Nine traditional elements in post-modern sustainable dairy farming

One could say that the options 3 and 4 represent the initiatives that were started by family farms themselves in order to become more sustainable in the long run. Not only are these initiatives initiated by farmers themselves; they also include several traditional elements from the past, that are now being re-discovered in order to find appropriate ways to address the present-day problems. For that reason they may well be called the ways towards ‘post- modern sustainable family-farming’.

Traditional elements of livestock keeping (also known as ethnovet) are thus playing a new role in Dutch dairy farming. One could indentify eight ways in which this is taking place:

Element 1:
Build on farmers’ initiatives and knowledge

Instead of blanket recommendations it is now time to make room for farmer initiatives and knowledge. The successful (dairy) farming families of today have found innovative ways out of the dilemmas they are facing, building on their own traditions, local circumstances and innovative ideas. Many of these initiatives include practical ways to ‘go with nature’ instead of against it’.

Research and support organizations can build on this and support the farmers in this quest, joining them in the experiments and providing answers to the new questions these farmers are facing. Presently this is being done in numerous ‘farmer learning networks’ that are supported by government as well as private organizations.

Element 2:
Re-establish importance of soil-plant-animal-manure cycle

The focus on the farm as a natural whole, with it soil-plant-animal-manure cycles, is basic in the sustainable approach to dairy farming. The aim is to close the Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Carbon nutrient cycles in order to reduce costs, increase farm efficiency and farm income. This cycle was broken when dairy farming specialized and became separate from crop farming and the production of a major part of the animal feed.

This ‘soil-plant-animal-manure approach’ was originally started by a group of concerned farmers in the northern province of Friesland in the early 1990’s. The philosophy of these dairy farmers was based on their ‘gut feeling’ and experience with the production system of their fathers. They realised that many relationships exist between the various components of the farming system, and that these relationships should be considered in all management decisions. They transformed this into practical management recommendations, which are adapted to soil type and other local circumstances. In spite of limited support from research and policies, this concept has gradually grown amongst dairy farmers in the country. Groups of dairy farmers are especially encouraged by the project Duurzaam Boer Blijven, which roughly translates as ‘Continue Farming the Sustainable Way’.

Element 3:
Focus on optimisation rather than maximisation of a single product

This focus on the soil-plant-animal-manure cycle also implies a shift away from the focus on the maximization of a single commodity product, such as milk. Rather, it aims to find an economically and ecologically optimal balance between different elements ofthe system. In that way, the amount of milk produced per animal per year is not the major parameter for progress.

One of the ways this is translated is the aim for the highest ‘life production’ rather than ‘year-production’. In this way it is more economic to maintain animals during a longer life-period. This has advantages in many ways, including an effective reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions, because fewer replacement animals are needed.

In the Netherlands the farmer with a so-called 100.000 liter cows is now rewarded: a cow that has produced 100.000 liter throughout her life. These cows are of excellent health and productivity, as they have had a least 10 lactations with excellent results. Most of these cows do not have their highest production rates during their first lactations; they usually produce most during their 6 or 7th lactation. This is another reasons for adapting the present system, in which the average cow only reaches 4.5 years of age.

Element 4:
Re-diversifying farmer’s work and income

As indicated above, around 40% of the Dutch farmers are gaining an extra income from secondary sources, either with activities directly linked with the dairy farm, or indirectly through activities which involves the general public. Increasingly specific arrangements are developed that link urban people with rural farms over a longer time period, like for example:

  • Open days when general public to visit farms
  • Consumer can adopt a cow, chicken or apple tree, and become ‘friend’ of a certain farm
  • Arrangements where public can buy ‘shares’ for which farm produce can be purchased

In many farms a number of these activities are combined. Sometimes these secondary activities have become economically far more important than the original (dairy) production on the farm. Though originally a farmer-driven initiative, this option is now formally supported by ministries and farmer organizations.

Element 5:
Re-valuing direct marketing and urban-rural linkages

Family farming is increasingly seen as a cultural asset within society. If only very few large-scale farming enterprises would remain in the country, we would loose a major part of our typical landscape and cultural background. That is one of the reasons for the success of the rural-urban linkages today that provide secondary sources of income.

