Good performance - with room for improvement

The pilot phase of the sustainability module milk was scheduled to run for three years. The first results from the farmers’ survey have already been published. Even though the results are not representative, some trends are already emerging.

In a large-scale survey, farmers throughout Germany from a total of 34 participating dairies have been systematically asked about how sustainably they produce their milk.

At the end of the pilot project phase – June 2019 – the questionnaires and responses from almost 7500 milk producers were included in an interim and final evaluation – representing about 12 percent of all German dairy farms. This has achieved a level of knowledge that is unique in Germany, permitting positive stocktaking and initial conclusions to be made, despite the fact that these results are not yet representative. This is because it was predominantly milk producers in northwest Germany that responded to the survey and their average herd sizes of 95 cows is above the national average.

Positive result: Animal husbandry - critical result: Nutrient management

The first findings from the surveys were published in the February issue of the monthly technical magazine, “top agrar”. According to the results, it was found that there were "considerable achievements" by the milk producers, but also "potential for improvement and development". The high workload and nutrient management are considered to be critical issues. The way in which farmers contribute to biodiversity is on the positive side. There were also good performances in the area of animal husbandry. Some examples in detail:

Husbandry conditions and management: 94 percent of the cows are kept in free stalls and are no longer tethered in stalls. Most farms also now have special needs areas and facilities to improve the comfort of the cows. The cow-feeding place ratio of 96 percent is also almost completely in line with the recommended values. However, almost every fifth cow (21 percent) is kept in an overcrowded barn with too many cows and not enough lying/resting places. In other areas, a lot has already been achieved in terms of animal welfare. For example, more than 90 percent of the participating farms now use painkillers or sedation in the debudding of the calves.

Biodiversity: Ecologically valuable areas, landscape elements such as hedges or trees and grassland (such as mowing pastures and meadows) play an important role in preserving biological diversity - and are widespread amongst the surveyed farms. Calculated to the agriculturally used area of all participating farms, the proportion of ecologically valuable areas and landscape elements is three percent. 40 percent of the farms cultivate part of their grassland extensively; a total of 13 percent of the grassland is subject to extensification.

Nutrient management: There is a need for improvement in the handling of liquid manure. This is because so far almost half of the farmers (47 percent) have stated that they do not know the nutrient content of their liquid manure. Moreover, only a very small proportion of liquid manure (five percent) has so far been introduced directly into the soil using special equipment, which is a method with greatly reduced emissions. The bulk of the liquid manure is still applied by spraying on top of the soil.

Workload: Plant managers worked an average of 63 hours per week. Almost two thirds (63 percent) assess their own workload as high; almost one in five (17 percent) feels permanently overstressed. 44 percent of the plant managers stated that they had neither holidays nor regular days off last year. This area is considered critical.

„The survey results will provide the basis for a discussion within the dairy on common sustainability targets in milk production.“

Dr. Hiltrud Nieberg, Thünen Institute of Farm Economics

Prospects: International learning and evaluation

The objective of the project is also to obtain throughout Germany a random sample that is as representative as possible and that allows statements to be made about the status quo of selected sustainability aspects of milk production in Germany. The implementation of the surveys is the sole responsibility of the dairies including encouraging the milk producers who have not yet submitted any data.

Since the beginning of 2019, so-called environmental analyses have been included in the overall project. Project experts and scientists look at what they can learn from sustainability activities in the Netherlands, the United States, Ireland and New Zealand for the further development of the concept. At the same time, an initial evaluation of the pilot phase of the sustainability module was carried out by the parties involved.

At the end of 2019, the project team discussed in workshops how the module can be further developed together with experts, representatives of NGOs and representatives of the value-added chain. The focus was on the criteria and their evaluation. The generated findings and suggestions will be incorporated when implementing the second project phase, which will start mid-2020.

Transparency in the dairy industry

The sustainability module milk was developed by the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics in Braunschweig, Germany, in cooperation with the project office Land und Markt in Hamburg, Germany, on behalf of QM-Milk e.V. The aim is to make the dairy industry more transparent for society, the food industry and the food trade and to identify and develop potential for the sustainable further development of milk production (for more information on previous history, see milk perspectives.