Given that The Netherlands is approximately twice the area of Wales, or four times the size of Yorkshire, the country does well to claim that it is the second largest exporter of food and agricultural products in the world, only coming second to the USA. An incredible claim for a relatively small country, but such intensive farming, particularly in the dairy, pig and poultry sector does bring its challenges.
The oversupply of manure is a huge problem for the livestock sector. The Dutch farming industry is currently fighting to save its nitrate derogation after it exceeded the set phosphate threshold in 2015, and there are clear indications that the country is on track to do them same for 2016, and again in 2017.
At the beginning of December 2016, I spent 10 days in The Netherlands investigating my Nuffield Topic, which aims to explore agricultural land occupation, the tenure mechanisms and the implications of short termism when it comes to occupying land. I soon realised that a major factor affecting the market and the nature of agri occupation agreements in the Netherlands is that of dealing with getting rid of manure whilst meeting environmental regulations. This blog aims to provide some background and context to the current challenge the Dutch livestock sector faces.
The Nitrates Directive has been in place since 1991. It aims to protect water quality from pollution by agricultural sources and to promote the use of good farming practice. The majority of Dutch livestock farmers have derogations to apply up to 250kg/ha of nitrogen per year, up from the standard annual limit of 170kg/ha. However, this derogation has been jeopardised as the Dutch have breached their phosphate limits.
Livestock production is so intensive in The Netherlands that there is very little artificial fertiliser used, which limits the scope for low phosphorus compounds to be used. Land is limited and there is not enough to cope with the quantity of manure that is produced domestically and therefore markets for the exportation of manure have developed. However the concept of exporting processed animal slurry from the dairy and pig sectors to other countries outside of the Netherlands is being opposed by non-farming residents objecting to propose sites for mega slurry processing facilities. That said, I visited a few pig farming operations in the south of the county who have already built their own slurry handling facilities that heat the manure to a minimum temperature of 70 degrees C as a means of expelling any bad bacteria and then are able to export the manure across the border into Western Germany so that it can be spread there.
2.4 Mega Watt Anaerobic Digestion Plant on a Pig Unit
The heat from the engine was used to help heat the pig manure to above 70 degrees C so that it can be exported.
Manure drying racks.
Getting rid of manure is an expensive business. Domestically, pig farmers are currently paying around 33 cents a cubic metre to those with land so that they can get rid of their by-product, and this is on top of any rental payment they may be paying to occupy the same land. Dairy farmers are paying around 25 cents per cubic metre. This is a dramatic change from the manure producers being paid by the arable farmer for their organic fertiliser.
But it is the dairy farmers that are in the spotlight because they have increased cow numbers significantly for the last number of years. Cow numbers have continued to rise as Dutch dairy farmers have filled their cubicle spaces in anticipation of the milk quota disappearing.
I learned that farmers had been banking on the introduction of a new quota system for phosphorus that would have allowed retiring farmers to sell their phosphorus allowance to those staying in the sector. However, a ruling that this would contravene EU State aid rules has forced authorities to adopt a more drastic option of aiming to reduce their national output by 13% through a cull of their dairy herd, numbers in the region of 175,000 to 200,000 dairy cows.
Finding the right balance between agricultural production and environmental protection can be difficult, but is absolutely necessary for the sustainability of both.
Ditch in the south of the Netherlands
To address the issue, a series of short term proposals were being discussed when I was in the Netherlands which consisted of a package of 50m euros being rolled out to reduce dairy herd numbers, thus dropping phosphate production. Proposals included;
- Farmers would be compensated for reducing cow numbers by around 10%.
- Farmers who exceeded a 2015 reference milk volume produced will be penalised.
- Feed manufactures will agree to lower the levels of phosphorus in the feed.
This is a huge big topic in the Netherlands and is being discussed at all levels. When I was in Brussels, I had the opportunity to join a group of Dutch dairy farmers at the European Parliament who wanted to discuss their concerns with Annie Schreijer-Pierik, their MEP who forms a strong voice in Brussels and stands up for their concerns.
I joined Dutch dairy farmers in the European Parliament to have an audience with Annie Schreijer-Pierik Dutch MEP
I visited a number of dairy farms in the Netherlands and addressing the manure problem was a key talking point. Even though Dutch milk output will reduce as a consequence of the above proposals, this was seen as a preference to losing their nitrates derogation, which if lost, would undoubtedly increases the severity of the problem. The derogation is up for renewal in 2018, so 2017 will certainly be a challenging year for the Dutch livestock sector.