‘More space to live. Better!’ is, just like last year, the most important motto in the campaign during the Better Life week that starts today. Space has actually been the main asset of our Beter Leven quality mark for fifteen years. There are more than one and a half million cows in the Netherlands for which virtually nothing is regulated by law. Recently there are also ‘own’ criteria for dairy farming based on the Beter Leven quality mark. The first six farmers with the maximum three stars have recently joined. One of them is dairy farmer Henk Besten.
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First six dairy farmers have the maximum three stars of the Beter Leven quality mark
First six dairy farmers have the maximum three stars of the Beter Leven quality mark.

Dairy farming, like the rest of the livestock industry, is unmistakably under a magnifying glass. As a result, much of what was previously invisible suddenly appears to present itself. And that while problems as a result of scaling up in livestock farming had been known for much longer: overcrowded stables, manure surpluses and last but not least… a nitrogen problem. “I don’t have a nitrogen problem,” Henk says immediately over coffee when this subject is discussed. “My cows are outside day and night and then no ammonia is created.” The farmer explains that many of the nitrogen problems normally arise in the barn when urine and manure come together. “In a pasture, a cow will never both defecate and pee in the same place.”

Aversion to large scale

In addition, Henk Besten has an aversion to large scale. He believes that his small herd of just over twenty cows should mainly graze for his own food. In principle, what he feeds the animals in the winter, for example, comes from his own country. He doesn’t like “all that stuff that arrives in Rotterdam”. He is referring to the animal feed that is imported in gigantic quantities from South America, among other places, to feed the Dutch cow. “It does not come from our own country, it leads to soil erosion there and we are left with the manure.”

No regulation

Henk has just milked his cows and wants to get them back into the herb-rich meadow quickly. While looking at the beautiful animals, some of which are still suckling her calf, the conversation turns to the strange situation that there is actually no regulation for the sector on how to house cows. And that is no less than 97 percent of the companies. For other animal species, minimum standards have often been laid down in legislation, but strangely enough not for dairy cattle. As a result, in some barns the cubicles are now too small for, for example, the large cow that is often kept these days, or that there are simply too few cubicles for the number of cows. It also happens that there are too few places to eat. That is no fun for a herd animal like the cow; the animals do everything together. And so they prefer to rest and drink at the same time. There are regulations in this area within the Beter Leven quality mark.

Rosy picture

Dairy farming is complicated and has several barn systems. Many people have a fairly rosy view of the industry and think that cows are better off than other animals in livestock farming. Sometimes that is true, but what is often overlooked is that an average cow spends no less than ninety percent of her life in a barn. Even if she has access to a meadow part of the year. And that’s where the shoe pinches. But not with Henk Besten. The cows can roam freely in his deep-freeze barn without getting in each other’s way. “That’s important, because a lower-ranking cow must be able to avoid a higher-ranking cow,” he explains. It is also striking that his cows wear horns. Cows would of course always have those, were it not for the fact that in calves the growth is usually hindered by burning away the horn growth point. This prevents accidents between the animals themselves and in the event of possible ‘collisions’ with the farmer. Hank is not afraid of that. He has been farming organically for twenty-five years and the deep litter house was a logical choice for him. Actually, it is an old system that was already used in the Middle Ages. In principle, it is a large container into which straw is placed. The cows have complete freedom to go about their business. Henk regularly applies a new layer of bedding to keep it clean and dry. This ‘potting’ continues until the mixture of manure and straw has reached a certain height and he empties the house again.

Fonterra Cooperative Group, the world’s biggest dairy exporter, raised its earnings forecast for the second time in three months after a strong first quarter driven by demand for protein products.

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