Lessons to learn from Netherlands dairy farming – Part 1

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University. He recently travelled to the Netherlands with Calder Stewart representatives to see what can be learned from their dairy farming practices. Despite modest subsidies and tight regulation, Dutch dairy farms prosper through a focus on science, highly educated farmers and a strong sense of social responsibility.



In late May, I was in Holland with colleagues from Calder Stewart as part of a self-education project on hybrid dairy systems. These systems involve 12-month production of milk from the combination of grazing and off-paddock systems.

One of the first lessons we learned is that many Dutch cows graze below sea level. The north-western half of Holland is almost totally below sea level apart from artificial man-made structures called polders. In these regions, the pastures lie three to five metres below sea level. There is an English saying that God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland.

The Dutch started building dikes some 700 years ago and they have never stopped. During that time, the sea level has been steadily rising at about three millimetres each year as Earth has continued its long-term emergence from the Ice Age.

Dutch dairy markets are about 35 percent internal and 65 percent exports. There are no price supports. However, Dutch dairy farmers do receive European Union grants of about 400 euros (roughly $NZ650) per hectare for environmental management. Hence, there are lots of trees, the paddocks are small, and the rules around effluent are very strict.

There are many effluent management actions that New Zealand farmers can do which Dutch farmers cannot do. Accordingly, Dutch dairy farms need lots of effluent storage – for up to eight months. Most of this is held beneath the dairy barn in huge tanks. The barns are airy and there is little smell. 

Livestock numbers (adjusted for breed liveweight) are increasingly regulated based on assessed phosphate loadings. These phosphate allowances can be bought and sold – they become a licence to farm. Just as in New Zealand in relation to new nutrient limits, there is lots of controversy.

One of the farmers we visited, who commenced a development program prior to the new regulations, has successfully sued the Dutch Government for an increased phosphate allowance. This has sent shock waves through the system, and the Government will undoubtedly mount an appeal through higher courts. 

Per hectare production is high from a combination of feed grown on-farm plus bought-in supplements. A typical farm would run two large Holsteins (the large cousins of Friesians) plus young stock per hectare, and produce about 18,000 litres of milk (1350 kg fat plus protein) per hectare.



DISCLAIMER: This is an extract from an article published on Interest.co.nz on June 7th 2017. Some paragraphs have been omitted or repositioned. Read the full article here