500,000 Dutch dairy cows are staring down death because of the amount of dung they produce

Dour dairy.
Dour dairy.
Image: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger
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Half a million Dutch dairy cows have a pretty big problem. If the Netherlands can’t find a way to manage the dung they produce, European Union environmental rules mean they will have to be killed.

If those cows are culled, it would remove roughly a third of the dairy cows in the Netherlands, which wouldn’t be good news for the dairy sector; the Dutch dairy industry had a production value (pdf) of €7 billion ($7.4 billion) in 2014, the last available year for records.

The problem has to do with groundwater.

The European Union has set rules on the amount of nitrate from fertilizer that’s allowed to seep into the soil. In 2006 the Dutch government secured an 11-year exemption from those rules. The exemption is set to end Dec. 31, but agricultural groups worry Brussels won’t renew the exemption because of concerns over another chemical: phosphate.

Because Dutch farmers are spreading so much fertilizing manure over farmland, phosphate in the manure is seeping into and contaminating groundwater. But limiting phosphate has proven difficult. Reducing the chemical levels means producing less manure, which ultimately means reducing the size of the dairy herd.

Now there’s a political uproar among farming groups, some of whom have expressed feeling blindsided. Dairy groups have suggested, among other things, that feed companies rework their products to include fewer phosphates, which are often added to feed to ensure optimal growth, fertility, and bone development.

Another plan, introduced by the Dutch government, would offer €25 million as an incentive (link in Dutch) for the dairy industry to export or slaughter an estimated 200,000. That plan would still take a significant bite out of dairy production, which, in turn, may lead to rising milk prices for consumers.