World’s First Floating Dairy = Silliest Thing Ever?

Earning their sea legs, 32 cows have made agricultural history after boarding the world’s first floating dairy farm located in the Netherlands. Source: Cows Set Sail at World’s First Floating Dairy | Dairy Herd Management

I had to read this article twice before I realized that it wasn’t a belated April Fool joke and that they were serious about this. Yes, they’ve really built a kind of dairy farm on a barge floating in a harbor. Now I’ve tried to find out more information about this but all I’ve been able to find have been more PR fluff pieces, with little or no actual facts. The Beladon website link in the original story has been “in maintenance mode” for several days now (just what are they maintaining?) but there is a link to a site about the farm itself. Sort of. If you like more PR speak, that is. (You’ll have to use Google Translate) And again, there are no actual facts, just lots and lots of enviro-babble and grand statements and “oh my, aren’t we wonderful!” silliness, and things like that tend to make me a bit skeptical.

I also noted that there is no mention of exactly what this white elephant cost them to build in any of the stories I found. It took a bit of digging to find that out and again, as with everything else about this, everything was more than a little vague. The only numbers I found were from about three years ago when they first proposed this project. They claimed at that time it would cost about $3 million to build this thing. $3 million… To house just 32 cows. (And they claim that traditional farming is wasteful???) And I’d be willing to bet that when all of the bills are added up, this was considerably more than that.

But then nothing about this project makes sense if you look at it closely. They claim that we need different methods of farming going into the future, that raising cattle is extremely wasteful in terms of land use, has pollution problems, etc. And they certainly are right about all of that. But this project doesn’t solve any of those problems.

They claim that moving the cows offshore onto a barge eliminates the need for large spaces for cattle to be raised. But the biggest use of land when it comes to cattle isn’t housing the cattle, it’s growing food for them. Millions of acres of cropland is used just to raise grain, soybeans and hay to feed cattle. The cows themselves are generally housed in feedlots or housing units that actually take up very little acerage. Simply moving the cows off the ground onto a barge doesn’t do anything to eliminate the need to grow food for them.

Now they claim that they’re going to grow 20% of the cattle feed right there in a sort of greenhouse on the top level using LED grow lights, and, well, good for them, but it ain’t going to happen. Do they even know how much cows eat? The average milking dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed per day. That means they need about 3,200 pounds of feed a day for their small herd. So their little green house will have to produce 640 pounds of high quality cattle feed per day. Ain’t gonna happen, as I said. But even if they did, that means they still need to come up with 80% of the cows’ diet from other sources, and they claim that’s going to come from human food waste. And there is a huge problem with that. Human food waste doesn’t make very good cattle feed.

Cows evolved to eat mostly grass with a bit of grass seed (i.e. grain) mixed in. And not much else. Modern cattle rations include soybeans and corn and other grains for added protein, mineral supplements and a lot of other stuff that isn’t part of a cow’s normal diet, but is added to improve milk production.

Now I don’t know about you, but here at the house we don’t eat a hell of a lot of grass, and what grain we do eat is almost all in the form of various baked goods like bread. Human food waste is made up mostly of things like spoiled fruit and vegetables, spoiled or outdated, highly processed baked goods, bits of fat, gristle and meat, and all of it thoroughly laced with salt, fats from a variety of sources, and lots and lots of preservatives, “flavor enhancers”, texture modifiers and other things that, while edible, aren’t really, well, food. Not for people and certainly not for cows.

Granted, there are some human foods cattle can eat, but that material is going to have to be carefully selected (requiring labor and energy), is going to have to be processed (more energy and labor), is going to have to be tested (more energy and labor), other feed products are going to have to be added to make sure the cattle are getting a diet that meets their nutritional needs (still more energy, labor and added feed costs), and… Well, when you add in the labor, the energy, the supplements, etc., then add in the cost of running that LED lighted green house that’s supposed to produce 20% of the cows’ diet, this is going to be the most expensive cow diet of all time.

Then there are other questions I’d like answered, like where is the energy going to come from to operate this thing and what is that going to cost? This is going to be very energy intensive, far more so than a normal cattle housing operation. Robotic milkers, the LED lighted greenhouse, the sophisticated sewage treatment system on the lower level, heating, cooling, ventilation… This operation is going to suck up a lot of energy.

So, how much milk are they going to get out of this system so they can pay their bills? They claim they’ll get about 200 gallons a day out of those 32 cows, and while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. Running calculations are a bit tedious because the dairy industry doesn’t generally deal with gallons of milk, at least at the farm level. Farmers are paid by the pound, not the gallon. Milk weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon, so 200 gallons would be about 1,700 pounds, and they have 32 cows so that would mean production of about 53 pounds of milk per cow per day, while the average dairy cow in Wisconsin produces about 64+ pounds per day on average and our best producing cows put out considerably more than that. So when you look at the cost per pound of milk, this operation is going to be ridiculously expensive to operate and extremely inefficient in terms of milk production.

And then why in the world float the whole thing on a barge in a harbor? How are they going to deal with storms, waves, flooding, connecting pipelines, electric cables, communications cables, etc. back to the mainland? All that is going to require special infrastructure that is going to have to be built from scratch and will be very expensive.

Now I’m all for experimentation and innovation. But there is nothing innovative going on here. Every single technology and technique that they’re touting here has already been tried and is already, if it’s useful, being used. Robotic milking? Already being done and spreading rapidly. Using human food waste? Already being done where financially feasible. Treating cattle waste? Already being done. LED growing lights? Been around for ages. There is literally nothing new here. All of the technologies and techniques being used here are already being used, or have been tried and discarded because they weren’t practical or economical, or, like putting cattle on a barge, are so fraught with problems and impractical on the face of it that no one would bother even trying.

Back in the Victorian era there was a fad where wealthy people would build ornate, ridiculous and rather silly structures on their estates for no other reason than they could. These structures were often technically advanced, attractive, even artistic. But ultimately they were useless for any practical purpose. These structures started to be called a “folly”. That’s what this is. A modern version of the folly. Interesting but ultimately useless and utterly impractical.