Friday, 02 March 2012 08:27

New Jobs For Draft Horses: Chevalait in France

Written by  Virginia Kouyoumdjian
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A lane that winds through the gently rolling Normandy countryside leads to a big barn with fields stretching out in all directions behind it. A little farther down, a beautiful house with a lovely old walnut tree standing in the courtyard. The setting for CHEVALAIT, the only company in France to market fresh pasteurized mare’s milk on a commercial scale, is certainly very bucolic.

Mare’s milk is the stuff of legend, but has never been part of a western diet. It is prevalent in places stretching from Turkey to Mongolia, constituting a staple of food across the steppes of Central Asia. But the reliance on cow’s milk in the West is becoming a little more fragile due to the increase in allergies and intolerances being seen in both children and adults. Mare’s milk is the closest to human milk in consistency and quality and is therefore much better tolerated by babies. It is naturally low in fat, coming in at under 1%, and has a slightly sweet taste with a nutty after-taste. It is very low in saturated fats in particular, has virtually no salt content, and is naturally rich in vitamins D and C, and calcium. In particular, the vitamin C content of mare’s milk is six times greater than that of cow’s milk. All this nutritional information comes from a report made by the prestigious Institut Pasteur in Paris.

In addition to its intrinsic nutritional value, mare’s milk also comes with other advantages. It has been shown to be very effective in providing relief to people suffering from psoriasis and eczema. Consuming at least half a liter of mare’s milk a day, either in fresh or powdered form, brings rapid relief in many sufferers. It is also effective in treating gastrointestinal issues such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Several studies on the subject have been conducted by the University of Jena in Germany. They have only been on a small scale, but have shown the effectiveness of mare’s milk. Anecdotal evidence that has been provided to Chevalait has generally been extremely positive, with as many as 90% of psoriasis sufferers experiencing some relief and many seeing all symptoms disappear.

Mares are milked every three hours in stanchions, yielding just a third as much as the average cow produces. Of course, mare's milk sells for considerably more than the bovine variety.


A Built-In Anti-Exploitation Mechanism

So, with all these assets, why is it that markets are not being flooded with mare’s milk? The main issue is that it can never be mass-produced on the scale of cow’s milk. The average cow produces around six gallons of milk a day, aside from what her calf consumes. A horse, on the other hand will yield a maximum of 2.4 gallons. The mare also is much more complicated to milk than the cow. In a way, she has a built-in anti-exploitation mechanism and will only yield on her own terms! A mare has to have her foal with her when she is being milked, and she has to be stress-free. Otherwise, she will give nothing at all. So, the sort of industrial production that is seen in cows is simply not possible. Most places that milk mares use machines that will milk either one or two mares at a time, and they need to be milked every three hours, generally three milkings a day, to achieve the yield. In the warmer seasons, the mares and foals are released back into the large pastures after the last milking, and brought back into the barn in the morning.

The challenge was taken up by Julie Decayeux and her husband, Etienne, in setting up CHEVALAIT in Normandy. Julie grew up in Belgium with a passion for draft horses. Very small-scale production of mare’s milk is quite common in Belgium and, after visiting one such farm, Julie decided about ten years ago that she wanted to try it for herself. She already had several draft horses that didn’t do anything for a living and the thought of giving them a “real job” appealed to her. At the same time, she was also reluctant to put animals whom she considered more like friends or family members to work. Would she be exploiting them by taking their milk? Was she proposing to do something vile? She spent some time reflecting on the issue and came to the conclusion that by giving draft horses a job, she would, in fact, be working towards their preservation and well-being. After all, these are horses that have always worked alongside people and their slide towards oblivion started with the gradual disappearance of that work because of mechanization. “Here I was worrying about exploiting my mares and then I realized that I could, in fact, be helping to save these breeds,” says Julie, still marveling at that realization.


Chasing mares and foals out to pasture after the last of three milkings each day. Time in large pastures with their foals ensures that the mares stay "stress-free."
Their initial location was very small and their ignorance vast, so they took a couple of years to figure out how to do this properly. How many horses should they have? Should the mares be separated from the foals at milking? Should they go for “organic” designation? A lot of brainstorming later, they decided that fully organic was the only way to go and they started their search for a bigger farm. They targeted Normandy because of its beauty and its long-standing association with dairy products. They had a big wish-list, starting with around 250 acres in land and ending with a walnut tree in the yard. Amazingly, they found exactly what they were looking for within three weeks!


