No Hay? Let Them Eat Carrots

If your milk (or your beef) comes from cows pastured in Perigord you may soon find it has a slight sweet and minty aromatic whiff and even perhaps a light orange tinge. If that’s so, worry not, just blame the drought.

Dairy farmers, faced by a dramatic shortage of hay, are resorting to alternatives

For as newspaper reports, Jacques Bregeras and Guy Favard, breeders of limousine cattle in Nantheuil and Chaleix, north of the Dordogne, are feeding herds surplus carrots from the southern Gironde and Landes —  the country’s carrot basket (that’s as in bread basket but adapted for carrot growers) — because farmers face a dramatic shortage of winter fodder this year.

“We did ask ourselves how the cattle might react”, the breeders told the paper, “and we watched anxiously as they sniffed around this unusual food offering for most of the first day. But finally they must have been hungry for they caved in and scoffed the lot.”

Which some consumers might feel is a good thing given that carrots, according to some recent Dutch research (well that’s what it says here so please if you disagree, argue with them not us!) offer useful protection against cardiovascular disease while carotenoids in carrots are said to have important antioxidant benefits.

Hmm, don’t tell the farmers. They might begin marketing carrot-fed cow’s milk as an added value, and naturally higher priced, double whammy — all the benefits of normal, rich creamy milk (or tender and hearty beef) plus a carrot-provided bonus.

However while carrot fodder may have interesting side effects on the cattle, in truth they are no more than an emergency recourse.

As the paper notes “far from being an experiment in revolutionising cattle feed, it is a stopgap. Because this year the Périgord Vert (Green Perigord) has never been so undeserving of its name. Normally a pastoral paradise for livestock, its extensive green meadows have been through a very dry winter and an even drier spring”. Where once they were a haven of lush greenery, today the pastures are shrivelled and sun burnt, peeling like the overexposed noses of tourists long departed for colder climes.

So like other farmers whose stock of hay feed has long reached zero Jacques Bregeras and Guy Favard began a search for alternatives to sustain their herds until the coming winter is over. In the process someone mentioned carrots.

“I had heard about the dairy farmers drought problems at a Regional Council meeting,” says Vincent Schieber, a carrot grower in Saint-Jean-d’Illac (33). The upshot was he and his colleagues got behind an extensive solidarity campaign and offered help. So it came to pass that over several months, 1,952 tons of different varieties of carrots have been shifted from the Haute Lande to Périgord in convoys of 25 ton trucks. “We provide the carrots free, the farmers pay for the transport,” says Vincent Schieber.

The carrots from the Gironde and Landes, where 55% of national production is concentrated are those rejected by supermarkets because they don’t conform to EU regulations and standards.

Carrot diversity

Carrots come in many varieties but its not clear if the cattle are picky. – Image via Wikipedia

The cows appear to enjoy the carrots because of the vegetable’s sweetness although, say the farmers, the vegetable has little food value per se — carrots are mostly water – but they are a useful bulk factor in feeding. To ensure their cattle the nutrients they need and which straw provides, the farmers have still had to draw on hay supplies from elsewhere.

This, the paper reports, resulted in Jacques Bregeras driving to Beaugency, Loiret in July to collect 1 700 tonnes of hay for himself and 26 other livestock breeders in Thiviers (24). Describing this “major expedition” he said, “I stayed up there for a month to ensure that everything went well and we had around 130 semi-trailers on the road to shift a not inconsiderable volume of hay!”

In addition a further foraging expedition is being readied for early November, when 200 tons of bales will be moved from Lot-et-Garonne to the Dordogne conveyed in trailers hitched to tractors. The trip is expected to take thirty-six hours and if you’re a motorist you know you want to avoid this route then!

The drought has had other effects too, such as drying up the streams from which water for the cattle is normally drawn. The farmers have had to give them tap water and as they ” drink several dozen litres a day each”, the bill is likely to be high.

For now, says the paper’s report, the drought has most badly affected départements such as the Dordogne, the Charente and Charente-Maritime.

Speaking of a show of solidarity by other luckier farmers, Damien Chaumette of the Landes Chamber of Agriculture said after harvesting their sweet corn at the beginning of August, corn producers in Sud-Gironde and Landes had sown 1,200 ha with ryegrass. “This forage will be harvested at the end of October and donated to their drought-stricken colleagues for their cattle,” he said.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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