Dairy farms can take climate action too

Biodiversity is dangerously declining. This can have serious and far-reaching impacts, some of which we don’t even know yet. Biodiversity and the future of milk production are weekly discussions at the Pelto-Mattila farm in Hausjärvi.

The birch leaves catch the mood of the summer breeze and the sun is shining so high above that it doesn’t cast a shadow. The smell of nature accents the warm air: all the summer flora in bloom and also the farm animals. Dairy farmers Katri Salovaara and Sami Suttinen of the Pelto-Mattila farm enjoy this peaceful Finnish landscape. The couple who became farm owners at the beginning of 2019 through a generational transition always knew that their future would involve working with animals – on nature’s terms.

A Carbo survey of the biodiversity at the Pelto-Mattila farm was carried out in June 2020. The survey found that the pastureland where birch trees are growing today – and what used to be the old grazing area where the farm’s first cows used to graze more than a century ago – contain important plant species indicating biodiversity. Pastures along the edges of the Pelto-Mattila farm contain plants like Succisa pratensis, or devil’s-bit scabious, Silene viscaria, or sticky catchfly, and Lathyrus pratensis, or meadow vetchling, which attract pollinating insects.

“We monitor the pasture grass daily, and a lot of planning goes into grazing the cows in a way that is optimal both for the cows and the grass. The pastures have been divided into paddocks and then further into smaller sections where the cows are allowed to graze for up to 12 hours at a time so that the grass isn’t grazed too short. When grazed land is allowed to rest, nature regrows the vegetation and gives the cows fresh, high-quality nutrition,” explains Katri, who is finalising her master degree studies in agricultural science at the University of Helsinki.

While climate change and its impacts have been vigorously studied, we really don’t know what a loss of biodiversity ultimately means. Katri is especially pleased to see common starlings nesting at the farm near the grazing cows; the species declined sharply in Finland starting in the 1960s because of change in the habitat and environmental toxins in wintering areas. Now the population is on the rise again, and the grazing cows are an important partner for common starlings.

“Nature is amazing in the sense that when certain things are done on time and a positive spiral is created, the ecosystem starts strengthening itself on its own,” Katri says.

Free-time is a balancing act

Working at a dairy farm hasn’t always felt like the easiest possible choice.

“This work is strongly impacted by the slower pace set by nature’s inertia, something that people living in today’s cyclical quarterly economy have a hard time understanding. In our industry, one quarter can span three years; then we can say something about the soil and its change. Changes are so tremendously slow,” Katri says.

Nevertheless, the work goes on, exhaustingly. In summer, especially, the number of hours spent working almost matches the number of hours of light in a day: 17 hours a day went into the first of summer’s three fodder operations at the Pelto-Mattila farm. Between the two of them, that’s 136 hours of work over four days.

“People in Finland work hard to produce clean and high-quality products. A great way to show appreciation for this would be to choose, say, the Finnish cheese when shopping, if at all possible,” Katri says.

To bring balance to work, it’s good to spend free-time with a good conscience. Katri and Sami met each other dancing at the Kolmilammi dance hall in Hausjärvi. Coronavirus has brought the dance hall to a standstill, but the farm work is often done with earphones playing all kinds of dance music – from instrumental rock to tangos – by Topi Sorsakoski & Agents, Kyösti Mäkimattila & Varjokuva, or Komiat, to name a few.

“The best thing about dancing is the total immersion. The combination of music and movement with another person. The moment when the pieces click into place and you totally forget about everything else. A lakeside dance hall appeals to this romantic country girl’s soul,” Katri smiles contentedly.

You can follow life on the Pelto-Mattila dairy farm on Instagram @peltomattilantila.

A Carbo biodiversity survey is performed with landscape experts trained in nature, biodiversity and traditional rural biotopes by listing plant, bird and insect species found in the habitat. After summer 2020, more than 50 surveys will have been conducted in collaboration with the Rural Women’s Advisory Organisation.

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