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Faroe Islands: Inside the largest dairy farm on this rugged land

Producing 20pc of the nations’ fresh milk, Roi Absalonsen talks about how his holding has benefitted from investment and why the weather is his biggest challenge

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Roi Absalonsen on his holding, the largest of just 15 dairy farms on the self-governing archipelago. Photos: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi Absalonsen on his holding, the largest of just 15 dairy farms on the self-governing archipelago. Photos: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi’s holding is positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi’s holding is positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi reflects on his farm journey to date. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi reflects on his farm journey to date. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The modern indoor barn houses 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The modern indoor barn houses 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

"The biggest challenge is the weather," according to Roi. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

"The biggest challenge is the weather," according to Roi. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The robotic TKS is a Norwegian system that feeds the cows eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The robotic TKS is a Norwegian system that feeds the cows eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

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Roi Absalonsen on his holding, the largest of just 15 dairy farms on the self-governing archipelago. Photos: Claire Mc Cormack

The family of dairy farmer Roi Absalonsen has been working the heavy volcanic landscape of Eidsvik, Vidoy on the Faroe Islands — located 320km north of Scotland, and about halfway between Norway and Iceland — for a staggering 25 generations.

Their unique holding — positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic — is the largest of just 15 dairy farms on the self-governing archipelago (down from 100 dairy units in the 1990s) and produces almost 20pc of the nation’s fresh milk supply.

Farming on the islands, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, in partnership with his uncle Nils Absalonsen, and neighbouring farmer Esmar Sorensen, the trio have spent almost a decade investing some 25m Danish Kroner (around €3.4m) to build a modern indoor barn for their 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows.

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Roi’s holding is positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi’s holding is positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi’s holding is positioned just below Cape Enniberg on the northernmost point of the islands, bordering the wild North Atlantic. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Although it has been an uphill battle to access finance, extend their rented land block, and increase their milk quota, the 38-year-old believes he’s finally onto a winning combination despite challenging projections for the future of the dairy market on the island, which has a population of around 55,000 people.

Speaking to the Farming Independent during a visit of the enterprise with the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, the married father-of-two reflected on his farm journey to date.

“About 25 generations of my family have farmed on this land. My father was not a farmer, he is a sailor of a fishing boat and a chef, so I am a first generation, I was sailing too before I got involved in the farm.

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Roi reflects on his farm journey to date. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi reflects on his farm journey to date. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Roi reflects on his farm journey to date. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

“I learned everything about farming from my uncle. When I was a little boy, I was always in my uncle’s barn, I liked working with animals and when he started to build a new barn, I got interested in joining the business.

“We thought it would be easy when we started planning to expand in 2013, but the barn wasn’t finished until 2019. We had about 200,000L of milk quota when we started, then we bought another 300,000L in 2014, in 2016 we bought a little more, in January 2019 we bought another 300,000L and then we had to get robots.

“It was very hard to get the financing, not from the bank, but from the Faroe Islands’ fund for agriculture, it’s a political system, very, very conservative so there was a lot of fighting to get access to the fund. The politicians were just sitting on their hands so we couldn’t get started, if we want to milk and have farms on the Faroe Islands we must be supported. It was not easy to reach this point.”

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The modern indoor barn houses 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The modern indoor barn houses 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The modern indoor barn houses 110 Friesian Holstein and Norwegian Red cows. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the island’s 55,000 inhabitants who farm at the epicentre of a maritime subarctic weather machine with strong winds and heavy rain possible at all times of the year, Roi and his business partners persevered to secure the necessary funding to build a high-technology enterprise.

“We now have a total quota of 1.3 million litres per year on a land block of 75ha that we rent, and we are planning to rent up to 120ha.

“We milk 110 cows three times a day through our two DeLaval VMS300 robots, yielding about 32 litres per day on average at around 4.2pc butterfat and 3.4pc protein.

“We feed the cows with a robotic TKS — a Norwegian system that feeds the cow eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage.

“We are very glad for that, if I had to choose between it and the robots, I would choose the feeder because it’s so easy and the cows like it very much. If you have a robot, it’s a good combination because you have flow in the barn because the cows get up, get something to eat, and then they milk.

“It’s an all-indoor system, we feed them silage, concentrates, and some mash from the local brewery. We have some young stock outside during the summer but only for about two months because of the weather on the island.

“The milk is sold to MBM, the only dairy processor on the Faroe Islands located in Torshavn, the lorry comes three times a week. The current price we receive is 8 Danish Kroner per litre [around €1.07/L] — that has gone up by more than 1 Kroner recently because costs have increased by 50pc.”

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"The biggest challenge is the weather," according to Roi. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

"The biggest challenge is the weather," according to Roi. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

"The biggest challenge is the weather," according to Roi. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

MBM is owned by the 15 dairy farmers on the island who receive at least 50pc of the retail price on a litre of fresh milk sold to the Faroese islanders at around €2/L.

Roi and his co-owners use AI and the bull across their herd to get the cows in calf each year.

“Our cows are mostly Holsteins and some Norwegian red cattle — they were very popular on the Faroe Islands 50 years ago when they started to inseminate them, and they are still very popular.

“They are healthy cows with good milk and good meat, they are a good combination cow, the crosses are very good.

“We breed our own replacements. We buy the sperm and use beef semen on the weaker cows. Our bull is also very good.

“We have a system to monitor each cows’ performance. Because there is no slaughterhouse on the islands, we kill all our old cows ourselves for mincemeat.

“Other farmers buy our bull calves for beef fattening, and they sell the meat online on Facebook.”

To combat rising fertiliser and energy bills, they are trying to improve efficiencies on-farm by sending about 50pc of the holding’s manures to a biogas plant in Torshavn, the capital town, where they “get it back as fuel”.

“We are planning to get all of it back as fuel, they take it, and we get the same amount back for free it’s good for both sides. The biogas is used for electricity and heat, and some sheep farmers are now buying the biogas from us as well.”

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The robotic TKS is a Norwegian system that feeds the cows eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The robotic TKS is a Norwegian system that feeds the cows eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

The robotic TKS is a Norwegian system that feeds the cows eight times a day, so they always get fresh silage. Photo: Claire Mc Cormack

Asked about future plans for the enterprise and outlook for dairying on the Faroes over the next decade, Roi replied: “At the moment we’re happy where we are, three of us work here full-time. We’ve no intention to expand further but we can produce 1.5m litres a year in this barn, we may go there.

“The biggest challenge is the weather, this summer has brought a lot of rain, we wanted to harvest our grass mid-June, but we did it late June because it was very wet.

“Another problem with this barn is that if something goes wrong with the robot, the technician who will fix it might take more than two hours to arrive.

“Overall, the dairy sector on the islands is very small, we’re mainly a fresh milk market with some yoghurt, some butter and we’re trying to make some cheese, but we are not self-sufficient in all the dairy products.

“We don’t export our milk and a lot of the butter on the islands is Danish. Everywhere in the world, people are drinking less and less milk so it’s very important that we reinvent ourselves again to find more products, now we have 15 barns in the Faroe Islands in 10 years I see just eight or nine barns like ours.

“The customer buying our milk is also starting to ask about impact on the environment, we haven’t started to take any action yet but of course we’re thinking about it. We have to follow what our consumer wants.”



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