How Change is Working Out

Agriculture is in a process of transformation. Dairy farmers like the Mensink family and Cecile Fokkert share some of the ideas that are helping them handle the challenges.

“My wife Elly and I spend a lot of time thinking about running our dairy farm, and the future of the business. I’m now the fifth generation to run the farm and I’m proud to look back on 140 years of history. I took over the mixed farm from my father in 2001: 59 hectares of land with potatoes, beets, grass and corn fields and about 70 cows. Three years later, I sold the farming to concentrate entirely on dairy cattle farming.

At the beginning, I had 70 Holstein cows. Now I have 120, crosses of Holstein, Fleckvieh and Scandinavian red cattle and 60 young ones. cattle. On average, over a year each cows produces about 9,000 kilos of GMO-free milk with a fat content of 4.38 percent and a protein content of 3.63 percent.

Hans Mensink 51, dairy farmer from Linde, the Netherlands.

Adapting to change

In addition to the 59 hectares of land, we leased another 24 hectares, twelve of which are from a landscape conservation association. We are proud that the dairy farm offers complete access to pasture and we’ve had two milking robots since 2015. That’s our key data. But like all the other farmers out there, I am also having to adjust to major changes in agriculture. It is not easy, but I am trying to come up with some ideas of my own, especially around energy management.

I developed a real passion a few years ago for generating sustainable energy and saving energy. In 2018, I installed a good 1,100 solar modules on the roofs of the barns. In 2019, the first year, they produced about 250,000 kilowatts of electricity. I installed 300 more in 2020, which made 310,000 kilowatts that year. When it’s winter, the days are short but when they’re clear we still produce 1,000 kilowatts, and a good 2,000 in summer. As a family we consume about 100,000 kilowatts a year, operating the farm and our home. We sell the excess 210,000 kilowatts.

Succeeding through trial and error

That spurred me on of course and I got really fired up about saving energy. A year later, I installed two electric boilers and a Milk2Heat system – a Dutch invention. It’s an ingenious system for heating our home and the tap water: When the cows are freshly milked, the milk is warm, 37 degrees, and it flows directly into the milk cooling tank. Heat is released as the milk is cooled, and in the past it was just released into the air. Now though, the Milk2Heat unit extracts the residual heat from the milk during the cooling process and feeds it into the heating system. And at the same time, the unit helps cool the milk, keeping the temperature of the milk in the cooling tank at 3 degrees. So the heat is recovered and diverted for a new purpose, through a pipeline under the road. That heat comes into our home, around 50 meters from the barn. That meant we were nice and cozy in our home in February, despite the chilly weather, and the only gas we used was for cooking. Our underfloor heaters were heated with the warmth of the milk. Imagine that! For me, that’s the definition of comfort and quality of life.

“Our floor is heated by dairy cows!”

The joy of saving energy

Now, both the dairy farm and our home are energy-neutral, and in addition to milk, I also supply electricity. That’s a real advantage because it’s another source of income alongside the cows and it requires very little work. It makes economic sense, the combination of subsidies and generating your own electricity, even if as a major consumer of electricity you generate yourself, you can’t just feed it back into the grid and charge for it. You won’t get rich from it, but at least it’s something.

My wife says that she constantly spots me checking the energy app to see how the solar panels are doing. I just really enjoy seeing this power we’ve generated ourselves!

Saving time through sustainability

I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of energy management. Right now, new projects would just cost too much money. It isn’t worth it. But I already have another idea: I’m looking for an efficient and convenient way to cover the roughage in the silos. What I’ve got in mind is an automatic system that can be operated remotely, covering the roughage with a tarp. There would be a rolled-up tarpaulin that’s pulled over the roughage and the system would pull the tarp back a bit to release the forage. Our investments in robots, sustainable energy and maybe sometime soon in this system all serve to make life more comfortable. Elly and I don’t want to just work all day long. We want to have time to live and take care of our children and grandchildren. If that can be done in a way that is sustainable – so much the better.”

Cecile Fokkert, 23, young farmer from Holthone, the Netherlands.

“We are a real family business. My mother is the calf expert, and my uncle and father milk the cows. When he is milking, my uncle knows exactly which cow he is dealing with and the composition of her milk. He also makes sure that everything is in order in the barn and everywhere else. We do our milking with a 30-cow indoor milking carousel and have 135 hectares of land, most of it rented: 80 percent is grassland and 20 percent is corn. Our 250 cows produce 10,500 liters of GMO-free milk annually.

With farming as a profession, you need a strong inner determination in order to meet the challenges of modern agriculture. How do we want to work in the future? What kind of image should agriculture have? What can we do about that, specifically? I myself would like to work with my head as well as my hands. That is why the versatility of farming suits me so well – your head needs to come up with plans and your hands need to solve problems. One major issue is consumers.

I first encountered DOC Kaas as a child. I went along to the cheese dairy and saw these beautiful wheels of cheese. Why don’t they just put them on shelves like that? Why do consumers know so little about how good our products are and how they are made? I decided that had to change. I started working on our cooperative’s Young Farmers Committee in late 2018. We have already achieved a lot, but I think that we need to be more visible to the public and share our opinions and our passion. I’d really like to show consumers the traditional aspects of the farm but in a modern way. To share our passion with people, give them a piece of cheese and also a taste of real farm life.

“You need a strong inner determination!”

There’s so much tradition in agriculture. My grandfather originally kept pigs and cows on a small farm in Den Ham. In 1991, he and my grandma, my parents and my uncle all moved here to Holthone. It was a practical farm, earning money from the cows, with paid employees carrying out tests. My grandfather was a man of few words, but he knew exactly what he wanted. He stayed here and kept running the farm with 80 cows and built a new barn for the young cattle behind the other buildings. Later, my father and uncle Gert built another barn and the milking parlor. They rebuilt the feed store and expanded the livestock. Everyone in our family loves their job. We all work together, nothing works without team spirit. In the future, if I can give people a true image of agriculture, then I’ll have achieved a lot.”

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