Belgians abroad: A horse for dairy
8 December 2017 | Translation for the Royal Belgian Draft Horse Studbook
Original text (Dutch): Ann Muys
Numerous Belgians live and work abroad. A lot of these expatriates are proud of their roots and put their best effort into representing Belgium around the world. Julie Decayeux (née Wabbes) is one of them. In Normandy her family runs an equine milk farm with Belgian Draft Horses, one of our most beloved horse breeds.
The Belgian Link
All breeding stallions at the Decayeux farm originate from Belgium. Grim van de Lindehoef, bred by André De Boe (Ophasselt), was the first one to immigrate to Normandy. He stayed at the farm for 5 years. Now, he is 22 years old and probably the oldest officially approved stallion alive. Grim fathered multiple foals. His daughters deliver their foals easily. After all, on a farm with more than 200 horses, it is not possible to keep watch over all mares without hiring extra staff. Mares that typically have problems during delivery or tend to give foals in need of special care, do not belong at an equine dairy farm. In a company like Julie's, these animals create extra economical risks and horses are selected accordingly. A foal dying is a disaster as it will be impossible to milk the mother for an entire year.
After Grim, a bay stallion called Dorus du Blanc Bois by Fiston du Seigneur arrived at the farm and at the moment Péron van Dedem is fathering foals with a broader variety in coat colours (among which multiple chestnut roans). Today, the Decayeux company is also home to two young stallions, one Percheron and one bay Belgian Draft Horse (Dorus du Blanc Bois x Grim).
Julie places great importance on leg health and would like to see more studbook support.
Today, 200 mares live on the farm. Milking takes place year-round. The foals stay with their mothers as long as possible. By the end of this year, the Decayeux family will have welcomed 80 foals (born between 1 January an 31 December). Last year, two foals were born on Christmas Day. It is not possible for Julie and het husband Etienne to run such a company by themselves. In total, the farm employs 7 people.
After foaling, mares and foals stay at the pastures for 5 weeks. Milking only starts after that period has passed. The horses share their meadows with Gascogne cattle, a meat breed originating from the Pyrenees. Gascogne cows are very calm and not aggressive. They are primarily being used to worm the horses in the pastures in a biological way. After all, the Decayeux family runs a 100% organic farm.
During their time on the field, the mares are being monitored so that they can be bred again. For this purpose, the Decayeux farm employs two experts. From five weeks after foaling until the little ones reach the age of 8 months, the mares are being milked. Udders get checked daily. Inflammations, for instance, can put a stop to milk production for the rest of the remaining year.
A day at the farm
At 5 AM all mares and foals come in from the fields and are fed their daily concentrates and supplements. When they are inside all horses are able to eat as much quality hay as they want. On weekdays milking takes place 3 times (9:30 AM; 1:00 PM; 4:30 PM). On Saturdays and during holidays mares get milked only twice a day (10:00 AM; 2:30 PM). On Sundays the mares get a day off and they stay in the pastures with their foals.
Almost every mare comes with her own specific manual. Some of them like to be left alone during milking, while other mares actually love to get some attention. For certain mares milking works best when their foal is loose and stimulates the udder in a natural way. The milking machine allows two mares to be milked at the same time.
At the moment of our visit on White Monday, 45 foals had been born. 26 mares needed milking that day but this number was about to rise steadily as a lot of foals were expected the following weeks.
The first milking session of the day brought in 89 litres. In the afternoon, the 26 mares were milked again bringing the total to 124 litres. The Decayeux farm has its own facilities for bottling and pasteurisation, but not all milk is processed locally. Twice a week the remaining milk is picked up to be used for powdered milk and cosmetics. Also, which is quite new to the company, some of the milk will be processed into ice cream and chocolates with a horse milk filling. The chocolates are made by a company in St Mâlo and the cosmetics are produced in the south. Because outsourcing the production of powdered milk is very expensive, the farm invested in an installation which will enable the Decayeux family to do this themselves.
Numerous pharmacies and organic shops distribute cosmetics and food supplements based on the Decayeux horse milk, but Julie and Etienne are always looking into new opportunities.
It is a beautiful way of life, running a company like the Decayeux farm. Lots of people dream of working with draft horses all day. But the days are long and tiring which makes life at the farm also very intensive. Moreover, in order to keep a company like this one on its feet, a strong management has to be in place.
Not to forget, Normandy is a region filled with “chateaux”. Within 50 kilometres, you can visit multiple castles. One of them is the famous state stud farm ‘Haras du Pin', which is located at 16 kilometres from the Decayeux farm.