The Climate Among Farmers

Environmental standards are at the top of politicians’ agendas. For farmers, all this spells new constraints as well as more support. They shared how the situation is shaping up for them.
“Brave steps are needed.”

Patrick Witte

Dairy farmer Patrick Witte has 120 cows on his farm in North Rhine Westphalia, in Germany. He assumes that the farm will be forced to embrace new areas of business in the future. “Our last major acquisition was a feeding robot, which was important as we had to replace our feed mixer truck and we wanted to optimize our work processes. Now our smart assistant makes sure the animals receive many small combinations of feed throughout the day, which makes for more peace and quiet in the barn. We also benefit from a bit more flexibility in our daily routine, as we can fill the storage bunkers once or twice a day, depending on the weather. Our whole family works together to manage the farm and when we look ahead to the future, our feelings are pretty mixed, to be honest. We wish that politicians, retailers and processors in Germany would all stand by the regulations in future and also impose them on anyone who wants to export goods to Germany as well. At the same time, we face an enormous economic challenge on our farm, as the milk money does not balance out what we pay for feed for yield and compensatory feed. However, we see ourselves as a strong family and hope to pass on this beautiful farm to the coming generations. Agriculture needs to open up to new areas of business, which means some brave steps will be needed.”


“You really can’t make any major progress.”

Henning Lefert

Farmer Henning Lefert looks after 120 cows at his farm in North Rhine Westphalia. Grappling with high lease payments and new regulations, he worries about the rising costs for dairy farmers. “Our two milking robots were an important investment. They enable us to organize our day more freely without being tied down by fixed milking times, and it improves our quality of life as a family. We also had the yard paved at the same time, so things look pretty smart round here now. Looking back, I don’t know if I’d be able to lay out the same sums today as I did back then. You can’t really make any major progress at the moment. Every day I pray that I won’t get any massive bills in the mail, and that the machines won’t break down. The high rent makes it really hard to run the business. If I had leased everything then and gone to back to work, I would have more money today. I take a sporting view of the standards for agriculture – it’s a challenge you have to face. If I let things slip for too long, then it takes time to get caught up again. When I’m cleaning out the barn, I like to think about ways forward.”

“We definitely want to continue being farmers.”

Luuk und Stijn Fox

Brothers Luuk and Stijn Fox live in Lattrop, the Netherlands, and will be the fifth generation of dairy farmers on their family farm. Despite many challenges, the 19-year-old and 17-year-old are optimistic about the farm’s future. “We try to make sure we don’t need to call out the veterinarian as far as possible – keeping our 105 Holstein cows in the best possible health is really important to us. That’s why we have a pasture behind the barn for the animals to move around freely after calving, it gets them used to fresh air. We give our animals feed that is free of genetically modified organisms. And we use fresh bedding in the cubicles for better hoof health, a mixture of straw, lime and water. We also focus on sustainability on our farm and we have a solar system on the roof. We both know that we want to take over the farm, though one thing is still unclear: There’s a nature reserve that’s part of the EU’s Natura2000 network of areas to protect endangered plants and animal species alongside the farm. If the reserve expands, we wouldn’t be able to extend the farm. Then it would be harder for us to make further investments like low-emission flooring, the bank wouldn’t help us, as the farm would have lost value. We will know more next year. We definitely want to continue being farmers, it’s why we started studying at the Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Dronten. We’ll see what happens after we graduate.”

“Care pays off.”

Hein Verhoef

The Dutch have a special system to assess cattle welfare. Hein Verhoef’s dairy farm in the province of Gelderland gets high marks for the way calves are raised. “Our farm is divided into two parts. Our cows live on one site and on the other, we raise the calves once they are six months old. When they’re born, they’re initially kept in igloos out in the open, rather than being housed in the young cattle barn. That may not sound practical but the advantage is that keeping different age groups separate reduces the risk of spreading disease. Once they are six months old, we move them to the new location. That means they can get used to each other and they are fed the same food which helps them grow at a similar rate and prevents too much difference in terms of size. We also start out early using doses of colostrum, the milk the cows first produce after calving that is extremely nutrient-rich and promotes animal welfare. We set up a whiteboard in the tank room to show the calves’ feeding times and quantities. This care pays off – for my farm at least. The calves are bigger than average and our loss rate is low. And in terms of our rating, we get 4.5 out of 5 possible points when it comes to how we raise the young animals. The assessment covers nutrition, housing, animal welfare and calves. Everything has to be clean and the animals’ health is the most important thing.”

“We are fighting for our future.”

Hermann Birkenhake

Hermann Birkenhake’s farm in North Rhine Westphalia has been family-owned for more than 500 years. He is frustrated about the requirements farms face. “Our cows’ welfare is very close to our hearts. We significantly expanded the space where we keep our animals over the past few years, providing deep-litter straw, fans and an outdoor exercise yard. We also built a new calf barn and a moveable silo facility. You can only ask the cows to give their best if you provide the best possible conditions. We’re facing a lot of demands from politicians, retail and society and we dairy farmers cannot afford it anymore. The situation is really difficult due to the low milk prices over the past few years. Right now, the raw material supplier gets the very least in the whole value chain. Farms will die out even faster if the milk price doesn’t improve and stay higher in the future. Every cent goes into keeping the family farm going. We are fighting for our future.”

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