A huge national dairy herd cull in the Netherlands since 2016 has brought the country’s runaway phosphate production from livestock manure under control.
Provisional figures released by Statistics Netherlands indicate that between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2018, the number of dairy cows had declined by more than 190,000 — or by 11%.
The number of calves, weanlings, and heifers declined by more than 300,000, or 25%.
Nearly 600 out of approximately 16,000 dairy farms in the Netherlands closed down.
As a result, phosphate emitted in the Dutch livestock sector last year fell to 160.7 million kg, which is more than 12m kg below the country’s national phosphate ceiling of 172.9m kg.
It was the second consecutive year of emission under the phosphate ceiling set by the EU’s Nitrates Directive.
In 2015, the Dutch government started negotiating with the European Commission on how to reduce its agricultural phosphate pollution.
It was also under pressure from its own Dutch environmentalists, who said the Government did nothing to control milk production after the EU milk quota was scrapped in 2015, even though they knew the environmental consequences.
In 2017, a phosphate reduction plan was agreed with the EU. In 2017, dairy farms were forced to dispose of dairy cows and female yearlings.
The phosphate reduction plan included implementation of tradable phosphate rights on January 1, 2018.
Dutch dairy farmers have estimated that they have to pay €8,000 for phosphate rights to milk one extra cow, on top of extra costs such as buildings, etc.
The plan has also reduced the content of phosphorous in compound dairy cow feed by more than 4%, from 4.3 to 4.1 grams per kg of compound feed, between 2016 and 2018.
In 2018, the phosphorus content of grass and maize was also at lower levels than in years previously.
In 2015, total phosphorus production in livestock manure in the Netherlands was estimated at 103.6m kg from cattle; 40.1m kg from pigs; 28.3m kg from poultry; and another 8m kg from other livestock.
In the dairy sector, it fell to 9% below the 2018 ceiling, but rose slightly in beef cattle.
Phosphorus production by pigs has declined to 37.3m kg in 2018, attributed to a small decrease in the number of fattening pigs.
Pig farmers were encouraged to switch to feed with lower phosphorus content, which has also helped to bring phosphate production below the allowed ceiling.
But in 2018, phosphorus production had risen by 4% in egg-producing poultry and nearly 10% in the Dutch meat poultry sector.
Total phosphorus from poultry was just over 1% above the allowed ceiling in 2018. In 2018, there was also a decline in nitrogen excretion from livestock manure in the Netherlands, but it still slightly exceeded the allowed national nitrogen ceiling.
Despite the changes, the Dutch milk supply was estimated last year to have has fallen only by 1.5%.
This is explained by the Statistics Netherlands that average milk production per dairy cow has grown from about 8,300 kg in 2016 to 8,850 kg in 2018, despite feeding more grass and feed concentrates, while reducing the forage maize cultivation area.
Grass and concentrates contain up to three times more nitrogen than forage maize; hence total nitrogen emissions have barely decreased despite the reduction in the national dairy herd.
Last September, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan told a dairy conference in Dublin that the Netherlands is “a cautionary example”, when he said a more sustainable foundation is needed, and Ireland and all other EU states must get the balance right under the Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive.