Dairy farmers somewhat positive about sustainability, but still face challenges

Published on
June 30, 2023

Dairy farmers generally feel somewhat positive about improving the sustainability of their businesses and the sector as a whole. However, dairly farmers are facing a range of challenges that make it difficult for them to further improve the sustainability of their operations, not least because they feel they have already put in a lot of effort. Challenges include the lack of a viable revenue model, shifting policies, the absence of a specific vision both within the government, the ever-changing sustainability programmes at dairy organisations, the lack of a dot on the horizon and perspective, a negative image and a lack of knowledge among citizens, policymakers and political parties.

That’s the main conclusion of a study conducted by Wageningen Economic Research on behalf of the Sustainable Dairy Chain consortium, a theme group of ZuivelNL The study included interviews with 40 dairy farmers, covering a range of topics such as the sustainability goals of Sustainable Dairy Chain.

Developing interventions

The aim of the study was to help Sustainable Dairy Chain’s partners to develop interventions that could contribute to achieving the consortium’s sustainability goals. The study also provides better insight into the intrinsic motivations of dairy farmers in terms of their commitment to these goals. This is important, because we need to understand why dairy farmers make particular choices regarding sustainability if we are to come up with appropriate interventions.

Sustainability themes

Dairy farmers were interviewed about a number of sustainability themes embraced by the sector. These were:

  • A viable revenue model for dairy farmers
  • Climate-neutral production
  • Animal health and welfare
  • Grazing
  • Biodiversity
  • Land-related farming
  • Safety on the farm

They were also asked what they considered to be positive and negative consequences of sustainability, what they perceived to be their challenges and opportunities, and any solutions they could identify.

Varied sample

The dairy farmers that were interviewed represented a range of age groups, and they managed farms of varying sizes and degrees of intensity. They lived all over the country and supplied milk to a variety of dairy factories. They were also assumed to represent a range of opinions about sustainable dairy farming.

Knowledge transfer and awareness

Aside from the challenges experienced by dairy farmers already described above, knowledge also appears to play a role. The dairy farmers interviewed have very different ideas about exactly what sustainability means, and there are varying levels of awareness about the sustainability challenge they are facing. In particular, there appears to be a real lack of clarity among dairy farmers about issues, such as reducing ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions, and preserving biodiversity.

On this topic, there appears to be a gap between what dairy farmers, dairy organisations and the government consider important. So, in addition to removing obstacles and offering practical perspectives, it’s important to ensure that dairy farmers are clearly informed about the ‘why’ through tailored communication campaigns.

Long-term objective

The dairy farmers that were interviewed also voiced a need for long-term objectives. They want to see comprehensive policymaking that clarifies the links between various sustainability measures.

They also want a better idea of what the government and dairy sector are aiming for and the goals set by the dairy industry. These requests make it clear that dairy companies cannot take on the challenge on their own. The government, dairy organisations, and other actors in the supply chain also need to play their part and come up with clear and consistent policies.


Another thing that emerged from the interviews was that dairy farmers feel a sense of injustice. They wondered how the commitment that dairy farmers are expected to make to preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change compares to what is expected of other sectors, such as heavy industry and aviation.

Research method

An integrated behavioural model was used to analyse the interview responses. The behavioural model took into account both intrinsic motivations to change behaviour and external conditions that help determine whether an intended behaviour can and will actually be carried out.


The interviews took place in 2021, when the nitrogen issue was high on the agenda. The recommendations of the Remkes committee had been published in 2020, and the Nitrogen Act was passed in March 2021, which included policy goals that would clearly have a major impact on livestock farming in the Netherlands. The interviews did take place well before the presentation of the full nitrogen emissions policy, including the publication of the infamous ‘nitrogen map’ in June 2022, which was met with protests by many angry and concerned farmers.