Here’s what farmers have already done to reduce nitrogen

The province of Brabant released 45 million euros from the government last week to make the barns much cleaner. It gives farmers a better chance to continue their business, but: no guarantee. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking because the first farmers who sign up to invest in the future get the most money. But which farmers still trust innovation? It’s not like they’ve been sitting still in recent decades.

In these uncertain times, farmers are now being asked to invest in their business. Extra money is available to the quick decision maker to entice the farmers to make a quick choice. The investment in innovative techniques does not guarantee that this farmer can continue farming.

It is not the first time that livestock farmers in particular have been asked to work more environmentally friendly. Agricultural organizations defend that the emission of nitrogen in agriculture has already been reduced by 66 percent in the past 30 years. That’s true, but that reduction has almost stalled over the past 15 years. The reason is that the first nitrogen-limiting measures are easy to take, then it becomes more difficult.

Compare that to lowering your energy bill. This can be done simply by taking a shorter shower, lowering the thermostat by two degrees and replacing all lamps with LED lighting. Once you’ve done this, cutting even more becomes more complicated and painful.

Nitrogen emissions have been stagnant for years (source: RIVM)
Nitrogen emissions have been stagnant for years (source: RIVM)

Here’s what farmers have done to tackle nitrogen emissions:

Crew size
With a smaller livestock, there is less nitrogen emission. Dairy cows produce the most nitrogen. The size of the Dutch domestic animal is quite unpredictable. This is due to regulations, such as the introduction of the milk quota from 1984 and the phosphate rules from 2018, which limit growth. This resulted in livestock farmers having to scale back or stop. Sometimes a rule was abolished again, milk quota 2015 and cattle were bought.

In addition, diseases also play a role in sudden declines, such as swine fever in 1997 and Q fever in goats in 2007. Millions of animals have been killed as a result.

The amount of livestock in the Netherlands (source: CBS)
The amount of livestock in the Netherlands (source: CBS)

Resourceful with fertilizer
Fertilization is a headache for many farmers. Because this is the biggest culprit of nitrogen in nature, countless measures have been devised to limit the amount or use it smartly. For example, fertilizer is not spread everywhere, but sprayed into the soil. When injected, less ammonia disappears into the air or surface water.

Another trick to reduce the impact of manure is to dilute it with water to reduce ammonia emissions on clay and peat soils. Meanwhile, regulations were put in place that forced poultry farmers, pig farmers and dairy farmers to shrink or at least not expand. For fewer animals means less fertilizer.

And considerable administration must be maintained. How much manure is produced, how much is used and how much is left. Fertilizer surplus must be treated, which of course costs money. Fertilizer must also not be stored just like that, but must be covered to prevent it from spreading through the air.

Necessary to grow grass
Since the end of 2019, farmers are sometimes forced to grow ‘after crops’. Follow-on crops are intended to absorb excess fertilizer in the soil. Corn is a plant that needs a lot of fertilizer to grow. There is a good chance that there will still be a lot of manure in the soil after harvest, which is why farmers are sometimes required to sow and harvest catch crops after the corn harvest. Such follow-on crops are, for example, grass, winter wheat or leafy cabbage.

Adapted pet food
Cows are the biggest nitrogen producers. As soon as their pee and manure come together, ammonia is formed and this is a form of nitrogen. Since 2020, farmers are obliged to feed less protein concentrates to their cows. As a result, these cows produce less ammonia and therefore nitrogen.

Modern stables
Many ranchers have already invested in air scrubbers and floors that can separate urine and manure, but this is not enough. These air scrubbers were recently in the news because research showed that 90 percent of them do not work properly.

Our province has now released a bag of money to speed up making barns even cleaner and smarter. The latest techniques promise a nitrogen reduction of 70 percent. In 2024, our province wants the farmers to modernize the stables with the help of extra money from The Hague.

It is a search for the farmer with confidence in technology and government, so that in the future he will no longer be looked to in the event of a nitrogen problem.

Corné Nouws built a low-emission barn in 2019 to be prepared for the future, but is it enough?

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