What you need to know:
- Farmers in The Netherlands solely rely on the machines to run their farms, with the robots offering unmatched labour.
- The dairy sector in The Netherlands employs 45,000 workers. Most of them, however, are not on the farms.
- The Dutch government is regulating the emission reduction of the dairy sector as part of environmental regulation.
- About 35 percent of the milk produced and the resultant products are sold in the country, while the rest are exported to China, Algeria, Japan, Germany, Belgium and France.
The Dutch love cheese, and ghee, and milk. They love their milk cold, which they take separate from tea or coffee.
The dairy products come from some 1.7 million cows spread on 17,500 farms across The Netherlands and they produce about 15 billion litres of milk annually.
Most of the dairy farms, interestingly, have no workers, with robots calling all the shots when it comes to how and when to feed the cows, clean the sheds and milk the animals.
The machines have literally kicked workers out of Dutch dairy farms, with the farmer monitoring all activities in the barn on phone and issuing out instructions by the click of a button.
At Farm Landleven, brothers Adrie and Bert Vollering keep over 300 Holstein-Friesian animals, 220 which they milk and the rest are heifers and calves.
The 1 million Euros (Sh119 million) worth of investment farm was started by Adrie and Bert’s forefathers somewhere in Vlaardingen, in the south of The Netherlands.
“They would milk cows and sell the produce in the city. Ourselves we are the eighth generation farmers in the Vollering family. Our father started the process of modernising the farm in 1966 by moving it to the current location in Waarder,” says Adrie.
Adrie and Bert have then continued with the modernisation of the farm that sits on 70 acres, with pasture standing on half of it. They built modern barns in 2011 and automated them for efficiency.
“We have no worker on the farm. My brother and I take turns to monitor activities, which are performed by robots. Occasionally, we have a volunteer but the farm is fully automated.”
As others in The Netherlands, the farm hosts dozens of automatic machines that include a milking system, cow separation gate, feed slide, concentrate box, slurry scraper, energy monitoring system, ventilation gadget, 24-tonne milk tank, feed mixer wagons, loader and silage cutter, among others.
“All these machines are connected to the system and they work seamlessly. I monitor everything on the phone and issue instructions that include the machine not milking a particular cow, for instance.”
NO PHYSICAL HANDLING OF THE MILK
As Adrie recounts the happenings to a group of Kenyan journalists, a cow walks to the milking machine earlier than its scheduled time. The robot rejects the animal, opens the gate and it walks out.
On the other side of the farm, the slurry scraper moves around the shed sprinkling some water as it cleans it, periodically as instructed.
“Each animal is fitted with a chip from which the robot picks information about it and performs the task instructed. The machine cannot milk a sick teat or that which is hurt as long as you instruct it,” he says, adding there is no physical handling of the milk, which flows directly to the solar-run cooler once milked.
The system normally detects every activity of the animal including if the cow is on heat, if sick, if its chewing too much or less and there is need to change the feeds.
“These machines allow me to do other tasks that include going on holiday and attending to family issues,” Adrie quips.
He offers the animals grass silage (65 percent), corn silage (17), beet pulp (10 percent), potato fibre pulp (5 percent), straw (1 percent) and flour and minerals (2 percent).
“Each cow produces an average of 28 litres of milk a day and this rises to 50 litres during the peak season. Annually, I get 9,500 litres from each cow or 1.8 million litres from the entire herd,” says Adrie.
The farm, as others in the country that is below the sea level, sells the milk to FrieslandCampina Dairy, the largest co-operative in The Netherlands.
“The co-operative collects the milk from our solar cooler after every three days and pays an average of 35 Euro cents (Sh42) per litre. The price fluctuates depending on a number of things including the weather and production. In 2017, we earned 40 Euro cents (Sh48) per litre and in 2015, 25 cents (Sh30),” he says, noting his break even price is 34 Euro cents (Sh41) per litre.
Campina checks the milk for quality and any violations that include detection of antibiotics is punished, including by being banned from the society.
“They check a number of things which include fat and protein concentration. In our case, it averages 4.10 percent and 3.4 percent respectively,” says Adrie, adding they get lessons on farm management and new practices through the co-operative.
The farmers are paid 3 Euro cents (Sh4) extra at the end of the year per litre of milk delivered if they graze their animals.
“Every year, the cows should graze at least six hours a day, for 120 days. Grazing is natural behaviour for the cow and it is healthy. Young stock is kept 24 hours a day outside during the summer,” offers the farmer.
Once they are born, the calves are allowed to stay with their mothers for two days, but within the first 30 minutes after calving, the must receive four litres of colostrum.
“A heifer calf is housed for 3-5 days in individual straw cot, a bull calf for 14 days. After five days, heifer calves are housed in groups and for two months they receive milk replacer through the automatic system, besides feeding on hay ad lib, lucerne, concentrates and water,” says Adrie, noting the farm’s breeding is computerised.
They use sexed-semen, with Belgium blue going for 350 Euros (Sh42,000) and Holstein-Friesian 100 Euros (Sh12,000).
Tys van Balen, the Business and Market Development Advisor, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, says there is strong collaboration between farmers and government, as well as research institutions making the Dutch dairy industry to thrive.
“Growing demand certainly offers opportunities for Dutch dairy, but technology plays a crucial to meet increasing demand for dairy products and sustainable production, with a minimum impact on nature and the environment,” he offers.
Adrie, together with his brother Bert, is currently working on passing the farm to their sons.
However, there is a challenge as the sons are not interested in farming like their parents and forefathers.
Their option is to sell the farm but finding a buyer would be difficult because of the huge price.
Another challenge the farm is grappling with is erratic weather, with rains becoming scarcer thus affecting pasture production.
“This is what I love doing. I love farming,” says Adrie as he taps a solar cooler full of milk that is awaiting collection, with the produce going to make the next cheese, ghee and pasteurised milk, some which he serves us — warmer though, upon request.
Facts and figures about the Dutch dairy industry
The dairy sector in The Netherlands employs 45,000 workers.
Most of them, however, are not on the farms.
About 35 percent of the milk produced and the resultant products are sold in the country, while the rest are exported to China, Algeria, Japan, Germany, Belgium and France.
About 50 percent of dairy farms save energy by utilising the natural heat from milk.
Dairy’s contribution to the Dutch trade balance is 8 percent.
The bulk (52 percent) of the milk produced in the country is used to make cheese and 15 percent milk powder.
The Dutch government is regulating the emission reduction of the dairy sector as part of environmental regulation.
Source: Agriculture Department