In the Netherlands stipulations about phosphate levels and rising farmland prices means more farmers are having to find a second income rather than expand. Katie Jones finds out how automation is helping some farmers with this.
In order to divide his time between his agricultural construction company, and the family farm, Arnold Van Dorp says he needed to invest in labour-saving technology.
Up until 2010 Mr Van Dorp was milking cows conventionally at the family’s existing family farm set-up near the town of Hazerswoude dorp in the west of the Netherlands.
Mr Van Dorp explains: “My parents started with 50 cows on 30 hectares in 1983, and it was very much a traditional Dutch farm with tie barns.
“I knew from an early age I wanted to be a dairy farmer, but I also wanted something of my own, so I started my own construction business in 2000.”
At the same time, quota was bought which allowed the herd to expand to 130 cows, with youngstock reared away from the farm.
However, in 2010 the decision was made to build a new farm set-up across the road from the original farm buildings.
At the same time, the family made the decision to stop investing in land, which Mr Van Dorp says was becoming too expensive, and instead invest in improving their production capacity.
“We wanted to be sustainable for the future, and knew to be able to do that we would have to produce more milk with what land we had,” says Mr Van Dorp.
The 210 cows currently produce just short of 3m kg of milk per year off 52ha (128 acres).
However, Mr Van Dorp says this intensive system does throw up a number of challenges.
“We buy in 60-70 per cent of our feed in the form of corn silage and concentrates, and utilise our own grass silage for the rest of the feed requirements,” he says.
The country’s phosphate regulations means Mr Van Dorp is only able to spread 50 per cent of the farm’s manure on his land. The rest is exported at a cost of 9.5€/tonne to nearby arable farms.
The phosphate regulations have also had an impact on herd numbers, with the farm over-producing after the 2015 limits were set.
“We have the capacity for 300 cows, but only have phosphate rights for the 210 we are currently milking,” he says.
“So we are planning to sell our youngstock and start buying in fresh heifers rather than rearing our own. This will allow us to milk another 36 cows.
“This will mean we can fill our most expensive shed – the milking shed – as we have to maximise our production in it.”
The four Lely milking robots in the facility mean Mr Van Dorp can fit his off-farm work around coming into the milking shed in the morning and evening to fetch cows which have not visited the robot and clean the beds.
As well the robotic milkers the farm also has three robotic manure scrapers, and a feed pusher.
“I employ someone to be here every day for things like AI and foot trimming and I farm at the weekends and at either end of the day,” Mr Van Dorp says. “I need to be able to maximise production with the least amount of labour as possible.”
With three sons all interested in farming, it was important that Jan and Lineke Aantjes were able to set their family farm up for the next generation.
The farm in Bonrepas, south Holland, was bought by the Aantjes family in 1982, and back then the 25ha (62 acres) supported 40 cows.
The aim was to gradually increase numbers and in December 2011 were milking 70 cows through a herringbone parlour in the original shed built when the farm was bought.
Son Arco says: “We had to take the next step to allow everyone to be involved in the farm, so we decided to stay on this farm and increase the shed space to accommodate 140 cows and youngstock under one roof.”
With it being virtually impossible to buy land nearby, the family had to maximise production from the 48ha (119 acres) now farmed.
“There’s probably work for 1.5 men full-time here now, but there’s four of us, so we all work here part-time and all have jobs off the farm”, explains Arco, who works in engineering.
The new shed was built in 2011 at a cost of around €1.3 million and includes two robotic milkers and an automatic feeding system.
“The technology we have on the farm means we can all see what is going on on the farm via apps on our phone,” Arco says.
“For example, we can all see what is being fed, what is being milked and which cows are coming into heat.
“Each morning we will check this information before coming onto the farm to do our routine jobs.”
Eight years on from this massive investment, Arco explains they are milking 135 cows with an average yield of 10,500kg at 4.3 per cent butterfat and 3.6 per cent protein.
“Our average milk yield has gone up about 2,500kg compared to when we were milking cows in the old barn,” he says.
“We are now much more efficient, the cows are in a better environment and have a continuous supply of fresh feed.”