Dairy farming in the Netherlands is standing at a crossroads. This is an especially  interesting situation for other countries to learn from and decide on their own dairy development strategy.

Scale enlargement in dairy farming

On the one hand there one can see rapid scale enlargement and automatization of dairy farms, in preparation of the quotum-free situation after 2015. This implies increased high costs and consequent pressure for the highest possible milk production per animal – up to 10.000 to 11.000 litres of milk per year (average around 35 litres of milk per day). This also implies breeding strategies with highest producing Holstein-Friesian dairy cows.

The side effects of this strategy is rapidly becoming clear. In spite of their high milk production farmers are financially vulnerable: highly indebted and thus extra vulnerable due to the varying  world prices for milk and animal feed. At the moment the price of milk is high, around 50 cents per litre. But this may change at any time, as we saw during the milk crisis in 2009 when the price of milk was around 35 cents per litre.

Moreover, the Holstein-Friesian is increasingly suffering from the effects of inbreeding, such as low fertility and diseases – especially hoof problems. At the moment the average milking cow in the Netherlands lives not more than 5 years (approximately 2 lactations); and around 75% of the cows are culled due to hoof problems.

Rapid increase of dual purpose breeds

Many dairy farmers have started to adapt their strategy, striving for a more resilient system and longer life for their cows. In this more sustainable system the dairy cows produce less milk per year or lactation – between 7.500 – 8.500 litres (average around 26 litres of milk per day) – but live longer. In total these animals end up with higher production of milk during their lifetime (= life production).

One of the important changes these farmers are making is to use a different breeding strategy, making use of dual purpose (milk and meat) breeds that can also produce their on basis of roughages rather than on mainly on concentrates and maize. There are two main strategies:

1. Crossbreeding the dairy cattle with robust dual purpose breeds from other EU countries, such as Montebaillarde from France, Vleckvieh from Germany, Scandinavian Red catte. This is becoming quite a mainstream strategy – in fact the use of these breeds has increased 7-fold between 2003 and 2011.

2. Using the old Dutch local breeds, such as the Blaarkop, Lakenvelder, Friesian or Fire-red cattle. This strategy is often linked to direct marketing initiatives, with direct sales on farm shops  or through internet, as the products are preferred by consumers due to better taste and quality than from high producing Holstein Friesian cattle.