Milk perspectives

How sustainable is the milk produced on the farms? This question is increasingly posed by consumers, retail and even the industry in recent years. For the first time, dairies and their farmers have a reliable answer from the QM Dairy Sustainability Tool. Project facts and details.

FFor a long time now, major and internationally operative dairy groups have been creating their own programs for sustainable milk production. However, there hasn’t yet been an industry-wide, comprehensive and practical solution for all dairies in Germany. Although the QM Milk system reliably ensured high quality and safety standards in milk production, it only partially addressed classic sustainability issues.

This gap is filled by the QM Dairy Sustainability Tool. For the dairy industry, the tool is an important measure of competitiveness, resource efficiency, and transparency: Processors, retail, consumers and NGOs such as animal welfare associations are increasingly interested, nationally and internationally, in the conditions animals are kept in on the farms and how natural resources such as soil or biodiversity are managed.   

Criteria with evaluation approaches

The sustainability tool addresses many different questions directed at dairy farmers, which relate to the fields of the environment, economy, animal welfare and society. For example: What is the ratio between the number of cows and the available resting/feeding areas? How happy are you with the economic situation in the past three years? What is the percentage of extensively cultivated grassland based on permanent grassland? And how much has the farm invested in the modernisation of milk production in the past five years? The criteria catalogue of the pilot project phase covered around 84 criteria; most of these required ticking and data input, but there were also some free text fields.

Dairy farmers answered the questions on their own, often based on existing documentation. The questionnaire can be completed on paper or online. A web-based database provided support for the systematic data collection and evaluation. The tool is fundamentally designed as a form of voluntary self-disclosure. Above all, the tool aims to create transparency and set in progress an ongoing learning and development process across the sector. High importance is attached to data protection and anonymity of the individual businesses to third parties, and the data collected is used in accordance with strict contractual regulations.

See also: Expert panel and discussion on the sustainability module

Data comparable across the industry

A core component of the tool is a system that evaluates the farmers’ responses. The statements are assessed using a four-point scale: particularly good, good, satisfactory and unfavourable. This performance classification is intended to show the respective farmers and agricultural holdings how they compare with other farms with regard to their strengths and weaknesses and encourage them to further develop. For this purpose, the participants receive individual farm reports of the results, referred to as benchmarks. These compare the results of the individual farm with those of all the surveyed milk producers.

This provides dairies, for the first time, with systematic sustainability data from their milk suppliers, which in turn, enables them to advise their customers and the public, in anonymised form, about sustainability aspects of milk production. Dairies and milk producers can also jointly analyse the identified strengths and weaknesses, thereby developing approaches for improvement.

Positive conclusion of the pilot phase

During the pilot phase of the sustainability module from June 2017 to June 2020, this sustainability survey was completed by almost 7500 milk producers for their dairies across Germany. This equates to about 12 percent of all milk-producing companies in Germany. Out of the member cooperatives of the Uelzena Group, 443 milk producers have already answered the questionnaire, which is just over half of all producers.

QM Dairy Sustainability Tool 2.0 – the project continues

July 2020 was the starting date for the next project phase, which was self-funded by the participating dairies. The majority of the dairies from the pilot phase and a few additional dairies will be using the improved dairy sustainability tool. The questionnaire was also updated. For instance, additional question and answer categories were included and some questions deleted, in part due to customer requests. Several of the criteria evaluations were adjusted based on the latest scientific findings and the results of workshops with multiple stakeholders. Workshops at the end of 2019 involved representatives from various sections of the milk value chain as well as scientists, consultants and representatives from NGOs, agricultural associations and the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Development and chronology of the sustainability module

Intensive industry exchange

In several workshops and with project teams, the criteria and the assessment system of the module were scientifically defined, discussed and agreed upon.  Between April 2015 and February 2016, the intensive work schedule and dialogue process - headed by Prof. Dr. Nieberg of the Thünen Institute - took place with the 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. In mid-2016 the theoretical concept of the modules was drafted. QM Milk e.V. financially supports this process.

Also on board: Science

The sustainability module milk is a joint project of science and practice. The association QM Milch e.V., which defines and verifies the quality standards for milk production in Germany, with its supporting associations Milchindustrieverband, Raiffeisenverband and Deutscher Bauernverband, as well as the project office Land und Markt and the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics are involved in this project. The Thünen Institute controls the drafting and further development of the module and provides scientific expertise for the project.

Time period: 2017 – 2020

The practical implementation of the first project phase began in 2017: 34 dairies and their farmers started applying the module at the farm level, including the Uelzena Group. Nationwide implementation was designed as a three-year pilot project, finishing in June 2020. The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture financially supported the project based on a resolution of the German Federal Parliament. By mid-2020, data from almost 7500 milk producers had been entered in the evaluations. Since most of these milk producers are located in northwest Germany, the evaluations are not yet representative of the entire country. The nationwide results were collected and evaluated in 2020. A final evaluation was carried out explicitly for the Uelzena Group, giving the first findings from which recommended actions can be derived.

Time period: 2020 – 2023

The sustainability module milk started its second project phase in mid-2020 and is scheduled for a further three years. The Thünen Institute and QM Milch e.V. are once again project partners of the follow-up project, providing support when it comes to data management, and processing and evaluating the results. They are also responsible for the entire project organisation, coordination and communication. A total of 27 dairies and milk-producing organisations will be taking part nationwide. The participating dairy companies are using their own funds to finance the follow-up project in accordance with a developed financing model.

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