No fertilizer and no derogation. And that on poor soil. It is not surprising that colleagues asked Joost van Middelaar (34) from Rutten the question 'What are you doing?' Yet the company has slowly been 'kneaded' towards organic.
'We maintain the nitrogen level with legumes. Soil life is always a priority for us. We plow less, because rest is the key word. Permanent herbal leys provides the most organic matter. We also make compost here from clippings from the Weerribben', says Van Middelaar.
‘A world has opened up for me, for example how to compost. But also the relationships. If you see in the trajectory of biological, you notice how many regular contacts you have. You say goodbye to them all and you start building a new network. Rented land must also be organic, for example. It is a great advantage that we are located in Flevoland. There may only be a handful of organic dairy farmers, but there are plenty of organic growers you can work with.”
The dairy farm has 100 cows and 33 hectares of land. Even by conventional standards this is quite intensive. ‘That initially prevented my father from switching to organic. Yet in his farming career he has already drastically reduced the use of fertilizers. He used few antibiotics and no chemicals. Actually, the step to organic was not that big, only in the 1990s was the sector still small. Bank and accountant slowed him down. They mainly saw risks.”
A world has opened up for me, for example how to compost
Van Middelaar joined the partnership in 2010. Slowly but surely, the step to organic became more and more logical. The milk price at the affiliated factory lagged behind. Moreover, the phosphate story turned out to be favourable. An extra push in the right direction. “We were able to downsize young stock to keep the dairy cattle at the right level.”
The company has been seeding since the 1980s clovers on the plots. ‘300 cubic meters of gas is needed to produce 1 ton of fertilizer. If you sprinkle less, you also have less of a burden on the environment. That was my father's motivation. Clover provides the soil with nitrogen and you stimulate soil life.'
Through a course from Pure Graze in 2012, the Van Middelaars learned by a third grasses, a third leguminous plants and a third herbs to sow a salad buffet for the cows. "It's the tipping point for us. Fertilizer is out of the question with this principle. We started with 4 acres for the salad buffet. Every year that has been expanded by 4 hectares to almost the entire acreage at the moment.'
The partnership has always done a lot. ‘We are on the edge of the polder, the old beach of the Zuiderzee. The sandy soil is dry in the summer, but the cows can go outside early. Our record is February 15th. Last year they were allowed to enter in mid-December, so the barn period is short.' With Fleckvieh, Holstein and Scandinavian red fur, cows were chosen that fit the sober businessmodel.
The entrepreneur saw more and more advantages of organic. "Because of economics, but ideology is just as important. Organic must suit the company, but also the people. If you do everything because of the higher milk price, it won't work.'
Van Middelaar thinks that the high land price in Flevoland prevents dairy farmers from taking the same step. It is feasible through collaboration with arable farmers. “You can grow anything here and there are plenty of organic farmers.”
The pastures where notified for conversion on April 1, 2016. The cattle half a year later. The dairy farm managed to switch in a year. Because the company calfed in the spring it seemed more profitable.
“We already met almost all the conditions. Then it's a calculation. Common food had to be sold. Organic came back for that and that is expensive. Moreover, it is not easy to take it off the market. Nobody sells their best food. The production of our cows was lower during the switchover, but with an average of 7,500 kilos per cow, we are now back to normal.'
The dairy farmer wants to calve more tightly in the future. It should be ready by the end of May. That means fertility must be in order. If the cow is not pregnant, you have to overflow or dispose of it. We hope to get the cows pregnant faster with fanatical heat detection. At the end of the insemination season, the bull joins the cows. The aim is to get the lactation curve equal to the growth curve of the grass Purchase of organic concentrates is just expensive. And grass from April, May and June is actually also concentrated feed.'