As I flew into the Netherlands two weeks ago, I made special note of the coast line. Besides the excitement of knowing “that’s Europe down there,” it intrigued me how vulnerable the Dutch countryside is to flooding, since much of it lies below sea level. Even from the plane, it was obvious to me that the cultivated fields were lower than the North Sea. Those fields face immediate annihilation, except for the sturdy dunes that protect them.

I’ve always wondered if the flooding in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, would have occurred if the Army Corps of Engineers and local authorities had consulted more with Dutch experts.

Too often, Americans think we know everything. Or, put another way, “What do the Europeans know?”

The trip last week reminded me that farmers everywhere face some similar challenges, especially as it relates to the environment. The farmers in Europe have been on the firing line for a long time now — at a greater level of intensity than U.S. farmers.

Maybe we can learn something from them.

I had the pleasure of visiting a dairy farm in central France. It was a typical French farm, with 60 cows spending much of their time grazing on the hillsides. This particular farm also had a free-stall barn for the five months of the year when grazing is not an option.

The owner, Sebastien Dabert, confirmed that environmental regulations are his No. 1 challenge. He must abide by a strict set of rules regarding nitrogen and how much is applied to the land from his cows’ manure. Specifically, he can apply 180 “nitrogen units” per hectare (2.47 acres) every two years. In an official document, he must record how much he intends to spray and declare that to the government ahead of time. Then, when he actually applies, he must record it again — and the two sets of records had better match!

Earlier in the week, I went to the DeMarke research farm in Hengelo, the Netherlands. A number of environmental initiatives are taking place here, with funding from the Dutch government and farm organizations.

This particular farm is pushing the limits when it comes to reducing nitrogen load. It uses no commercial fertilizer; it insists that the corn harvest be followed with a “catch crop” of grass to utilize any remaining nitrogen, and it separates manure into liquid and solid fractions (finding that the liquid fractions work better on crops).

The feeding regimen also plays a big role. They use lower-protein diets. And, certain feed additives may be able to help cows retain more of the nitrogen in their ruminant digestive systems.

The hosts kept telling us this is necessary given the “severe environmental rules” that Dutch farmers must live under.

I am not suggesting that we strive to meet the Dutch or the French standards. I am simply suggesting that farmers in other countries are ahead of us in certain areas, based on necessity, and may be able to lend some expertise.

Let’s keep our minds open to the possibilities.

-- Tom Quaife, editor, Dairy Herd Management