Dutch co-operation offers useful lessons

The Dutch province of Friesland was, of course, the original home of the Friesian breed that spread around the world to dominate milk production.

The capital of the province is the historic town of Leeuwarden and a bronze statue of a Friesian cow used to stand in the central square. Sadly, traffic pressure has pushed the statue to the outskirts of the town, but the burgers still refer to her as “Our Mother” – in recognition of what the breed has done for them.

Some might also find it sad that on the dairy farms around Leeuwarden few of the cows retain the blocky, dual-purpose shape of the statue. Today, like the rest of the world, Dutch dairy farmers have succumbed to the need to produce higher yields and turned to the longer-legged Holstein that owes part of its origins to Schleswig Holstein, just over the border in Germany.

But dairying is still dominant in the area, dictated by the low-lying pastures that make up the relatively small farms. Few are big enough to carry more than 50 to 60 cows and declining milk prices have forced many farmers to seek alternative employment. The same pressures have led to greater investment in robot milking machines than anywhere else in the world, freeing up time to take on other jobs.

An Israeli idea is yet another innovation to help dairy farmers earn better margins. Started in 2009, it is a cattle feed centre on the outskirts of Leeuwarden in what used to be a grain merchant’s premises. Indeed, said merchant is one of three investors who have funded the venture. The other two are an ex-college lecturer and a farmer.

Members of the Farmers Weekly study tour who visited the centre were, to say the least, surprised to find a huge silage clamp on an industrial estate. But we warmed to the idea when it was explained to us – as indeed have Dutch dairy farmers. For two other, similar centres are about to be established and it was claimed there is scope for a further dozen across Holland.

It works like this: dairy farmer members sell their growing grass at an agreed price to the centre, whose staff cuts, collects and ensiles it at the centre. Later, the same staff mix the silage with extra protein, minerals, energy in the shape of waste potatoes etc in a mixer wagon on site and the balanced ration is delivered to members on a side delivery trailer fitted with weigh cells, so that each farm receives a measured amount – all for a fixed fee.

Two rations are provided – one for cows in full production and one for dry cows and youngstock. The manager told us this first centre was feeding 30 herds situated within a radius of 15kms, and he claimed average milk yields had increased since the farmers began using the system. He attributed this to the better quality of silage that can be made in big clamps. He also claimed members had reduced feeding costs, partly because the centre was able to buy ingredients more cheaply and also because they could reduce machinery investment.

The original funders apparently intend to franchise the concept, and from what we were told there will be no shortage of takers. To work well it clearly requires a concentration of small dairy farmers, so it wouldn’t work in Norfolk. But it might in Cheshire, or Lancashire say, and the idea certainly has legs in Holland.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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