News - December 17, 2009

Test farms given expiry date

Wageningen UR is going to clean up its research activities for the livestock farming sector. Six of the nine experimental farms may be closed down between 2010 and 2012. Only the farms in Leeuwarden, Sterksel and Hengelo will be retained. Resource pays a visit to the barns.

The Nij Bosma Zathe at Leeuwarden will undergo expansion to become Nij Waiboerhoeve, the test centre for dairy livestock farms.
Experimental dairy farm Aver Heino in Heino has been marked for closure. But farm manager Zwier van der Vegte has an ace up his sleeve: the Province of Overijssel. 'The provincial government has set aside thirty million euros for agricultural and knowledge development for the next three years. It wants to invest in dairy farming research that complements the nature and its landscaping plans.' But this can only go ahead if there is commitment from agriculture organization LTO, a requirement from both the province and Wageningen UR. Not an easy condition to fulfil as contacts between the Province and LTO are somewhat strained. If LTO does not participate, the province would opt out, says Van der Vegt.
'Hotel for cows'
Aver Heino is an organic dairy company. One of its barns is known as the 'hotel for cows'. Educative programmes for children and adults are held here. The company also has a room for courses and excursions. But research work in the areas of nutrition and fertilizer use is dwindling. The only way out for Aver Heino is to carry out research for mixed agriculture and countryside development.
Discussions concerning the continuity of the test centres have taken place since early 2009. The 'strategic choice' of Wageningen UR to contain dairy livestock research within Leeuwaarden will lead to a 'loss of traditional traits', says Van der Vegte, referring to livestock farming in the typical landscape of the east of the Netherlands, surrounded by nature and water features.
He also points to the intended closure of the adjacent experimental farm for organic pig farming in Raalte. That, too, has been hit badly by the decision of Wageningen UR to move pig farming research to Sterksel. According to its manager Marcel van Tongeren, discussions are still going on among the concerned parties. 'Call us a few months later', he says. At Aver Heino, LTO has to come to an agreement with the province by the end of January. If this fails, the company will bite the dust.
Fully packed
Also marked for closure is the only experimental centre for poultry farming, the Spelderholt in Lelystad, according to plans disclosed in early December. The scope of the company is too small for it to be run commercially, says its manager Johan Pikstra. This year's research assignments total more than 300 thousand euros, while 350 thousand euros of work are in store for next year. The chicken batteries are fully packed. Yet, the experimental farm runs at a loss; its manager says this is mainly because of the 'exorbitant' housing costs of 520 thousand euros charged by Wageningen UR.
Six years ago, the Spelderholt moved from Beekbergen to Lelystad. 'We were bigger then and occupied the premises of the poultry cooperative (Fonds Pluimveebelangen) for free. We had everything there', Pikstra looks back with a sigh. 'But research for the poultry sector ceased. We ended up with four small barns in Lelystad.' These have different sizes. The barn for broilers (meat chickens) has eight compartments, the breeding barn has four, the small egg-laying chicken barn has two and the big egg-laying chicken barn has six compartments. Each has its own environmental condition controls. 'You can't find these elsewhere in Europe.'
But the research market within the poultry sector is divided. Pikstra: 'We were confronted with different needs from different sectors: egg-laying hens, broilers, broiler breeders and turkey.
What borders him most is that Wageningen UR requires the poultry test farm to have twelve percent profitability. 'The new buildings in Lelystad cost 4.3 million euros. They were paid by subsidies from the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Safety (LNV) and the Flevoland provincial government. While they haven't cost Wageningen UR a single cent, its executive board now wants to write them off in ten years.' Pikstra is aware that the trade association for poultry and eggs (PPE) has protested against the closure to the executive board. 'I don't know what's going to happen next, but we still have four full barns next year for research for LNV and PPE.'
The future for the Waiboerhoeve, the test centre for dairy livestock farming in Lelystad is just as somber. Dairy livestock research will be concentrated near to Leeuwarden, where the experiment farm Nij Bosma Zathe will be enlarged and renamed as Nij Waiboerboeve. The manager in Lelystad does not wish to comment on the closure. Up to two months ago, it looked like dairy livestock research would be concentrated in Lelystad, but this changed when the Friesland provincial government put its money on the table.
Dairy Campus
'Friesland is the land of water and milk', says Klaas Arie Beks, project manager of 'Knowledge Campus' of the Province of Friesland. Leeuwarden already boasts of the knowledge centre for water, Wetsus; the new Dairy Campus will take shape around Nij Bosma Zathe. The provincial government has promised to give an amount of ten million euros to set up an innovation programme on the dairy campus. This money is offered by the Ministry of Economic Affairs to Friesland as compensation for cancelling the Zuiderzee railway project. 'We are the only province which puts money into education and research', says Beks.
Earlier on, the province has invested ten million euros in primary schools in order to combat low literacy in the Friesian countryside. Van Hall Larenstein received a million euros for its new masters course Marine Policy. The province has acquired the Wadden Academy, which is now a KNAW institute. 'We have seven scientific institutions at present.'
On the Dairy Campus, the national sustainable livestock farming research programme has started. Dairy livestock researchers carry out research to increase earnings in the milk sector, together with supply and processing industries such as barn builders, Friesland Campina and NestlĂ©. The work is centred on product innovation, says Beks. 'The dairy farming sector would soon be unable to earn its keeps from milk production alone. The earnings would have to come from product development in the industrial chain.' As a result, education will be centred on post- and extra training.  Relations will be strengthened with VHL, which has a vacancy for a new lecturer in dairy livestock farming.
The campus is more than just a virtual term, assures Beks. 'Nij Bosma Zathe will soon be located next to the expressway, with a station five hundred metres away. That's where the new buildings will be. The PTC+ training centre in Oenkerk may move to the campus. VHL will remain where it is, but travelling time will be a mere ten minutes. We will concentrate on innovation, research and education. This combination was not possible in Flevoland.'
How Nij Bosma Zathe can be expanded to become Nij Waiboerhoeve is not known yet. From a business economics point of view, the test centre has survived a difficult year of low milk prizes. Wageningen UR took over the company from an agriculture organization in 2000 for free, but has since invested in, for example, on-site manure fermentation facilities. The experimental farm now pays housing costs in return for these investments. The situation is different from that at the Spelderholt, where the total replacement value of the complex has been brought under housing costs, says manager Paul Vriesekoop of the Animal Sciences Group. 'The experimental farms pay differently because of past agreements.' 
Good enough
'The profitability of the experimental farms wasn't the deciding factor in the plans', says director Martin Scholten of the Animal Sciences Group. 'Education and research are. We want to have a research farm for national and international needs, and good enough to keep on handling applied knowledge issues in the future. A farm for poultry research is difficult to sustain even on a national level because the demand for research in this sector is too low', adds Scholten.
'If we had only looked at the profits, Nij Bosma Zathe would be a dead duck. But Leeuwarden has much to offer content-wise, due to the impetus from the provincial government. The most profitable company currently is perhaps Cranendonck which is managed by an independent contractor, but it has no research. We are giving that up too because Wageningen UR is not a farmer.'
That the test centres have to pay housing costs to Wageningen UR is normal, feels Scholten. 'The centres were built with third-party funds in the past. We have maintained them by providing facilities.' The housing costs are based on the replacement value of the centres. That places the test farms at a disadvantage, because they haven't made any previous contributions. The costs of the centres are hidden in this way.'