Jobs for 100 Percheron & Trait du Nord Mares

There are now about 100 broodmares at Chevalait, along with foals, and four stallions. The horses are all draft, either Percheron or Trait du Nord. There is no particular reason for using drafts rather than other types of horses except that, as Julie says, “Draft horses have worked alongside us for centuries. They are used to being with people constantly and react well to contact with people, making the job easier.” Initially, milking equipment designed for cows was used, but Chevalait now uses custom equipment designed to its specifications and which allows them to milk two mares simultaneously.

Since Chevalait produces fresh pasteurized milk in addition to the more common powdered milk, they need to have mares with foals for a large part of the year. The foaling season, therefore, lasts from February until October, and about half the broodmares are generally giving milk at any time. The mares and foals are not disturbed at all during the first five weeks of the foal’s life, after which daily milking starts and lasts for six months, until the foal is weaned. The mares then enjoy about five months’ holiday, until they have their next foal. In terms of how long their “career” lasts, it depends on the mare and how she deals with pregnancy and nursing. Some mares are stopped in their early teens whereas others will continue to reproduce happily until their late teens. About ten mares are retired every year, and homes are found for them. In fact, the life of a milk-producing mare is, in most ways, similar to that of any broodmare. Chevalait also runs an informal foal-adoption service to match orphan foals with mares, and keep mares who have lost their foals lactating. A number of breeders in the area take advantage of this in order to provide orphan foals with the best chance of survival.

One of the most frequent questions that is asked by horse lovers who hear about this use of broodmares is “what happens to the foals?" Europe has a rather nasty image, especially where draft breeds are concerned, of packing off foals to the slaughterhouse without a backward glance. It is true that, even now when consumption of horse meat has plummeted in France, well over half of Percheron foals end up at the slaughterhouse. Some of this is due to indiscriminate breeding that does not give enough consideration to what kind of horse the market actually needs, and much of the rest is a refusal to break with what is seen as “tradition” by many breeders. At Chevalait, on the other hand, every possible effort is made to find homes for the foals that are produced and the vast majority go to “jobs” in various areas from working in vineyards, to being leisure horses or even mowing lawns. It is only a small percentage that, for whatever reason, cannot be sold or used, who end up as meat. Fillies are kept longer than colts as a number of them will be raised each year for replacement stock.

Julie Decayeux of Chevalait showing one of her "dairy" mares.


A Unique Emphasis on Fresh Bottled Milk

What makes Chevalait truly stand out from other producers of mare’s milk is that the bulk of their production is fresh bottled milk. “It seems that we are the only ones in the world to produce fresh bottled pasteurized mare’s milk, the only ones who have dared to take that leap. We had to develop a viable pasteurization process in which the milk kept its taste, its nutrients and its substance. It took us 18 months to get there. It is vital that the milk is treated immediately after each of the three daily milkings. We now have fresh milk that keeps for 30 days in refrigerated conditions, and needs to be consumed within three days once the bottle is open.”

The current production of mare’s milk at Chevalait is around 70,000 liters (18,424 gallons) a year. Of this, 40,000 liters is fresh milk that is distributed all over France and Europe, and even as far as Singapore, through a network of organic stores, and the rest is used for powdered milk and to produce a range of cosmetic products that includes soap, shampoo and body milk. The target is to increase overall production in 2012 to 80,000 liters through a combination of additions to the herd and better efficiency. Initially, Julie and Etienne Decayeux considered grouping a number of producers in order to boost output considerably, but concluded that it was not a viable solution in this environment.

Obtaining and keeping the “organic” label was a choice that brings its own set of challenges and issues with them. The regulations differ from country to country on the subject, but France in principle allows animals to be vaccinated although the use of antibiotics is not permitted. At Chevalait the decision was made not to vaccinate the broodmares although the stallions are vaccinated. The reasoning is that the horses are in a closed circuit environment and run minimal risk of exposure to disease. That being said, they do suffer the occasional outbreak and have had to develop their skills in treating horses with homeopathic remedies.

The efforts of Chevalait were recognized in 2011 when they were awarded first prize in the Development, Innovation and Technical Know-How category of the annual Prix de la Dynamique Agricole (Agricultural Dynamism Prize) sponsored by the Banque Populaire.

Julie Decayeux’s next dream is to take that know-how and export it, creating jobs for many more horses and people around the world. With the operation in Normandy running smoothly, she and Etienne would gladly spend time in other countries, showing people how to set up their own operation. In the meantime, Julie is happy with what she has achieved so far: “I decided when I was 30 years old that I wanted to live with and through draft horses. Everyone laughed at me at the time, telling me that nobody could live from draft horses anymore, especially not a woman. Now, I am very proud because I have succeeded. And not only have I created jobs for the horses, but jobs for people too. There are nine families that make a living thanks to our farm here.”

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