‘I enjoy a simple life. I don’t have to experience exciting things or get everything out of life to be satisfied. I find the quote ‘wealth is the reduction of your greed’ inspiring. I live from a Christian philosophy of life. I believe there is a God. The Bible directs us to be good to our neighbor and to the earth. That gives me hope for the future,” says 26-year-old agrotechnologist Carsten Schep in a conference room at Wageningen University & Research. He works at the institute that conducts research into livestock farming.

Schep participates in the Network of Practical Companies project, in which more than a hundred dairy farms are implementing all kinds of measures to significantly reduce the emissions of ammonia and the greenhouse gas methane. The two project leaders, Cathy van Dijk and Gerard Migchels, see a reduction of 70 percent as feasible. “You can make great strides,” says Schep, “just by adjusting the feed and keeping the barn very clean. Or can you prevent farmers from being bought out to help solve the nitrogen problem? There is a lot of time pressure. So farmers will be bought out. But it doesn’t have to be many. Companies will stop anyway because they have no successor.

Schep himself grew up among the cows. “My parents have a dairy farm in Langerak, in the Alblasserwaard. They’ve had 75 dairy cows for a long time, but they’ve shrunk a bit lately. It’s getting too hard for my dad. I thought long and hard about whether to take over the company. I am the only potential successor. But I’ve decided not to. Running a dairy farm is physically demanding. It always goes on, 24/7. And you do a lot of work low to the ground. I am 2.03 meters tall. I see it in my father. It often went through his back. He’s in his mid-50s and already worn out.

“I moved to Wageningen in 2014 to live in rooms. When I saw everyone look up when a tractor drove by at the start of my bachelor’s, I knew I was in the right place. My interest lies mainly in technology.”

Photos Diewertje Bravenboer

Low-emission stable floors

“For my master’s thesis, I researched the effect of sealing the manure cellar on ammonia emissions. If you look at ammonia emissions from dairy farming, stables have a significant share, about half. Of this, 50 to 70 percent comes from the floors, and 30 to 50 percent comes from the basement. It mainly has to do with faeces and urine coming together. Urine contains a lot of nitrogen in the form of urea. The faeces contain bacteria that convert the urea into ammonia with the enzyme urease. According to the theory, you could reduce emissions from the basement by about 50 percent by sealing it. My research has shown that this is indeed true. But only if the cellar is very well sealed. Especially at night. Because then the outside air cools down. The heavier air enters the stable, sinks into the manure cellar and pushes out the warmer air with the ammonia gas it contains.

“Since June I have been involved in the Network of Practical Companies project. We have installed all kinds of measuring equipment at fifteen of the more than one hundred participating dairy farms. I analyze all that data. The program has just started, so results are not yet available. You would prefer measures that farmers can easily implement and that have a major effect on emissions. Like adjusting the feed. It now contains a lot of protein, and proteins contain nitrogen. A considerable part of this is not absorbed by the cow, which is expelled via the urine and faeces. It is also important that the farmer keeps his stable floor clean. This can be done by using the mechanical stable scraper, which sweeps manure away into the cellar, more often. Or you install an extra slider. In addition, it helps if the cows go to pasture more often.

“It is said that you solve the problem if you keep the feces and urine of the cow separate. But the air and the soil also contain those bacteria that produce ammonia. So that separation only partially works.”

Farmers who really want

“I think the nitrogen discussion is quite strong. The pressure on farmers has increased enormously. But what I see on those hundred companies makes me positive. Those are farmers who really want to. If everyone has that mentality, we’ll get there.

“I think a bigger problem is that Brussels has demanded that the Netherlands phase out its derogation. Farmers were allowed to spread extra animal manure on the land here. That has now been crossed out. The manure surplus will grow rapidly from January onwards. I wonder how many farmers will be able to afford to dispose of their surplus in the long term.

“The Netherlands is a super-productive country. It doesn’t feel logical to consciously reduce that. But that the herd will shrink is inevitable. There is a lack of successors. Dairy farming will have to work more in balance with nature. And the population continues to grow, so more homes are needed.”

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