Cow Power - Stepping stones towards sustainable livestock husbandry

Is a new way of thinking the solution to a sustainable dairy farming? The Dutch Minister of Agriculture has declared that livestock husbandry in the Netherlands should be 100% sustainable by 2023. One of the initiatives to support this ambition is the Cow Power project.

In interaction with livestock farmers, trade, industry and policy makers, the Animal Sciences Group of Wageningen UR, has within this Cow Power project produced designs for four completely new husbandry systems that will contribute to making Dutch dairy husbandry sustainable.

Maarten Vrolijk, researcher in sustainable animal husbandry at the Wageningen UR, explains: “For a long time there have been more and more concerns about sustainability in dairy farming in the Netherlands and Western Europe. We have managed to boost production and milk yields with strong cows, but we still have animal welfare issues and environmental issues to deal with. So we started on this journey towards an integrated sustainability project”.


Maarten Vrolijk, WUR

Believe in a sustainable future

They are convinced that there is a possibility of a sustainable future with a dairy husbandry where cows have a high-quality life, where farmers make a good living, a husbandry that cares for the environment and also caters for the consumers’ wishes. But achieving this requires a turn-around in thinking and acting -a system innovation that challenges some of the old standards and practices.

The four Cow Power designs have been developed through taking a good look at the needs and wishes of the stakeholders: the cow, the farmer, the environment and the consumer.

“These lists of requirements are the stepping stones towards an integrated sustainable production,” says Maarten Vrolijk. Fully aware that there are many differences between farmers, and that they work under different conditions, he emphasizes that these designs are not blue-prints. “These designs are not trying to tell you what to do but rather to make you think about it. To see what aspects you can combine to increase sustainability on your farm”.

As a result from the Cow Power system design, 20 dairy farmers together with the researchers, look at how these efforts can be combined and to see which parts of the system they can put into practice. “Not all parts are possible at the moment. For example the separation of manure from urine, where the technical solution is not available yet on farm scale,” says Maarten Vrolijk. “But there are other parts, e.g. having herds without a stable which can be done tomorrow”.

The investment is a challenge

The challenge, according to Maarten Vrolijk, is not to get enough farmers to see the opportunities in this. But rather to convince them to invest, as these new designs are not yet tested and therefore includes a financial risk. “A dairy farmer who is willing to invest in this either wants to lower the risk or have a guarantee from the society. This is a critical point. A lot of citizens want to put money in this, but there is still a gap between the dairy farmers and the consumers. And it is not only about buying the dairy products. The legislation from the government needs to change to make these system innovations possible. Today we have rules that are reflecting yesterday’s dairy farming”.

Can this system innovation approach be used in other countries, and under other circumstances?

Maarten Vrolijk’s answer is yes. But context is important, even in the Netherlands there are many different contexts in the dairy business. And if you look at Western Europe there are even bigger differences. “If you look at it on a global level, Cow Power might not be the only solution, but parts of it can be used worldwide to improve sustainability,” says Vrolijk.

This is not a blue-print

“We are not saying that the Dutch dairy industry will look like this in 2023. But it is a way forward and if we combine efforts we can create an integrated sustainable milk production, the Wageningen researcher concludes”.



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Monica Wadsworth

Monica Wadsworth
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