in Berlin the same time as me. I got to see a very cool part of Berlin, night and day from where our hotel was.  We went by train for about 20 minutes across the city to one of the city’s neighborhoods called Friedrichshain. It’s the part of the city that has only in the last few years began to develop itself, and it’s mostly populated by artists and students.

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The CUDS Germany trip put a lot in perspective for me. I learned about different cultures, different business mindsets, and I achieved a new appreciation of history. The dairy industry in Germany taught me a lot about how we dairy in the US, and it was enjoyable to see the contrast. The German culture and people were fascinating to learn about and explore.  I am monumentally grateful for the chance to travel there with CUDS.

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