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.
The level of science and technology application was very impressive on the farms we saw. Robot milking is very common. On one farm with two herds side by side, the robotically-milked cows produce about seven percent more than the human-milked cows. This is largely as a result of additional milkings which the robotically-milked cows choose of their own accord. A key reason for robotic-milking is labour reduction and lifestyle. Unlike in America, dairy farm labour is very expensive. Most farmers rely on family labour.
The farm families are making a success of their lives. One farmer told us that he needed a price of about 32 euro cents per kg (about $NZ6.50 per kg milksolids) to be profitable. He said his purchased feed cost him nine euro cents per litre of milk produced, his other costs including his own salary came to 14 euro cents, and interest plus debt reduction was another nine euro cents. Right now, he is getting 36 euro cents. However, a year ago he was only getting 25 euro cents and life was tough.
Genomic selection of bulls based on DNA testing is increasingly favoured, and works sufficiently well such that progeny testing of bulls is now minimal. Farmers can choose their own selection criteria, with good feet and good udder conformation being highly favoured. The selection system works because the Dutch, working with other European countries, now know which genes affect these specific characteristics. (In New Zealand, the equivalent information for our cows in our environment is currently less reliable.)
Famers also select strongly for bulls that will produce cows of high longevity so as to reduce the number of replacement stock that need to be raised. They are already achieving cow longevity similar to New Zealand when measured in years, but with almost double the lifetime milk production given the high annual lactation yields.
My overall impression of Dutch dairy farming is strongly positive. They have got their act together, with a focus on lots of science, well-educated farmers, and an understanding that they have to do things right if they are to retain a social licence from the rest of the community.
If there is an Achilles heel to Dutch dairying, it is the small size of the farms, and the long cold winters. These farms lie at a northern hemisphere latitude equivalent to 650 km south of Invercargill.
In New Zealand, the counter claim to Dutch efficiency will be that the Dutch get big subsidies. But by my calculations, these grants comprise less than seven percent of income on highly productive farms, and they do come with obligations. I think we have lots to learn.
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.