Science - May 12, 2005

Modern cowboys inspire Dutch farmers

Dutch dairy farmers can learn a lot from modern 'cowboys’ in the US. They think big, and have huge farms with thousands of cattle, make their own cheese and ice cream and open their doors to tourists.

Paul Galama and Frank Lenssinck of the sub-department of Animal Husbandry at the Animal Sciences Group returned full of ideas from a study tour through the American Midwest.
The applied researchers are interested in encouraging innovation on dairy farms and were accompanied on their tour by livestock farmers from the dairy study club ‘Morgen’. The bus trip included Wisconsin, the cheese state of the US, which lies to the east of Lake Michigan. Galama: ‘I was in touch a number of years ago with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At that time the Americans were very interested in our research approach on our experimental farms like De Marke. Now it was our turn to be inspired by the modernisation that has taken place in American dairy farming.’ There has been a huge increase in scale in this sector. The prediction is that by 2020 in the US, twenty percent of the farms will have more than five hundred cattle and will produce most of the milk needed. Galama: ‘It’s unlikely to ever get this far in the Netherlands, partly because the milk quota is too expensive. Nevertheless I see opportunities here for increasing the scale of activities.’

Glass cattle sheds
The Dutch visitors noticed that American farmers want to make their farms more open to the public. ‘At the Van der Geest farm we saw dairy barns with a glass front. Visitors can immediately see the cattle, and they can walk over a bridge above the cattle and watch the cattle being milked.’ Galama would like to introduce this idea in the Netherlands. ‘In Limburg, for example it would be possible to install glass walls in the many livestock barns along cycle routes, so that tourists could see cattle and pigs from their bikes. Architecturally these barns would also be an improvement.’

A few hours’ bus ride from Chicago the visitors went to another mega-farm, consisting of four units each with three thousand cattle and modern equipment. Milking goes on twenty-four hours a day and there is a fully automatic manure fermentation system. This is a popular attraction, and goes by the name of ‘Dairy Adventure Centre’. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn how dairy products are made and about the health benefits of milk. ‘The dairy farmers in our group could hardly believe their eyes. It’s a great way of promoting dairy products. We should set up something like this in the Netherlands. The dairy sector could take the initiative.’

The Dutch were impressed by the size and scale of the farms, but they also visited a relatively small farm, belonging to the Crave Brothers, which ‘only’ had six hundred dairy cattle and is modernising in a different way. Frank Lenssinck: ‘They have consciously chosen not to keep more cattle, but to extract added value out of their milk by making cheese themselves, especially Italian cheeses for which the market in America is growing fast.’

Animal welfare
The large scale and mechanical way in which dairy cattle are farmed in the US might provoke opposition. Galama, however, thinks that it is the big farms that are concerned about animal welfare. ‘If your farm is big, it’s essential that your animal health is in perfect shape. If you fifty cows and five are sick it’s not a disaster. But if you have a thousand cattle you can’t afford to have a hundred sick animals. The advantage is that it is more profitable for bigger farms to employ a veterinarian.’

Galama thinks that there might be an increase in scale in Dutch dairy farming if farmers invest jointly in a new farm or start collaborating in other ways. ‘Collaboration between farms is increasingly becoming a conversation topic, and I’m thinking of things like sharing machinery, joint silaging and regional shift work for milking or looking after the animals.’ Some parts of Holland are less suitable for increases in scale because there is little space available. In the northern regions such as the Veenkoloniën there are more opportunities.

But a larger herd does not always have to be the aim, according to Galama. Doing more with the milk can be profitable, as the Dairy Adventure Centre does. ‘In the States we got a brochure on a new invention, the mobile cheese maker, Cheese on Wheels. This would be an option for Dutch dairy farmers who do not want to invest on their own in cheese making equipment. Mobile milking systems are also a possibility.

Hormones
In their pursuit of expansion Dutch livestock farmers are at a disadvantage compared to the Americans. ‘American farmers get far more subsidies, if you add up the crop subsidies and milk price support. The American government does more for its farmers, also because of the out-migration from rural areas.’ While the researchers came back from the US with good impressions they do not feel they have to start copying everything. Galama: ‘American dairy cattle are injected of hormones to increase milk production and fertility. As a result American cattle maybe have shorter lives. It is often the case that thirty-five percent of the total livestock is replaced each year.’

Hugo Bouter

Re:act