Land & Manure: The Dutch Balancing Act #Nuffield16

Picture this: 17 million people, 4 million cattle of which 1.6 million are dairy cows, 102 million chickens, 12 million pigs, 1 million sheep, 0.4 million goats and we cannot forget about the half million turkeys on a total of 5.25 million acres of land.  In all, The Netherlands is situated on an area the same size as the area of Southwestern Ontario.

‘Intensity’ is the one word the best describes the area, farm economy and people who are committed to food production in The Netherlands.  Having a broad perspective of Dutch farmers from my time working with many immigrant families in Ontario; their ideals of space, flexibility and perhaps forms of freedom are what drove them to leave the Netherlands for opportunities in Canada.  However, one common denominator is the shortage of land, I now fully understand why.

The Dutch model of farming is almost exclusively based on being the lowest cost producer, geared toward export. Typically, I think of land required for feed production, however one agribusiness professional felt in the past they had a competitive advantage in sourcing cheap feed for pork and poultry because of the water system to competitively transport feed to regionalized areas.  Now the European Union and Dutch governments environmental restrictions are increasing the cost of production of pork and poultry products, in an already competitive marketplace.

Phosphate quotas have been established to cap the number of animal units on farms, therefore extreme focus on productivity has driven some of the highest production per units in pork and poultry through focussed technical skills (more pigs/sow or eggs/hen).  However, if further growth is required it must come through the acquisition of another pork or poultry unit.  One farmer I visited purchased a 1.5ha vacant hog farm where the buildings will be demolished and a new layer unit established, thus effectively switching the nutrient quota into his specialty.

At times, the monetization and transfer of phosphate units do occur and farmers know the value of the business are linked to these units.  However, these nutrient quotas associated are far less than any Canadian quota values, but they simply are not available.  The cost base for production of poultry, layers and pork has become increasingly challenged due to the limitations of the manure.

A typically intensive pork and poultry farm may be situated on 5 to 10 acres of land, or less, all of the manure must be taken away, often at great lengths to the north, used in digesters to dispose of the manure; but there is a cost.  Given that nearly 80% of the pig manure is liquid, it is estimated that as much as €22/tonne to ship the waste manure off the farm. A turkey producer I met is spending €11/tonne, and that is dry manure.  Although some farmers are paid for their manure, they have invested heavily in separating systems or drying systems; thus adding to the overall cost of production.

Aside from the cost, the administration that comes with the manure is remarkable, can you imagine having to a complete nutrient balance sheet for your farm? All feed shipped in is tracked with GPS monitoring systems, eggs that leave the farm are reported, values nutrient values assigned to spent hens; on top of this, there are separate GPS tracking systems on both the truck and trailers to ensure the system data is linked and no loads of manure go ‘missing in action’.

For now, the dairy sectors past evolution of balanced expansion through land for feed has served them well. With their nutrient quota’s based on stocking densities of about 1 cow plus replacement, per acre. Overall, the dairy sector is slightly better positioned to deal with manure challenges.

As a Canadian farmer, I have difficulty relating; in fact it exposes my shortcomings in fully knowing the nutrients and opportunities that come as waste from the barn, fertilizer and organic matter for my crops.  In a world of increasing pressure to feed global populations it is important to remember that resources are truly finite; particularly land and water! Well, maybe not water for the Dutch.

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