Arable farmers and dairy farmers, both are called farmers and both can be found driving a big fat tractor, but that's about where the similarities end. Through the years, they have become two different worlds (apart from the increasingly rare mixed farm, of course). Where and how you grow up usually determines where your affinity lies. In general, arable farmers are much more concerned with the condition of the soil than dairy farmers, but this is starting to change. The farmer ploughs, sows, grows and then collects the harvest (his income) from the land and therefore has an intense connection with soil cultivation and looks at and feels his soil much more often than the dairy farmer.

The dairy farmer keeps cows that provide him with milk and an income and which he therefore feeds and cares for as well as possible. His land provides grass (and sometimes corn) to feed the cows all year round. Most grass mixtures consist for the most part (70% or more) of the energy- and protein-rich perennial ryegrass, often supplemented with a little timotee and smooth meadow grass for flavour. These homogeneous and species-poor turfs are mockingly referred to as 'grasphalt’ by those who are concerned about biodiversity.

Sometimes the grassland is torn up and re-seeded, but a grassland can actually remain intact for decades. Forage corn, however, is grown annually on ploughed land, sown in the spring and harvested sometime during September or October, depending on its ripeness and the weather. Hopefully harvesting can take place during dry conditions, but this is unfortunately not always the case. Arable farmers are sometimes puzzled when a dairy farmer removes the corn from the fields in the autumn with heavy machinery, leaving deep tracks, which soon fill up with rainwater which no longer drains properly due to soil compaction.

How surprised I was, when I recently heard Erik a dairy farmer from Groningen (with 120 dairy cows on 80 hectares of clay soil) talk enthusiastically about his herb-rich grassland. He had tried at least twenty different kinds of herbs and other plants to find out what works best. Whereas an arable farmer has a cultivation plan that may include three or four crops, Erik actually works with a multitude of varieties: buckwheat, caraway, five types of clover, radish, lucerne, peas and so on, which he selects on the basis of whether they are palatable to the cattle, whether they are reasonably hardy and their positive effect on the soil. If they are deeply rooted, drought sensitivity decreases, deep-seated nutrients can be reached and the permeability of the soil improves. He has noticed more bees, butterflies and other insects flocking to the flowering herbs.

Not every crop is a success. Pioneering farmers have discovered that cows do not like everything. Cocksfoot, for example, a fairly coarse grass that can spread quickly, is not to their taste. "There is still so much to learn and discover," Erik sighed, "but what I do know is that we have to go in this direction. I started doing this for my own business, but I have noticed to my surprise that I am becoming more and more an activist". To his own amazement, he felt the need to start a movement of farmers who also believe that there are other possibilities and things can be done in another way. This requires pioneers who are prepared to go against the current and do things differently than their neighbours. Even if your neighbours literally walk past your fields shaking their heads and saying to each other 'it's all just a bunch of weeds', fearing that the seeds might blow over.

Sytze Keuning (keuning@bioclearearth.nl)

Published in the journal Bodem.