Dairy livestock and milk production will not see explosive growth due to the milk quota being abolished in 2015; the strict manure legislation means this is impossible, according to agricultural economist Dirk Strijker of the University of Groningen. Environmentalists fear there will be a boom in mega-barn construction and a drastic increase in intensive animal farming, but Strijker points out the heavy costs farmers incur in getting rid of excess manure. ‘As a result, milk production will increase by no more than twenty percent. The new barns that have been constructed in recent years thus are not an indication of a coming dairy livestock explosion but rather the final preparations of farmers in light of the new situation.’
One of the ways excess milk production has been combated for many years is the European milk quota, which prevented price wars and dairy overproduction in Europe. It has been known since 2005 that the milk quota, which actually regulates the numbers of dairy cattle, will be abolished in 2015. In principle, farmers can produce as much milk as they like from then on, and fetch a good price for it too, if it were not for the fact that they face restrictions on the amount of manure they are allowed to spread per hectare of land.
The manure quota is a strict one, Strijker explains. ‘The Dutch manure quota was mainly meant to address the enormous manure production resulting from intensive animal farming in the provinces of Brabant and Gelderland, but ultimately became national legislation. This means that the same strict rules apply to regions that could actually use more manure, such as the North. Farmers would like to see the national character of the legislation reversed, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. And although a decent living can be made in dairy farming, margins are not large enough to make it profitable for farmers to have excess manure treated.’
One of the ways of dealing with excess manure seen by some as an elegant solution is anaerobic digestion. Strijker does not expect this will work for farmers: ‘There are many plans for anaerobic digestion plants, but a major portion of these does not make it it through the planning permission procedure, and rightly so. Sometimes neighbours object, or there is environmental legislation that prevents construction, or the anaerobic digestion plants do not fit in zoning plans. The plants are only profitable if they are built near the farms. You can’t build a plant far away from agricultural regions due to the high transport costs. This is also the reason that shipping manure abroad is hardly ever considered.’
‘Another way to get rid of your excess manure is of course to have it spread on the fields of a neighbouring farm where crops are raised. But this also has its restrictions. Farmer-to-farmer transport is closely monitored for fraud and it is not economically feasible to take over a neighbouring arable farm to that end. The only way for farmers to increase their manure quota is to take over another livestock farm, which does happen. Some farmers are ambitious and are preparing their businesses for the new situation, which is why you see many new and bigger barns being built. But this process is nearly drawing to a close.’
The reason that milk production will, however, increase is related to the shift from raising pigs and poultry (including their manure quota) to dairy farming, as the latter is more profitable, according to Strijker. ‘But it will end there. The state secretary is threatening to introduce a quota for the livestock numbers farmers are allowed to keep if they are unable to deal with their manure. This also means that the expansion of dairy farming will be limited. So the giga-barns housing thousands of cows we’re being warned about will never be constructed, or only in exceptional cases.’
Dirk Strijker (1953) is professor by special appointment in Rural Development at the University of Groningen. He studied economics in Groningen and was awarded a PhD in 2000 by the University of Amsterdam for a study of regional differences in European agriculture. Strijker is an expert in the field of rural development and European agricultural policy. He has been the Mansholt Professor of Rural Development since 2005. This chair was endowed by the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the request of the Stichting voor Hoger Landbouwonderwijs (Foundation for Higher Agricultural Education).
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