Between now and 2030, the emissions in the Netherlands must be reduced considerably. That includes the livestock sector. The veal sector is focusing on the area where they can reduce the most ammonia emissions: the calf stall. Researching and testing these new housing solutions takes a long time, and creates dilemmas. Why does the change take so long? And what is going on in the minds of veal farmers? Henk Bekman of the Veal Sector Association Foundation explains. ‘’Veal farmers are keen to become more sustainable, but they want to be sure that they are investing in the right measures.’’
In the Netherlands, traditional calf stalls are fitted with grid floors above a manure basement of at least one metre, or more. The manure often stays there for extended periods of time. By catching the manure and urine together, ammonia is formed. The emissions from ammonia put pressure on the biodiversity of nitrogen sensitive nature reserves. It is estimated that about 70% if the emissions are formed in those manure basements. “That’s why doing something about the manure basement is the most promising approach for emission reduction”, says Henk Bekman, secretary of the Dutch Veal Industry Association (SBK).
Running manure belt
To prevent enzymes of bacteria in the manure from converting the nitrogen from the urine into ammonia, it is important to separate the manure and the urine. Bekman gives a few examples of adjustments to the stall to catch the manure in a smarter way. “For example, more shallow manure basements, with skewed floors. The manure will stay in place, while the urine flows away. Or a system in which a manure valve is mounted to a shallow manure basement. In the basement floor, there will be drainage pipes to ensure that the urine quickly flows away from the stall. This ensure immediate separation between manure and urine. We estimate that we can reduce the emission by about 80% with such a manure belt.”
These and other ideas with regards to emission reduction are being tested, among others, in the so-called testing grounds of ‘Farmer at the Helm (Boer aan het Roer)’ - an initiative from the Regio Deal FoodValley. In the testing grounds, pilot companies will be testing the innovations in practice. “The initiative focuses on stimulating reducing measures, which can then be tested and evaluated in the testing grounds (Proeftuin) so that they can be put into practice..”
Because one development may not cause bigger problems in another area, we are looking for a comprehensive solution. - Henk Bekman
More benefits of low emission stalls.
Low emission collection also provides opportunities for a high quality treatment of manure into organic and mineral fertilizing products, which fits well into the framework of circular agriculture. There are also other benefits with regard to animal welfare. A new stall system improves the indoor climate of the stalls, which ensure a better air quality for calves. Bekman: “Bad air quality in the stalls can cause respiratory diseases. And this, in particular, is one of the most critical aspects of health in veal husbandry.” In addition, the implementation of new stall systems will create more space for the animals. The floors will also be more comfortable and softer for the calves to lay on.
But creating a space to lie, that also contributes to emission reduction is a tricky thing. “The techniques that are now being developed and tested, are not always possible, or lead to other problems”, says Bekman. For example, more slippery floors could cause calves to slip or floors that cause contamination of the skin. With this, Bekman illustrates a dilemma of sustainability. “Because one development may not cause bigger problems in another area, we are looking for a comprehensive solution,” he says.
Dilemmas for veal farmers
Veal farmers are also facing major challenges during this transition. “Business economical sustainability is a difficult thing.” Bekman explains that veal farmers build their stalls to last them at least ten years. To get an approved stall system, they would have to take down their current stalls much more quickly. “And that brings additional costs with it,” says Bekman. In addition, the last year was financially a bad year. “The corona crisis had a major impact on the veal sector. Many veal farmers had major losses. Due to the closing of hotels, restaurants, and cafes, a decreased amount of veal could be delivered, and above all, against a lower price. And if you are already experiencing losses, you have little left over to invest.”
2030 is getting closer
He emphasizes that the veal sector would really love to take a sustainable approach. “But we have to make sure that veal farmers are certain that they are investing in good measures. Imagine that a specific theory turns out to be false, and instead of halving the emission it only creates a reduction of 5%. In that case, you have to wonder if that is worth the investment, or if we have to keep looking for other ideas.”
Bekman is realistic. “Time is running out. The development and testing of innovations takes a lot of time, and 2030 is just around the corner.” But he is also hopeful. “We’re not there yet, but there is plenty of perspective.”