Energy revolves around organic farming, beef cows and tourism

Gut Dalwitz is organic farming on a grand scale. Even though the Meck­len­burg farm has already achieved partial energy autonomy, the current energy market fluc­tu­a­tions are having a lasting impact on oper­a­tions.

A former coach house is now the recep­tion area and restau­rant at Gut Dalwitz, and a colourful graphic enti­tled “Agri­Cul­ture” hangs on the wall, with a biogas plant in the middle. But energy is just one of the impor­tant ques­tions on this farm, south-east of Rostock. Landowner Dr Hein­rich von Basse­witz is also keen to embrace circular farming, closing the loop on inputs and outputs. The 68-year-old and his team have been culti­vating the 700ha of arable land and 400ha of pasture according to the Biopark Cultivation Association’s ecolog­ical guide­lines since the early 1990s.

“Mate­rial and energy cycles are always closely related,” he explains while sitting in his study, where numerous books, maga­zines and other docu­ments and papers lay stacked on the desk. He is a man who obvi­ously has a lot on his plate, being in charge of 35 employees, 30 of whom manage the tourism enter­prise, including horse riding, catering, hotels and other holiday accom­mo­da­tion with a total of 120 beds. The other five manage the agri­cul­tural busi­ness, which also includes 700ha of forest,  and the biogas plant, which Dr von Basse­witz esti­mates at 1.5 working posi­tions.

Gut Dalwitz is located southeast of Rostock. The property covers 700 hectares of arable land and 400 hectares of pastures.

Energy-effi­cient pasture manage­ment

Of course, given its size and struc­ture, the company has high energy require­ments and there­fore costs. “We have almost 8,000m2 of living space that needs to be heated, which uses around 64,000 litres of heating oil”, he exclaims, outlining the problem of ever rising gas, fuel and elec­tricity prices. The elec­tricity bill for the entire oper­a­tion was €35,000 (£31,023) per year before the start of the war in Ukraine, but he esti­mates this has now risen to over €50,000 (£44,320).

The days of low energy prices are now gone for good.

Dr. Hein­rich von Basse­witz

“The days of low energy prices are now gone for good,” states Dr von Basse­witz. His doctoral thesis was on pastoralism, so he’s natu­rally an outspoken supporter of pastoralism. “Hardly any other type of farming can be oper­ated so energy-effi­ciently and with so little effort.” In response to crit­i­cism from vegan ideal­ists, Dr von Basse­witz, who has been involved in lobbying work for various asso­ci­a­tions for many years, says unequiv­o­cally: “Wher­ever there are depres­sions, slopes, marshy or damp loca­tions, cattle and sheep grazing is a must. Who else would benefit from the grass that grows there?”

A herd of Red Angus cows grasing on the grounds of Gut Dalwitz.

A large herd of Red Angus beef cattle graze the fields of Gut Dalwitz. The cows calve in the spring, spending the summer together with their calves at grass. In October, the calves are weaned from their mothers in a cacophony of bleats. The team at Gut Dalwitz is assisted by students doing their volun­tary ecolog­ical year or intern­ships on the farm. In addi­tion to the suckler cows, a herd of Criollos (Uruguayan riding horses) also requires a lot of atten­tion and care, in which young people like Clara from Bran­den­burg like to be involved.

The estate looks back at a long and eventful history.

Why Criollo in the middle of Meck­len­burg, Western Pomerania? This history goes back many decades. In the summer of 1945, shortly after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Dr von Bassewitz’s grand­fa­ther remained on the estate in the hope of saving some­thing that unfor­tu­nately could not be saved. The Soviets nation­alised the farm, and the former owner fled to the West. More than 45 years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, his grandson, Dr Count Hein­rich von Basse­witz (his full name), after many years of agri­cul­tural project work abroad, including on the Ivory Coast and Uruguay, came back to the former family prop­erty. This was both a huge oppor­tu­nity and chal­lenge, because the build­ings were dilap­i­dated, and the land had been leased out. But Dr von Basse­witz and his Uruguayan wife Lucy were unde­terred and embarked on the new adven­ture.

Arable farming strategy with eight-year crop rota­tion

In addi­tion to the pastures – Meck­len­burg Pampa – for horses and cattle, they have now estab­lished a sophis­ti­cated arable farming oper­a­tion. In an elec­tric car refu­eled at their own charging station on the farm, fed by elec­tricity from the enterprise’s 100kWp solar photo­voltaic system, we drive to the field. Although this is not directly related to energy use, Dr von Basse­witz empha­sises the need to culti­vate clover-grass at the edge of the field. Within an eight-year crop rota­tion, clover takes up about one fifth of the area. “Clover provides us with nutri­ents and soil organic matter that we cannot do without,” he says. “It goes into our biogas plant as a substrate, together with solid manure from the cows, pigs and chickens, and after fermen­ta­tion it is returned to the fields as diges­tate.”

Culti­vating cover crops plays a major role. In autumn, the white-flow­ering oil radish grows on fields where sweet lupins were harvested in August.

There is no doubt: The current high fertiliser costs are not causing him any sleep­less nights. Another impor­tant aspect is the cultivation of catch crops, like the white-flow­ering oil radish, which cover around 280ha. In autumn 2022 they were looking well, partic­u­larly where sweet lupin volun­teers, following harvest in August were growing along­side oil radish to form a closed plant cover. “We used to culti­vate the stubble and then sow the radishes, but now we save time and money by culti­vating and sowing in one pass,” says Dr von Basse­witz. “The catch crop keeps the soil moist, with its roots filtering water down to a depth of 70cm. A reser­voir like this is invalu­able, from an agri­cul­tural point of view, in times of drought.”

In any case, agri­cul­tural prin­ci­ples are much more impor­tant to him than a short-term cash mentality, even when high commodity markets might tempt less sustain­able activ­i­ties. For him, these prin­ci­ples include the contin­uous alter­na­tion of winter and spring crops, leaf and straw crops, and deep and shallow roots in the wide crop rota­tion.

So is every­thing running opti­mally on the farm, despite the energy crisis? Unfor­tu­nately not, as the soaring energy and other input costs mean Dr von Basse­witz has temporarily paused planned invest­ments worth €500,000 (£443,195). For the time being, plans to construct an addi­tional heat pipe from the biogas plant to the holiday accom­mo­da­tion, and a new, larger diges­tate store, which would enable more precise diges­tate appli­ca­tion, remain shelved. Post­poned (hope­fully) doesn’t mean aban­doned.

Alter­na­tive options for producing energy

Apart from these two projects, he is also thinking about bringing wind energy to his forest and is consid­ering installing a large 45MW solar park. Although Dr von Basse­witz isn’t overly enthu­si­astic about such a project, because it displaces agri­cul­tural land, it is still an econom­ical option for the whole estate.

This is why he grum­bles about the public’s igno­rance of the topic of biogas, espe­cially in times of gas short­ages and skyrock­eting prices. “It is hard to compre­hend why, in this crisis situ­a­tion, the impor­tance of biogas as a base-load capable, flex­ible and stor­able renew­able energy for society is not recog­nised! With rising costs for substrates, biogas prices must there­fore also increase, other­wise biogas produc­tion is no longer economic, despite all the advan­tages it offers.”

In the future, another impor­tant task for him is to make the trac­tors’ and other agri­cul­tural equipment’s energy require­ments more climate-friendly. Diesel is still being ordered once a week. But what will the future hold: Elec­trical, biomethane or hydrogen power? For now, there are still poten­tial savings in many areas. For example, Dr von Basse­witz recently replaced an 18kW compressor, which takes the exhaust air from the biogas plant to several grain driers, with a new one. “The old model could be only on or off, whereas the new one adapts to the heat require­ments, meaning we can now save a lot of energy.” Although many efforts are being made on many levels, he urges politi­cians and society to prepare for a new era with deter­mi­na­tion. “The cata­strophe will come next winter, at the latest, if we don’t finally develop a plan on how to get away from using fossil fuels in the long term.”