Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, late at night, I chatted with one of the persons on a dairy tour group about our upcoming trip to the Netherlands. He told me about the Dutch way of cooperation known as the “polder model.”

Much of the land in the Netherlands has been reclaimed from the sea. These reclaimed lands are known as “polders.” In one polder region west of Amsterdam, I surveyed the landscape and found it hard to believe that the land was submerged as recently as World War II. It was flat, but hospitable — indeed, it reminded me of Maryland’s Eastern Shore region. 

Each time the Dutch open up a new polder region, they engage in careful planning as to how the land should be used. Hence, the term “polder model” to describe the Dutch method of consensus-building and cooperation.

The Dutch have learned to cooperate with one another because they have a common interest — holding back the North Sea. More than one-third of the country is below sea level. If not for a series of dikes and constant vigilance, much of the land would be swallowed up and lost.   

It came as no surprise, then, to learn that the Dutch dairy industry is patterned on a similar model of cooperation.

Perhaps the most obvious example is found in the Keten Kwaliteit Melk (KKM), or Milk Quality Chain program. This program, to ensure quality milk for consumers, was initiated by the dairy industry in the 1990s, but turned over to the government for greater enforcement authority.

As of April 1 this year, all producers who sell milk in the Netherlands have to be KKM-certified.

Producers like Jan Ten Kate, who runs an 80- to 90-cow dairy near the town of Koekange, display their KKM certificates prominently. Certainly, Ten Kate has done a good job with milk quality — his somatic cell count averages 177,000 — by paying close attention to sanitation in the free-stall barn. And, he needs to submit his cows and facilities to a veterinary inspection four times a year as part of the KKM program.

A couple of quick observations:

  • The legal limit for somatic cell count in the Netherlands is 400,000, which is a much stricter standard than our 750,000.
  • It’s not uncommon for Holstein herds in the Netherlands to be producing milk with 3.4 percent to 3.5 percent true protein. That is half a percentage point higher than the typical U.S. herd.  

An extensive animal-identification program supports the milk-quality system in the Netherlands. For more details, please see “Animal ID: The need grows more urgent every day,” starting on page 32 of this month’s issue.

It’s time for the U.S. dairy industry to adopt some of the same measures of cooperation. Certainly, our somatic cell count standard should be brought in line with the world standard, which is 400,000. And, the milk procurement managers should do a better job of rewarding producers for protein. Protein is definitely undervalued in today’s market. And, we need a national animal ID program.

Let’s not wait until our back is against the wall. While we may not have the same imperative as the Dutch had in fighting back the sea, we do have some issues that require cooperation and consensus-building. Let’s begin by placing the highest possible priority on milk quality and focusing on our consumers.