Smart farming, feed efficiency, biodiverse milk and nature-inclusive agriculture; these are issues the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden focuses on every day. This Wageningen Livestock Research high-tech research and innovation centre conducts scientific and applied research on the entire dairy chain. Kees de Koning, Dairy Campus manager, answers five questions about his organisation and dairy farming of the future.
How would you describe the Dairy Campus?
‘Our motto is “Inspire the dairy chain of tomorrow”. We focus intensively on issues regarding the future of dairy farming. Here in Leeuwarden, we have 500 dairy cows and 300 hectares of land, which provides us with all the room we need for innovative research. We conduct this research in close collaboration with partners from within and outside of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Moreover, we facilitate several programmes, among which are Organic Dairy Farming and the master’s Innovative Dairy Chain Management in collaboration with partner Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences (VHL).’
How important is collaboration with partners?
‘To achieve things, we really must collaborate with other parties, An increasing number of people from other organisations find their way to Dairy Campus, which is great. We have an extensive network of businesses within the dairy chain: animal feed businesses, dairy processing companies, grass seed producers, etc. The mix of internationally active businesses has earned this region in Friesland the label Dairy Valley.
We also have close connections with Wageningen. For example, with the research institutes within the Animal Sciences Group, but also with Food & Biobased Research, Environmental Research, Plant Research and the Farm of the Future. Thus, the Dairy Campus is increasingly a facility for Wageningen as a whole.’
Can you name some innovations the Dairy Campus is working on?
‘In the past, we had much impact in automation. The first ideas about milking robots were launched by our predecessors. In the beginning, people wondered what they would need it for, and now, robots are used everywhere.
That does not mean, however, that immediate success is guaranteed. During innovation, things may go wrong at every stage in the process: during prototyping, testing and upscaling. Some innovations never make it to the market. That, too, is part of the process.
We are currently working on a project for biodiverse milk. We sow herbs on part of the grassland. The milk thus produced is to be processed separately. We also want to be able to trace each drop of milk to the individual cow that produced it. We often say: Dairy Campus cows produce data, as does the milk they produce. What about the composition of the milk and its flavour? All of this is achieved in collaboration with Van Hall Larenstein and our colleagues from WUR. Wageningen Environmental Research studies biodiversity, and Wageningen Food Safety Research studies food safety.
I could name many more examples. In the past, we worked on virtual fencing, where cows receive a signal when they exit their designated area. And we are working on automatic registration of behaviour using cameras. Using smart analysis and machine learning, we can develop a camera system that can spot lameness or sickness in an animal. We also conduct much research in the emission of nitrogen and greenhouse gasses, issues that are highly current.’
How do you stay in touch with farmers and society?
‘We have one foot in Wageningen and one foot on the farm. Before the corona crisis, we hosted some 10,000 to 12,000 visits per year, farmers and civilians from the Netherlands and abroad. We organised tailored strategic sessions with businesses and seminars on biodiversity and nitrogen. We are currently planning for the coming period, and we have an open day on high-tech and biodiversity on 1 June. The open day is organised in collaboration with LTO and WUR.
Sharing knowledge is one of our main activities. We don’t just publish papers. We must ensure our knowledge reaches the relevant audience. For example, on the issue of nitrogen, we offer municipal officers a tour of our facility to show them what a low-emissions floor is. Thus, we also have a demonstration purpose.’
Agriculture faces significant societal challenges. What is your perspective?
‘It is particularly in these situations that the call for innovation gains traction. Animal proteins such as dairy and meat will continue to be part of our diet in the future. Not to the same degree, but it will remain so. We do much research on the possibilities for transition within the chain and topics that will only become more relevant in the future, such as circularity, methane, nitrogen, animal welfare, circularity, and nature inclusiveness. Plenty of opportunities for the Dairy Campus.’