Skip to main content

22 Nov 2023

How to navigate sustainability policies with genetics

Farmers understand that the world needs more future-friendly farming practices and are willing to put in the effort for a more sustainable future. However, increasingly rigid regulations to tackle emissions by cutting livestock numbers put livelihoods and food production at stake.

There are alternative solutions, like using smaller, more feed-efficient breeds, but are governments prepared to listen?

This is a delicate subject that needs a controlled debate from all sides, and a compromise needs to be reached rather than policies not offering farmers any wiggle room.

Two cattle breeders with over 30 years of experience bring you their knowledge on the subject and some measures you can take to future-proof your herd.

Walter Liebregts, a Dutch farmer and owner of Koole & Liebregts, and Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingJersey at VikingGenetics.

Sustainability VikingJersey Peter Larson

"Farmers feel unappreciated"

“We are all afraid about the Green Deal from the European Commission. In Holland, there are many Natura 2000 areas, which are protected, and it is not allowed to have any changes there,” says Walter.

“The European Commission has given us some laws, perhaps guidelines, to be less polluting. We are at the beginning of the discussion, and the goal is to achieve certain reductions between now and 2035,” he adds.

Dutch farmers held numerous protests across the country in 2022, angered by discussions on stricter governmental restrictions on agriculture, which they felt were unrealistic.

Farmers feel unappreciated. The government said we have to reduce, but they haven't presented the plan yet or method of how to do it. However, the message was clear: we need fewer animals. How and which animals, whether it should be pigs or cows or poultry? That's not clear,” he explains.

Sustainability VikingJersey Peter Larson

Losing animal production

Many European farmers fear governments will target larger farms closer to the natural areas and ask them to reduce stock numbers or retire.

“If the farm has no successor, the government may buy your herd and your land and turn it into nature. That's the first step. This is not bad since many of these farmers didn't have a successor anyway. So, for the personal life of the farmer, it's perhaps a welcome idea,” says Walter.

However, the problem for many in the sector is that this could lead to additional animal production rights being removed from the market.

One way to adapt to stricter emission regulations is switching to a smaller, more efficient breed like VikingJersey. Not everyone wants to steer away from larger, high-production Holstein cows, but smaller breeds produce less emissions and have become more profitable as time goes on.

 “I've been working with the Jerseys all through my career, and they prove they are more efficient when it comes to emissions than other breeds,” says Peter.

“In Denmark, we started out measuring livestock units 20 years ago. Livestock units were based on emissions of nitrogen, showing that the Jerseys were 20% more efficient than bigger cows. Today, our restrictions are not only based on nitrogen emission, and they consider several other environmental factors,” he adds.

Restrictions nowadays give farmers licenses to produce based on their emission levels. These relate to land per cow, space in bonds per cow, and how much manure can be spread per hectare, among other things.

Sustainability VikingJersey Peter Larson

Feed efficiency is key

Feed and where it comes from is another factor that influences emissions. Importing feed from other countries also adds to your emissions. But other factors are involved, including each breed's feed efficiency.

“In Europe, at least in Holland and in more western European countries, the problem is that we import a lot of feed,” says Walter.

With stricter regulations, many question whether governments will continue allowing feed imports from Brazil and other countries.

“We have to look to the efficiency of the breeds. Smaller cows like Jerseys are, without any question, more efficient, so less methane or whatever the problem could be,” adds Walter.

A better breeding strategy can be of great help in reducing farm emissions. Using your most feed-efficient cows to breed the next generation can boost your sustainability, reduce farm waste, and ensure maximum returns.

“It's very important that farmers are aware of how to get the highest genetic trend or highest genetic development for an individual trait. Now we've developed the Saved Feed Index, which will lead to more efficient cows and less emissions,” explains Peter.

“Some farmers think that if you focus on the Saved Feed Index and feed efficiency, you might lose some production. But that's not necessarily the truth. If you focus on the right goals, the direct breeding values for individual traits that you prioritise, then you will have a positive trait for both,” he adds.

Sustainability VikingJersey Peter Larson

The benefits of crossbreeding

Crossbreeding is also a solution towards better sustainability. Like smaller breeds, crossbred cows boost feed efficiency, reducing methane emissions. Three-way crossbreeding systems, like the VikingGoldenCross, are helping farmers worldwide move closer to their emissions targets.

VikingGoldenCross is a 3-breed rotational crossbreeding program combining VikingHolstein, VikingRed, and VikingJersey. Crossing the three VikingGenetics breeds gives farmers healthy, fertile cows ideal for cows for pasture-based production.

"With the GoldenCross, the feed efficiency is around 15% better than a pure Holstein," says Walter.

 "Feed efficiency on a dairy has very much to do with the number of youngstock you need for the milk production. If you have a longer lifetime for your production cows, let's say a year longer, it saves you a lot of youngstock," he ends.

Discover our breeds
Sustainability VikingGoldenCross Crossbreeding

Sign up for our Innovative Breeding newsletter