Some farmers emit much more nitrogen than others

Better farm management could reduce the nitrogen surplus of dairy farms by half.
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In addition, dairy farmers could increase their gross profits by one third. This is the result of a study conducted by a team of WUR business economists and soil experts.

Researchers Melina Lamkowsky and Frederic Ang assessed 341 intensive cattle farmers between 2006 and 2017. They recorded what resources entered the farm, how much they produced and how much manure they discharged. This showed that the best farmers not only had a 34 per cent higher gross profit but also produced 50 per cent less nitrogen surplus due to better farm management. The gap between the best farmers and the rest increased over time.

Black box

The researchers are unsure what precise measures are responsible for the lower nitrogen emissions. ‘In our model, the business is a black box’, Ang explains. ‘We only know what goes into the business and what comes out.’ Lamkowsky suspects that the successful farmers apply precision fertilisation, which results in increased nitrogen absorption by crops, and less nitrogen seeping into the environment.

She also thinks the most successful farmers are more mindful of their livestock’s health, as they are less likely to replace cattle and also have fewer young animals on their farms. That, too, leads to higher incomes and less manure offset. She stresses these expectations are the result of practical experience and are not based on the model that was applied in the research. Follow-up studies could clarify what business model the best farmers apply.


The research is interesting in light of the impending nitrogen measures the new cabinet wishes to take and civic organisations’ desire for the dairy sector to become more extensive. The researchers declined to comment. Ang: ‘We did not compare intensive and extensive farmers, nor did we include organic farmers.’

‘We compared dairy farmers whose main income is derived from agriculture. We conclude that many dairy farmers could reduce their nitrogen surplus by half without considerable investments. We feel farmers should be advised on how best to adjust their business management to achieve this goal.’

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