FreeWalk shows potential free-range barns in Europe
International research provides practical knowledge for innovation on the farm. That is why LNV is involved in several so-called ERA-Nets, in which national and European research funds and knowledge are bundled. FreeWalk is a good example of a project funded under such an ERA-Net.
Francoise Divanach: “FreeWalk shows the added value of international research for LNV policy when it comes to circular agriculture in general, and sustainable livestock farming in particular. The project has generated a lot of new knowledge about a housing system that is good for the well-being of the cows and for the soil."
Twinning projects LNV as an ideal start for FreeWalk
“My colleague Paul Galama and I have been working on ideas for giving cows more space, such as free-range barns, for some time now. The ERA-Net SusAn – aimed at sustainable livestock farming – offered us the opportunity to further develop this concept, because there was no financing in the Netherlands for it at the time," says Abele Kuipers. "Coincidentally, we had some twinning projects from LNV behind back, focusing on good management practices, which enabled us to build good ties with partners in Slovenia, Poland and Lithuania. That was an excellent basis for this project."
Abele: “We have seen that the composted material from the free-range barns can be used to enrich the structure of the soil in grasslands and arable farming. This fits in well with the idea of circular agriculture. The composted bedding in free-range barns is also very nice for cows: they roll in it like horses in the meadow. And the extra room to move in these stables comes close to real grazing. That has social value."
“At the same time, we have learned that good composting requires a lot of knowledge and skill from the farmer, especially in winter. Composting in the barn proves difficult because it depends on many factors. In many countries, the square meters required per cow in particular seem to be underestimated. In addition, the wood chips that most farmers have to use for this are expensive. This is due to the high demand from biomass plants. But luckily, other farmers can use reed or other organic matter that is available locally. So it is easier for them to make the transition. Good compost is also of value for soil quality."
Upscaling free-range barns difficult…
“We have learned a lot about the free-range barn, but for the time being this is not yet the barn of the future. For further scaling up, we must not only pay attention to animal welfare; we will also have to look at emissions of, for example, ammonia and methane, and at the development of thermophilic bacteria that are attracted to the warm material. The dairy sector does not want to run any risk with these bacteria because of the possible impact on the shelf life of sterilized dairy products.”
… but in combination with conventional barns, the potential is great
“There is a lot of interest among farmers in the use of free-range barns, especially when it comes to combining them with conventional barns. This is not only more affordable, but also makes it easier to keep young stock and calves as well as adult cows. I am therefore curious about the results of the multi-criteria analysis carried out by our Norwegian partner. That will give an idea of the feasibility of free-range barns if you look at the costs and benefits."
Follow-up research focused on emissions
Abele: “Building on the knowledge and new questions arising from FreeWalk, 4 closed test stalls have now been realized on the Dairy Campus near Leeuwarden. There we will compare the emissions and manure quality between barns with a permeable artificial floor, rubber floor construction or built-in cow toilet, and the usual cubicle shed. We conduct this development research in close collaboration with housing companies." He adds: "It is nice to know that both the cow toilet and the permeable floor are Dutch inventions".
Those emissions are also the focus of Climate Care Cattle Farming, a new ERA-Net project we recently launched with European and non-European partners, including Israel and Brazil. In this way we not only increase our knowledge, but also our international network." This is an article in the EYE FOR KNOWLEDGE series. Would you like to know more about FreeWalk, ERA-Nets or international research? Please contact Sascha Bollerman.