Phosphate reduction plan splits Dutch dairy farmers apart

Phosphate reduction plan splits Dutch dairy farmers apart

“Dutch farmers, who are growth-oriented, are now facing the same issues as with the milk quota, but in addition, they are all dealing with a low milk price as well, because the phosphate amounts are managed nationally, while milk volumes are controlled at EU level.

“It is a disaster.”

So says the former president of the NMV Dutch dairy farmer’s association, Hans Geurts, just months into the country’s plan to reduce cow numbers in order to reduce phosphate pollution.

But it’s not all bad.

“The fact that some limits have been put on us in the Netherlands is actually good for dairy farmers all over Europe,” said Geurts, in an interview by Christine Weißenberg, published in Germany’s Unabhängige Bauernstimme independent farmers’ monthly newspaper in May.

Dutch dairy farmers are four months into implementing an urgent plan to save their permission from the EU to carry on intensive grassland farming which produces up to 250kg of nitrogen per hectare per annum from livestock manure, compared to the EU’s standard 170 kg per hectare.

The nitrogen derogation is needed to accommodate intensive production from the country’s big national dairy herd (the EU’s sixth largest).

It facilitated dairy herd expansion in 2015 and 2016, but the EU called a halt when the agreed ceiling for phosphate emissions to soils was exceeded.

This ceiling will probably be exceeded again in 2017, and in February, the European Commission approved a Dutch plan of phosphate reduction measures.

It involves removal of dairy cattle, but the Dutch dairy industry was happy to agree, to comply with the European environmental requirements, and to develop a more sustainable dairy farming sector.

Agreeing was necessary if they are to continue intensive dairy farming.

The plan provides for an annual reduction of 8.2m kilograms of phosphate by the dairy farming sector.

This should be sufficient to drop below the EU-permitted phosphate ceiling in 2017.

The plan includes cessation of farming and phosphate reduction schemes which will together reduce phosphates by 6.5m kg.

Retiring dairy farmers are being well compensated, receiving €1,200 from the government for each animal removed from the national herd, and a further €1,200 a cow for the phosphate rights that will be freed up.

The phosphate reduction scheme incentivises dairy farmers to reduce their herd to 96% of the cows and heifers they had in July 2015, when phosphate reduction plans were first proposed.

The sooner the reductions are achieved, the higher the bonus, but farmers who fail to make sufficient adjustments will pay a levy.

There will also be phosphate reductions in the feed and pig and poultry industries, but they will represent only a fraction of the dairy reductions.

The forced phosphate cullings were evident in cow slaughterings in January and February increasing 36% compared to 2016.

The first tranche of the reduction scheme was oversubscribed, resulting in a cull of more than 30,000 cows (the target is 60,000).

According to Hans Geurts, farmers will be allocated phosphate quotas in 2018, which can be traded, and will become expensive.

“Building additional stalls for significant increases in growth will become close to impossible.

“That is absolutely uneconomical, because of the additional costs incurred due to the necessary effluent- disposal certification and the phosphate quota.”

Geurts says the phosphate herd cull overshadows all other topics in Dutch farming, and has led to major disagreements between dairy farmers, some of whom faced into this year short of money after the low milk prices of 2016, and were probably hoping to recover financially by increasing milk production at this year’s improved prices.

His words were prophetic, because legal cases brought by unhappy farmers have now threatened the country’s efforts to keep hold of the EU nitrates derogation it needs for intensive dairy farming.

A court has ruled in favour of 51 farmers who challenged the government over the plan to reduce phosphate production.

This group of dairy, organic dairy and beef farmers argued that the plan would force them to sell cows, and was disproportionately unfair for them.

They had entered into irreversible financing obligations for land and buildings before July, 2015, and said they may not be able to comply with their financing obligations due to the phosphate scheme.

The court granted them dispensation from the phosphate scheme, ruling that they were unfairly affected, they could not have predicted the scheme when they expanded their businesses before July 2015, and that organic producers were not the root cause of the phosphate pollution problem on Dutch farms.

More farmers are believed to be lining up to launch similar cases.

For every farmer who wins such a case, and is exempted from the reduction plan, continuing dairy farmers will have to cut phosphate production even further, if the country is to squeeze back under its EU-stipulated ceiling for phosphate emissions to soils.

A poll of 788 Dutch dairy farmers, conducted by the Boederij magazine, has indicated that 48% were in favour, and 52% against the litigation by farmers to escape the phosphate reduction plan.

In any case, the Dutch ministry of economy has urgently appealed the court rulings, apparently basing their appeal case mostly on a belief that all Dutch dairy farmers knew that measures would be taken, if the European phosphate ceiling was exceeded in the Netherlands.

Agriculture Minister Martijn van Dam urged farmers to stick to the phosphate plan, saying it was well under way, and a large part of the goal to bring phosphate production back under the European ceiling in 2017 has already been achieved.

He urged dairy farmers to “go full speed ahead.”

The chairman of the largest dairy co-op and milk processor in the Netherlands, Friesland Campina, has urged co-op members not to go legal in a bid to escape the phosphate reduction plan.

“Continue to support the charted course and continue to act in the collective interest,” said Frans Keurentjes, who said the focus must be kept on saving the country’s 250kg nitrates derogation now and in the future.


Source: Irish Examiner

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