History of NL dairy farming

Intensification of dairy farming

Only 50 years ago agriculture in The Netherlands was quite similar to agriculture in many other (developing) countries today: large numbers of family farms that combine low-input crop production with various species of livestock for milk, meat, manure, traction and cultural manifestations. Until the early 1960’s milking was done by hand, carts were pulled by horses, and fodder was dried as hay for the winter period, when the cattle stayed inside in rope-tied stables.

Since the 1960’s dairy farming in The Netherlands has gone through a metamorphosis. The average number of cattle per farm has increased 7-fold: from 9 to 66 animals. Modern free roaming stables today can even keep up to 1000 animals. At the same time one man in 2007 produces 17 times the amount of milk that one man in 1960 produced. At the same time the number of dairy farms has decreased by 85%: from 180.000 farms in 1960 to 21.300 in 2007. (Table 1, Ham et al, LEI, 2010)

Table 1: Dairy development in The Netherlands, between 1960 and 2007 (Ham et al, LEI, 2010)

What does all of this mean besides a major increase in quantity of milk produced on each farm? How was this achieved? In what way were farmers supported? Does this imply that farmers in 2007 earned 17 times more than their fathers in 1960? What hurdles were met on the way? What are the trends today? And what can be learned from all this for other countries that want to improve and modernize their dairy system?

This case study presents the history of dairy farming in the Netherlands between 1960 and 2010. It will first highlight the conducive policies that supported the transformation in dairy farming between the 1950’s and 1970’s. Then the side-effects that started to appear as from 1970’s are mentioned, followed by the policies put in place to reduce these consequences. Finally the latest policies and trends will be mentioned, and the way local knowledge and farmer-driven initiative have again gained importance. I will conclude with the lessons that were learned on the way, which may be of use for dairy development in other countries.

Dairy policies between 1950 and 1970

After suffering lack of food during the second World War (1940-1945) the agricultural policies in The Netherlands were aimed at ‘no more hunger’: increased production of cheap food that would guarantee an income for the farmers. EU agricultural policies in the same direction started in 1957. This implied major government investments with the strategic focus of maximization of food production: obtaining highest possible yields per hectare and kilogram of milk per animal per year through specialization, mechanization, intensification and scale enlargement.

As a result, while in 1960 the average Dutch dairy cow would produced 4200 kg of milk per year; in 2007 this had nearly doubled to about 7.880 kg. Average milk production per farm per year has increased 14 fold: from 37.000 in 1960 to 522.000 kilos milk in 2007. This phenomenal growth was possible due to successful technology development aiming at highest milk yields per animal per year. It was enhanced by effective research-extension-farmer interaction and easy access to credit. The market was protected by guaranteeing fixed prices and other measures of active government support to the agricultural sector. (Box 1)

Box 1 Conducive policies in agriculture in 1950’s and 1960’s

The technological gain in Dutch agricultural productivity was heavily supported by a conducive policy environment, which included the following elements:

Market protection: fixed prices for agricultural products o Gaining land by making more ‘polders’
Enlarging existing plots of land for mechanisation through ‘farmer and exchange’ (ruilverkaveling)
Easy access to credit for farmers (farmer cooperative bank RABO) o Support to interaction farmer education, extension and research (OVO drieluik)
Rigorous disease control programs o Artificial Insemination and effective breeding policies o Support to agribusiness, leading to low prices of fertilisers and other chemicals
Obligation to collect the milk in milk-tanks rather than in smaller containers
Blanket recommendations

Based on this general model of agricultural development ‘blanket’ recommendations that applied to all farms in all regions and with all soil types were designed. Extension services, farmer education, research and agri-business (supported by the government) followed these recommendations.

The availability of ample high quality roughage, supplemented with high levels of protein-rich concentrates, made it possible to fully exploit the improved genetic potential of the (predominantly) Holstein Friesian dairy cows. But also, the low prices of the high quality fertilisers and concentrates were essential in achieving high milk production. Artificial insemination and effective breeding policies increased the potential milk yield of dairy animals to levels that our grandfathers did not even dream of.

Dairy technology development aiming at highest milk yields per animal per year included a shift from hay making from grass to silage making from grass and maize, in order to feed the cattle during the winter period.

In the process of specialization animal- and crop farming became completely divided, and milk production became divided from meat production. Increasing fertiliser application levels to the grasslands boosted grass yields and fodder production. Improved fodder conservation techniques and the introduction of fodder maize boosted milk production. The obligation to collect the milk in milk-tanks rather than in smaller containers also stimulated the shift from smallholder rope-tied stables to large scale free-roaming stables with sleeping cubicles and improved ventilation systems.

This resulted in high production rates and increased export of dairy products. The Netherlands became famous dairy producers, with the high-productive Holstein Friesian cow as their flagship. Over time this ‘maximisation of productivity model’ was only adjusted, although the context totally changed. In the process farmers knowledge and experience was no longer taken into account, and farmers increasingly depended on subsidies to sustain their income.