Today’s Dutch dairy farming is going through significant change. A change in which farmers either opt for (1) stopping their dairy farming enterprise, (2) scale enlargement – for the international market in view of the changes in EU subsidies by January 2015 –  or (3) moving torwards integrated dairy farming, in line with new requirements within Dutch society.

Dutch dairy farmers currently experience numerous difficulties, including reduced farmers’ income, loss of soil fertility, as well as  dependency on world markets, subsidies and supermarkets. This had lead to lack of interest in young farmers to take over – currently two-thirds of Dutch farmers over 50 years of age do not have someone to take over their farm. At the same time farmers are increasingly criticized by Dutch society at large related to animal wellbeing, environment and antibiotic use, while there is also a growing interest from consumers in the quality and origin of their food.

As a result of these tendencies, Dutch dairy farming is changing fast. A dynamic process of change, which holds many important lessons – also for dairy initiatives outside the Netherlands.


The most important lessons that have been learnt, with special relevance  for international dairy farming initiatives, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Build on innovative farmers’ knowledge and experiences supported by research and policies, rather than reseach and policy deciding it all for farmers: do not miss the innovations that come from innovative farmers!
  2. Soil fertility and soil organic matter are highest priorities for efficient farming:  improve soil life and closing nutrient cycles by producing milk from roughage (which gives good quality manure) and locally produced animal feeds, rather than from an excess of concentrated feed based on imported soy
  3. Optimize production: strengthen total-life milk production rather than maximize productivity (milkproduction per lactation or year)
  4. Diversify farmers’ income: farmers are less vulnerable  for changes in the market or climate, than in case of total specialization in and dependency on the market of one product (like milk) only.
  5. Growing importance of direct marketing and short chains:  direct linkages between farmers and consumers gives better price margin, and stands at the basis of growing niche-markets
  6. Growing role of farmers in nature management:  for preserving natural bio-diversity, for example wild birds
  7. Re-validation of dual-purpose and traditional animal breeds and crossbreeding Holstein cows towards a more ‘robust’ animal: to improve natural resilience, animal health and produce milk efficiently from roughage
  8. Restoring the links between dairy farmers and crop farmers:  to close nutrient cycles at regional level
  9. Re-valuing medicinal plants and other natural products: to improve animal health & wellbeing, and reduce the use of antibiotics and other chemicals
  10. Importance of farmer studygroups: farm results – economic, animal wellbeing, environment – are monitored and exchanged, and stand at the basis of joint learning
  11. Farmers with large-scale farms are not necessarily the farmers with highest incomes! See report: Livestock out of Balance – from Asset to liability in the Livestock Revolution)

These lessons may well provide important outlines for sustainable dairy farming worldwide. They include new dynamics between modern techniques and traditional elements, as well as new relationships between farmers and citizens.

Fortunately, this is not an isolated opinion:

  • The new professor Agro Ecology in Wageningen University, Prof. Pablo Tittonell,has highlighted the importance of such new forms of agriculture in his inaugural lecture, on may 16 2013.
  • The initiative Future Farmers in the Spotlight, has filmed young farmers in the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

(see also this document in Dutch Contouren van veehouderij van de toekomst – okt2013)