Present day dillemas and problems

First side-effects: environment and surpluses

Since the 1970’s the side effects of this strategy have also become clear: environmental pollution, over-production, dependency on subsidies, decreasing soil fertility, low farmer income and loss of family farms.

The low price and high status of mineral fertilisers made cow manure lose its importance, which was used only as an extra, over and above the recommended fertiliser application. In 1985 the average fertiliser application for pastures had gone up to 400 kilos of Nitrogen (N) and 78 kilos of phosphorus (P) per hectare. This high fertiliser application, together with high Nitrogen (proteins) in concentrate feeds, resulted in serious environmental problems due to the leakage of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in groundwater and other water bodies. The emission of ammonia (NH3) lead to bad smell, contributed to acid rains and affected the quality of nature in the surroundings of the farm.

Meanwhile, at that point the goal of producing large amounts of low-cost food had already been satisfied. Steadily another problem arose: the high dairy production levelslead large surpluses of milk-powder and butterfat – the so-called milk lakes and butter mountains – which could only be put on the world-market with large European subsidies. This lead to increasing protests of society in general, as the public concerns for food security had shifted to concern about environment and international relations. The government was blamed for supporting environmentally polluting production methods, while the subsidised exports were affecting dairy farming in other countries.

Restrictive policy measures

Starting in 1984, the Ministry of Agriculture had to introduce a series of ‘restrictive’ measures for dairy farmers:

  1. In order to control the dairy surpluses the fixed milk-prices were banned. In the early 1980’s a milk-quoting system was introduced at European level: farmers could only produce the amount of milk that they had permission for. If they produced more, they were punished financially. If they wanted to produce more milk, they had to buy milk-quotum from another dairy farmer.
  2. In order to meet the environmental targets set by the European Union several manure control measures were taken. The total amount of Nitrogen (artificial fertiliser and animal manure) that could be put on each hectare of the land was limited to a maximum of 250 kilos of Nitrogen per hectare of grassland. (170 at EU level). Broadcasting manure on pasture land was banned; instead it was made compulsory to inject the manure as slurry into the soil during the growing season.
  3. In the early ‘90s, a mineral bookkeeping system for dairy farmers was introduced. Through accounting of mineral input and output at farm gate level, each farmer had to calculate and report the nutrient losses within the farming system.

As a result of these measures a clear reduction of milk surpluses as well as mineral surpluses were seen in Europe since 1985. In The Netherlands the use of Nitrogen has been cut by 50%. But it is still twice as high as other European countries, like Denmark, Germany and Belgium. Also the Nitrogen and Phopshorus input through concentrated feeds has been reduced since 1985, although a slight increase can be seen after 2005.

These restrictive measures on the one hand limited the negative side-effects of the dairy production system as a whole. On the other hand they also increased the administrative burden of the farmers, subjecting them to an ever increasing set of rules and regulations.

More side-effects

Ideally, inputs (concentrates and fertilisers) are in balance with the outputs (milk and meat) in terms of nutrients. However, the mineral bookkeeping system in conventional dairy farms revealed that significant losses of Nitrogen and Phosphorus occurred in the cow and in the soil. This lead to low Nitrogen efficiency levels (<18% at cow level and <30% at soil level).

The high-input farming system led not only to environmental pollution but also to animal diseases and increasing veterinary costs. Due to the focus of maximisation of milk production per animal per year, the animals are pushed to producing high quantities of milk, often at the expense of their health. High protein levels in the feed rations cause digestion problems and malfunctioning of the liver, leading to high incidence of mastitis, hoof-diseases, prolonged calving intervals and other fertility problems. As a result the life expectancy of a dairy cow in the Netherlands is around 4.5 years, which means that she will last no longer than 2-3 lactations. This does not only cause distress in the animal but also in the farmer and his family alike.

Due to the low farm efficiency the input costs increased, while milk prices were no longer guaranteed. As a result farmers’ income declined. Many of them decided to stop farming or were forced to do so, due to the lack of replacement – as their children did not want to take over the farm. As indicated above, the number of dairy farms in The Netherlands has decreased by 85% between 1960 and 2007. This process is still continuing today.

The main reason for stopping today is related to low milk-prices while the inputs are increasing in costs and regulations require major investments. This will only be worse in years to come, as the milkquotum system will be abolishes by 2015. This will stop the EU financed cheap exports of dairy products, which has hampered farmers worldwide. On the other hand, it will force many EU farmers to stop their enterprise, as they will not be able to earn a decent income.

Increasing consumer concern

Since the 1970’s the general public in the country has begun challenging the so-called “license to produce” of farmers. The first issues were related to the environmental effects of the producing methods, as well as the effects of the subsidised exports of dairy products on dairy farming in other (poor) countries. The various outbreaks of infectious animal disease and their control measures, such as the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001-2002, resulted in severe crises in society. This aggravated the feeling if discontent amongst the general public with large-scale animal production and further exposed the vulnerability of the modern livestock production systems.

Other consumer concerns are related to the effects of cattle on climate change, and animal-related human health issues, like for example the Mad Cow Disease (BSE) that can lead to neurological disorders in humans, and the threat of microbe resistance in humans due to excessive antibiotic use in intensive animal production. More recently, the concerns of the general public are especially related to the lack of animal welfare related to intensive production. Dutch people like to see cows in the field while passing through the country in the summer. The plans for building extra large stables (so-called mega-stables) in which large groups of animals are kept in intensive farms, though potentially with better circumstances in terms of animal wellbeing, is being confronted with fierce resistance within society today.

All in all, Dutch dairy farmers own large farms and produce lots of milk. But that does not necessarily imply that they are rich and can live without worries. On the contrary, many of them are facing serious difficulties which are often difficult to overcome, while at the same time being criticized by the general public. (Box 2). Fortunately, numerous new initiatives provide important alternatives, which provide ways forward. This will be described in the next part of this paper.

Box 2 Dilemmas and problems of modern dairy farming in The Netherlands

The dilemma’s:

  1. Super specialisation and productivity focus
  2. Decreasing soil fertility
  3.  Dependence on inputs (fertilizer, carbon energy) and subsidies o
  4. Environmental problems
  5. Regulation requires administrative burden and major investments
  6. Need to reduce antibiotic use – but how?

Resulting in:

  1. Low income due to very low profit rate per kilo of milk produced
  2. Future income prospects are difficult due to abolishing milkquotum system in 2015
  3. Social problems – farmers going out of business (85% has stopped between 1960-2007)
  4. Young people moving out of farming, lack of ‘replacement’
  5. Criticism of general public, especially on animal wellbeing and climate change