One of the problems here is that urban consumers do not always translate this concern into buying organic products in the super market. The marketing of organic produce is growing but cannot keep up with the speed of the loss of family farms. Shortening the market chains through direct linkages between urban consumers an rural producers is one of the key elements that keep family farms from disappearing, while at the same time stimulating urban consumers not only to go for the cheapest option in the supermarket.

Element 6:
Re-valuing the link between farming and natural environment

The increased recognition that farming has to go hand-in-hand with nature stimulated farmers to integrate other natural elements into their faming system. For example the farmers organized in the so-called Agrarische Natuur Verenigingen, roughly translated as Farmer Groups that Promote Nature, receive a EU subsidy for adapted field management to maintain wild birds. They have a contract with the government that they will not cut the fodder in certain fields before the 15 of June, providing space for wild birds to reproduce.

The development of these so called ‘green and blue services’ is still quite premature. Research has shown that these nature conservation and landscape management practices have improved the incomes of the farming families: around 10% of their income is generated by means of nature programmes financed by the EU and the Dutch national government. (de Rooy, 2010)

Element 7:
Re-valuing local & dual purpose breeds

There is a limited but increasing tendency to re-value Dutch local cattle breeds (as well as other species), such as Lakenvelder, Blaarkop, Brandrode runderen, as well as dual- purpose/beef animals from other EU countries, like Belgium Blue and Vleckvieh. Sometimes these are used as grazers in natural areas, but increasingly also in dairy farms.The reasons include:

  • These dual purpose animals are more efficient in digesting roughage than the pure milk breeds.
  • These animals provide income from two commodities: milk and meat. For example meat calves fetch a better price than milk calves; after milking cows are fattened more easily for sale.
  • These animals are more robust and are better equipped to good health and long life. In spite of lower year-production than the traditional dairy breeds, they often end up with a higher total life production.
  • These more robust animals have less health problems than the pure milk breeds, which means less troubles for the farmer (and his family)

Element 8:
Re-linkage between crop & livestock farms

Most Dutch dairy farms are not integrating food crops and livestock. They are specialised farms in which the manure of their animals is used for their pastures and other fodder crops. But they are limited by law to do so. In some cases (organic) dairy farmers make strategic alliances with crop farmers nearby, in which manure is used to fertilise the food crops, while the crop residues are used as feedstuff for the cattle. In this way, the traditional linkages between crops and animals are re-established. It is expected that this tendency will grow in the near future.

Element 9:
Re-valuing medicinal plants

The main antibiotic use in dairy is related to udder health, for curing and prevention of udder infections. In general, in the Netherlands the use of chemicals and antibiotics in specialized livestock farming is high, much higher than in neighboring countries.

This is of increasing concern, especially due to the problems related to resistant microbes in pig production MRSA (Multi Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) and in poultry poultry production ESBL (Extended Spectrum B Lactamase in microbes – see Both of these microbes pose serious threats to human health, as people infected with these microbes will not recover from an infection by using antibiotics. Therefore the government has decided that the use of antibiotics in Dutch livestock farming has to be reduced by 50% before 2014.

Meanwhile, most of the knowledge of our forefathers related to the use of medicinal plants in this country has been lost. A study by the Institute for ethnobotany and Zoopharmacognosy (IEZ) revealed 168 folk remedies with 68 plant genera still exist within the Netherlands. Similar results come from studies in other EU countries. (Asseldonk and Beijer, 2006)

Medicinal plants are most frequently used in organic dairy farming. There are presently around 255 commercial products for farm animals, most of them as feed additives in a reaction to the EU ban on anti-biotic growth promotors in 2006. Research in quality, efficacy and safety is lacking and formal backing from Veterinary University is missing. The use of medicinal plants is banned from the veterinary curriculum. Meanwhile new initiatives related to the use of medicinal plants in livestock keeping are being developed throughout the country, and a course on herbal medicine for animals is now being offered. The potential of herbal animal remedies is slowly dawning