How sustainable is milk production at the farms? This is a question increasingly asked by the industry, trade and consumers. The sustainability module milk allows dairies and the farmers who supply them, for the first time to present a resilient answer. The Uelzena Group has discussed this project.
For quite some time now, larger and internationally operating dairy companies have established their own programs for sustainable milk production. However, there was no industry-spanning, comprehensive and at the same time practical solution for all dairies in Germany. While the QM Milk scheme has provided for reliably high quality products and safety standards in milk production since 2013, classical questions on sustainability have not really been in the focus of QM Milk.
The new sustainability module is now closing this gap. This is an important step for the milk industry towards more compatibility and transparency: Processors, the retail trade, consumers and NGOs including animal welfare associations on national and international levels are interested in learning about how animals are kept at the farms and which resources are used for livestock farming.
Criteria and assessment
The sustainability module is composed of many different questions addressed at milk producing farmers. The questions come from the fields of ecology, economy, animal welfare and social issues. For example: What is the ratio between the number of cows and the number of existing lying and feeding places? How satisfied have you been with the economical situation over the last three years? How high is the percentage of extensively farmed grassland amongst permanent grassland? How much has the farm invested in the modernization of milk production within the last five years? In total the questions cover more than 60 criteria. Most have to be ticked and data entered, but there are also some open text fields.
Milk producing farmers answer these questions on their own. The questionnaires can be filled in on paper or online. A web-based database supports systematic data collection and evaluation. In principle, this module is intended to be a voluntary self-assessment and not another audit. The module predominantly aims at creating transparency and starting a continuous learning and development process within the industry. Privacy and anonymity of the individual companies has high priority. The use of data follows strict contractually agreed rules.
Industry-wide comparable data
The central element of the module is a system that evaluates the answers of the farmers. The information is assessed on a four-point scale: especially good, good, sufficient and unfavorable. This classification of performance illustrates the possible strengths and weaknesses of the respective companies and farmers and encourages further development. However, the module expressly does not claim to deliver a sustainability evaluation for the entire company. Therefore, no points or scores are awarded.
This is the first time that dairies will receive systematical and sustainability relevant information from their farmers. This will enable the dairies to inform their customers and also the public in an anonymous-based yet fact-based manner about the sustainability of their milk production. They can analyze strengths and weaknesses, compare themselves with other dairies and thus develop approaches for changes and improvements.
Thorough discussion process
In several workshops and by way of project teams, the criteria and the assessment system of the module were defined, discussed and agreed upon. Between April 2015 and February 2016, the intensive work program and dialogue process - headed by Prof. Dr. Nieberg of the Thünen Institute - took place under involvement of many different stakeholders: dairies, dairy farms, professional associations, environmentalists, animal welfare campaigners, scientists, the food trade and food industry; sometimes with their completely different ideas and points of view.
The supporting organizations of the module were the German Dairy Association, the German Raiffeisenverband, the German Farmer’s Federation and the QM Milk association, which specifies and monitors the quality standards in milk production. The Thünen Institute for Farm Economics controlled the development of the module and provided scientific expertise for the project.
New: Start of pilot phase
Early in 2016 the theoretical concept of the modules was drafted. The implementation into practice will officially start in 2017. 34 dairies and their farmers will start with applying the module on a farm level. The Uelzena eG is amongst them. It is a pilot project with a three year term that is supported by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture based on a resolution of the German Bundestag. Data collection is scheduled to start at Uelzena eG and the member companies in mid 2017 within a period of three months. The first evaluation of dairies is expected to be available in the first months of 2018.