Four options and ways forward

In general, one can say that today the options for farmers in response to the problems and dillemas described above are in the following four directions:

Option 1:
Stop farming altogether or start a dairy farm abroad

Every week around 50 farms in the Netherlands decide to stop their activities, mostly due to lack of economic profitability or inability to find replacement. Some farmers try to find other employments activities; other decide to start a dairy farm in another country, often in eastern Europe, where land is cheap and few regulations limit the dairy enterprise.

In most cases the land and the milkquotum of the original farm is bought by a neighboring farmer, in order to go for option no. 2: scale enlargement.

Option 2:
Further scale-enlargement and technical efficiency

Another section of the farmers opt for further scale enlargement and technical efficiency of their farming business. New technical developments include the milking robot, automatic feeding and manure cleaning devices for the stable, which also include devices for filtering the air for greenhouse gases. New stable concepts (so-called mega- stables) include animal wellbeing aspects for 250 to up to 1000 cattle, with enough space as if they were roaming free. Some concepts even go as far as developing complete agro-production parks, in which livestock keeping is totally confined within an industrial area, without the link to the traditional landscape.

The scale enlargement option is supported by mainstream science, as well as ministries and major formal farmer-organisations. At the same time it is encountering increasing resistance from the general public, amongst other things for landscape and cultural reasons. At the same time if this scale enlargement option does not solve the other basic problems of the conventional dairy farming model, such as the loss of soil fertility and dependency on chemical inputs and carbon energy, in time it may well run into the same economic problems that our farmers are facing today.

Option 3:
Diversification of farm income through multi-functional farms

Recent research (Oostindie et al, WUR 2011) has shown that around 40% of the Dutch farms today have a one or several income-generating activities besides the primary productive activity to add to the farm income. These may include both activities directly linked to the farming, as well as non-farming activities linked to the general public.

Second source of income directly linked to the farming:

  • Making cheese, yoghurt or other dairy product
  • Service to nature and environment, such as wild birds
  • Second productive activity, such as organic chicken
  • Bio-digester
  • Energy generation through sun-collectors on stable roof

Non-farming activities linked to general public:

  • Shop with organic farm produce or regional products
  • Care farms for specific groups, such as elderly, physically or mentally
  • handicapped, youngsters, people with burn-out etc.
  • Camping site, meeting facilities, bed&breakfast
  • Children’s parties, educational activities for schools
  • Nature walks through farming premises

These establish linkages with people and farms in rural areas. They are especially viable in rural areas close to the urban centers.

Urban citizens increasingly recognize the need to show their children where the milk and other food comes from. This may explain the success of the children’s parties on the dairy farms.

Option 4:
Increasing income through increased mineral efficiency, soil fertility & cost reduction

An increasing group of dairy farmers is engaged in improving their income through improved soil fertility and farm efficiency. They aim to ‘go with nature’ and build on natural processes, rather than go against nature and control the natural processes. They aim to close the nutrient (N, P C) cycles and footprint at farm-, region-, and international level. This option has two major groups of farmers: certified organic farmers and conventional farmers that improve their farm efficiency through the ‘soil- plant-animal-manure approach’.

Organic farming is the oldest form of this option; bio-dynamic farming adds a spiritual element to organic farming. These organic farmers receive a special price for their products based on a organic/biodyncamic certification. The products are sold in special shops and increasingly also in super-markets. Though the market for organic produce is increasing, the number of organic dairy farms has remained very limited (1.3% of total). This is very low compared to a number of other European countries: Austria 12.8%, Denmakr 9.6%, Sweden 6.6% and Switseland 5.5%. (www.biokennis.nl)

At the same time an increasing group of conventional farmers is working with the ‘soil- plant-animal-manure approach’ towards reduced inputs of fertiliser and concentrated feeds, through increased farm efficiency and soil fertility. In so-called study groups they are learning to:

  1. Apply less artificial fertiliser on fields, adapted to region and soil type
  2. Produce milk on basis of roughage rather than concentrates: feed the cow as ruminant again
  3. Management practices that enhance soil life and soil organic matter, closely linked to the quality of animal manure
  4. Monitoring the link between mineral efficiency (especially Nitrogen and Phosphorus) and farm income
  5. Establish effective combination with nature preservation (eg. wild birds) and get some extra income from this.