Sustainable dairy farming
The better we treat our cows, the better their quality of life, the more milk they will produce, and the fewer infections or diseases they will contract. This basic principle has long been paramount for us, which is why we are continually striving to make our dairy farming more sustainable,
using KoeKompas’ annual audit – the quality system that maps animal health, animal welfare and possible risks in dairy farming – as our guide.
optimalisation between livestock and arable farming
Animals are an important part of any healthy, balanced ecosystem. Extensive specialisation in agriculture has resulted in a division between livestock and arable farming. As a result, the balance between minerals, organic matter and soil biodiversity has been lost.
The (re)introduction of grazing animals is often described as one of the most efficient regenerative practices. Requiring less supplementary feeding, they affectively act as living ‘compost makers’, mulching straw and crop residues into the soil as they step over it. In addition, the manure they produce is a great source of organic matter, minerals and a wide variety of fungi and bacteria. These all help promote biodiversity within the soil, while also improving its water retention capacity.
At VP Landbouw, we are researching the ideal mix between regenerative arable and livestock farming. A number of hurdles need to be overcome in terms of livestock housing. As a result, the current barn system is under scrutiny. This in turn has an effect on the arable farming plan. The consequence of clearing pasture for young cattle is that there are fewer usable fields for arable crops, which also affects crop rotation.
Even if we strive towards a more plant-based diet across society, we will continue depleting the soil to grow our crops, meaning the soil will need to be fed and restored. Cow manure remains a good source of the nutrients required to do so.
VP Landbouw is a land-based company. This means that we use all the manure produced by our cows on our own land to grow food for livestock and cultivate arable crops.
In fact, the current supply of manure from our own cows is too limited for the size of our fields, meaning we have to source extra manure from elsewhere.
Additional manure is supplied by other local livestock farmers. In exchange, we grow maize for these farmers, which in turn helps them feed their own cows. With these livestock farmers supplying the manure we require, they constitute an ideal local solution to our manure shortage. Thanks to this pragmatic model, we are able to purchase less artificial fertiliser. We are maximising the use of locally produced, manure, thereby creating a small manure cycle.
VP Landbouw is taking many initiatives to reduce its CO2 emissions. Besides our already operational solar installations, we have been granted a permit to build a solar farm on our field next to the De Braacken orchard. While our milk is cooled using efficient engines, we have a heat recovery system already in place, along with fuel-efficient tractors.
The emissions we cannot avoid, we compensate by purchasing certified carbon credits through CO2 logic. VP Landbouw has been awarded the label of CO2 Neutral Company by CO2 logic.
Nitrogen / ammonia
Barn 2 was made fully low-emission in 2021, meaning less ammonia is escaping from the barn. Thanks to its special grate floor, urine and manure are removed faster, both collected in sealed wells in order to minimise the level ammonia escaping. Another great advantage of this type of floor is the rubber top coating, which serves to significantly improve the walking comfort of our cows. We are currently investigating whether we can switch to a completely separate system for urine and manure with our other barn (Barn 1).
Methane (gas emitted by cows)
We are currently awaiting feed additives that will help reduce methane emissions. While these additives are still in development, we are already trying to keep methane emissions to a minimum through our cows’ diet. However, this is difficult to control, as all cows are unique, each with their own specific needs.
Food and water
While we do need to buy some of the concentrates and minerals for our cow feed, the rest is grown on our own fields. In 2021, we also began cultivating our own protein-rich crops, namely field beans, as well as extra clover in the grasslands. Straw and grain are also still produced on the farm.
Rations are carefully balanced, meeting protein and energy requirements while providing an optimal supply of minerals and vitamins. This is why our cows are so fit and healthy!
We have our own source of drinking water on the farm that is regularly tested by the government’s health monitoring institute.
Milk checks are carried out every six weeks to test whether the cows have received the correct nutrients. Furthermore, we also conduct cell counts – an indication of germs within the milk – to spot any diseases or infections, while also assessing the calcium and fat content, along with the level of production for each cow.
Dairy cow accommodation
Throughout its history, VP Landbouw has always been progressive when it comes to accommodating its livestock. All our barns are free stalls, which not only promotes walking and resting behaviour, but also results in greater cow cleanliness. Cleaner cows means fewer infections, as well as stress-free, quick milking.
Rotary milking parlour
Currently, our cows are milked twice a day in a rotary milking parlour (carousel). This is an efficient way of working, resulting in a high capacity per employee. The cows are housed in four groups and stay for as short a time as possible in the waiting area, allowing them to quickly return to their barn or to pasture. This system is therefore beneficial for both animals and humans alike.
All our barns meet the latest fire safety requirements, with additional fire extinguishers and an extra fire pit. A cattle barn is also less susceptible to fire than those found on intensive livestock farms.
Barn 1, which houses cows and young cattle, was built in 1994. We are committed to making this low-ammonia by 1 January 2024, while we also need to replace the grates and barn furniture. As mentioned in our transition story, we plan to make further renovations to this barn in 2023. In addition to meeting emission requirements, we are also specifically aiming to improve our cows’ overall level of comfort. In addition, we are investigating the possibility of separating the manure for optimal use in our vegetable cultivation.
KoeKompas is a quality assurance system measuring animal health, animal welfare and any potential risks in dairy farming. We use their annual audit as a guide for future practices.
The audit considers the following indicators:
Barn floor area and comfort
In our barns, the average available floor area per cow or calf is currently greater than the minimum required by current welfare standards. We provide each animal with 10m² of space, with those in the deep-litter barns each benefiting from 15m². The floors are 90% closed and adequately equipped.
Average animal life expectancy
At VP Landbouw, our cows’ mortality rate is decreasing year on year, with deaths we are still seeing caused by heat stress, slippery floors and other accidents. Each year, we take steps towards eradicating these causes.
We have already made improvements, as suggested by KoeKompas, including incorporating cow brushes and automatic drinking machines. These contribute to the comfort and wellbeing of both the animals and our employees. Heat stress has been significantly reduced through new dripping and fogging systems in Barn 1. The barn was also fitted with solar panels, reducing the level of solar radiation. Barn 2 is already well insulated. Lastly, the grids are now lined with rubber to prevent any slipping-related injuries.
Older cows, who have become used to standing inside, cannot be put in a meadow all of a sudden, as they are not accustomed to that way of grazing and roaming. As such, it is important that we introduce outside grazing gradually from an early age. Since June 2022, cows under the age of 2 have started grazing outside. One group is formed of young cattle, while another is made up of what are known as ‘dry cattle’. This dry period is almost like some sort of cow maternity leave, during which lactation temporarily halts, the udders are rested, and milking cannot take place. Given that they do not have to be milked every day, they are not bound to the milking schedule and are free to go outside.
We are still working out the specific requirements to make outside grazing a possibility. We want the dairy cows to graze close to the barn, while young cattle and dry cattle can graze a little further afield.
Animal welfare and comfort standards
Since 2018, we have been taking part in the Continuous Animal Health Monitor (CDM), also known as Koedata. Our latest score was 98% (with the minimum set at 70%). This audit provides insight into the health of animals on any dairy farm. Each quarter, changes in eleven key figures on individual farms are compared with national averages. This provides dairy farmers and veterinarians with an insight into the development of animal health on a dairy farm based on objective, national data.