Interview of Henk Bles by the Dutch magazine Boerderij

Jun 25, 2018

Managing Director Henk Bles was interviewed by the Dutch magazine Boerderij, you can read the English translation here:

Bles: the Dutch dairy sector moves in the wrong direction

In order to further optimize the management on dairy farms, it is necessary that sufficient knowledge remains available. This is the opinion of Henk Bles, owner of Bles Dairies, an internationally operating in the dairy business. 

“The dairy industry needs to communicate the farmers’ story. Now the dairy industry is focusing too much on the Dutch market “, says Henk Bles of Bles Dairies. As a result, the position of the Dutch dairy farmer runs into difficulties. Many of the value-added dairy products go to countries where they especially look for safe and sufficient food. In addition, there are forms of production-regulating measures that are threatening the future of a healthy sector, according to Bles.

Why are you against a restriction of the production?
“The Netherlands is leading internationally in the efficient and sustainable production of a lot of milk. We can be proud of that position and we need to keep it that way. The restriction of that production hinders the necessary developments. A brake on growth equals a brake on entrepreneurship. ”

But is the sector facing limits of growth?
“Technically there are still possibilities, but from society there is no support for more cows. Arguing for holding more cows could negatively influence the sector, but that does not mean that we should shrink the total herd. The aim is to deal with existing resources in a smart, sustainable and solution-oriented way and to remain in dialogue with society. Because of the Dutch new regulations concerning so called phosphate rights, growth is only possible for a farm if a colleague stops. Through the limitation of phosphate production regulations,  livestock farmers have to optimize their management even more. Therefore, it is necessary that we continue to have access to sufficient knowledge. I am worried about this. I see that the Dutch dairy sector is moving in the wrong direction. ”

Is it not just about making money?
“Of course. I am not an idealist, but a realist having concerns for a healthy future for everyone. I have knowledge that I would like to share. That is my passion. At the same time, I can contribute to a solution for the global food issue. ”

You started as an exporter of breeding cattle. Did you have that passion right away?
“Dairy, cows and everything related to this, is in my family’s genes. I started years ago with the export of breeding cattle. Then one day, I started to think further. I visited a customer after having delivered good heifers and concluded: ‘This is not good’. That is how I started my consultancy branch. We are now working together with Wageningen University and Dairy Campus. Consultancy is changing more and more into coming up with solutions.”

In the consultancy branch, Bles Dairies focuses on dairy farmers worldwide. What do you do for the Dutch dairy farmer?
“In the Netherlands we are, until now, only active in the trade of breeding cattle and the supply of genetics. However, we see that the need for independent advice is also increasing in the Netherlands. The Dutch agricultural education is good, but for professionals there is not much more. Government, dairy-organizations and stakeholders impose an increasing number of demands to them. A dairy farmer obtains knowledge from professional journals and reads things on the internet. It is all very fragmented. Wageningen approached us to take the lead in this. We are now investigating this with various parties.

Henk Bles, Managing Director

Should LTO (Agricultural stakeholder organization) not do that?
“We have underestimated the strength of the Ministry of Agriculture and the product boards. LTO was not able to fill the gap that arose with their leaving. There has been too little expertise in The Hague over the past years. As a result, a lot has gone wrong, even though the sector itself has played a role in this as well. Now, together with WUR and the stakeholders of Dairy Campus, we are investing the needs for knowledge.”

Bles Dairies probably does not do that for free?
“No, that would never be possible. But, I see a clear interest for all parties. Nowadays, agricultural subsidies are being phased out, but at the same time, money is available to stimulate innovations. It would be good to get these budgets available to help dairy farmers as a collective in finding practical solutions. ”

Is it not strange that a commercial party like Bles Dairies does that?
“I see the sector needs and I ask the question how we can provide for this. That is why I am an entrepreneur. And I see that Bles Dairies is more and more becoming a knowledge organization. We talk to farmers every day. My interest is that I can export the knowledge that I collect here. ”

What does dairy farming look like in 2030?
“I think that common sense will ultimately conquer. A very modern and sustainable dairy farm will be developed with an average farm size of about 150 to 175 cows. A family business can get a good income out of it. Those who have little loan capital can go on for a long time. Of course, there are entrepreneurs who want to grow quickly and think they can finance that. Okay, no problem, provided that they can meet all requirements. ”
“It will be a challenge to meet the climate targets. That must go hand in hand with a more efficient and sustainable production and quality improvement. Ultimately, maximum production is not the most important thing, it is about profitability. It would be best if we finally set a limit of around 2.5 LU per hectare. Counting tails is the simplest, the rest is nonsense in my opinion. ”

What kind of developments do you see in international dairy farming?
“I believe that most cows are still on family farms with between 5 and 500 cows and that will remain so. In addition, there is industrialization and a movement towards large-scale dairy farming. You see them mainly in China, Russia and North America. ”

Will Russia become self-sufficient in the long term?
“The Russians are steadily getting better. They remain importers, but do everything to stimulate their own production. They will just easily become self-sufficient, but never say never. Russia is more and more moving away from Europe and is focusing more on Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. Very bad, because Europe needs Russia and vice versa. We exported many agricultural products to Russia and in return get back cheap gas. Everybody understands that business model. ”
“However, politics works on the basis of other sentiments, fed by the Western media. They present Russian President Putin as a half-criminal, a macho figure who wants to conquer the whole world. Yes, Putin wants to make Russia big, but conquer the world? No. Russians are proud, just like the Americans and Chinese. If you mess around in their backyard, they will stand up for themselves. A good trade relationship goes hand in hand with political interests. It is important to keep the dialogue going. Only then can you can come to solutions. So make the effort, get on that plane and talk to him instead of barking and shouting through the media. ”

And China?
“The Chinese realize that they partly depend on imports. The area available for dairy farming in China is simply too small to be self-sufficient. It is for a good reason that more and more Chinese companies are buying into Western dairy companies. The Chinese will soon determine the world market and the price of our kilos of milk. The large import volumes naturally also have everything to do with the demand for safely produced dairy. That is why European dairy is so popular in China. This is sometimes forgotten here: outside the EU it is mainly about food safety and food security. Not about the grazing of cows. ”

So FrieslandCampina is just talking about the importance of outdoor grazing for sales in China?
“FrieslandCampina (RFC) is a serious player, a beautiful large organization of which we can be very proud. But I think she does not always communicate well. Grazing is not an argument to sell your product in China. RFC a farmers’cooperative, manages to pay a good milk price every time despite a slight surplus of milk. All the stranger it is, that they now want to punish dairy farmers by obstructing further growth. That I do not understand. Why this discouragement policy? Of course you have to listen to the market, but you are and remain a farmers’ organization. So then make sure you create new markets and sales opportunities. ”

Article in Dutch