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In conversation with… Head of R&D Wiebe Mulder and stable builder Gerard van Beek

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At the head of the R&D team is Wiebe Mulder, who together with eight colleagues, will use the state-of-the-art research facility on a daily basis. The testing of feed concepts forms the bulk of R&D efforts. For the construction of Drieveld, the company worked closely with Gerard van Beek from G. van Beek en Zn. Totaalproject B.V.. With its knowledge of stall systems, smart farming and calves, Drieveld not only meets strict sustainability requirements, but is also equipped to allow Mulder and his team to carry out research using the most up-to-date technologies.

In addition to a wealth of research opportunities, a viewing area in the stall was a requirement in the design – on the one hand to facilitate cooperation and knowledge sharing, and on the other to show suppliers, customers and stakeholders what is being worked on at Drieveld and therefore explain information about the sector more effectively.

Together, the gentlemen look back on an eventful collaboration and look ahead to Drieveld’s role in accelerating the sustainability of the sector.

Drieveld operates at the intersection of research and practice. What does this mean?

Mulder: “Drieveld has a stall so that we can test new feed concepts directly in practice. In doing so, we seek answers to very practical questions. For example, how can nutrition contribute to better animal health or animal welfare? How can we develop feed packages with more efficient feed conversion and a better cost price? Nevertheless, there are also a growing number of questions regarding sustainability. How can we contribute to lower nitrogen, methane and ammonia emissions from animal husbandry by means of a different feed composition?”

At the same time, we are engaged in longer-term fundamental research. For example, raw materials that will eventually no longer be available and for which alternatives will need to be found. Or the potential influence of feed on pathogens [disease-causing agents] within the chain. To that end, we work a lot with suppliers and customers, but also with other research institutions.”

Mulder: “That was due to a number of issues. In the Netherlands, we had to go through the necessary permit procedures before construction could commence. In addition, we had many discussions with stakeholders in the vicinity of Drieveld, such as the province and the municipality for example, but certainly also with the residents of Uddel. On the one hand, the purpose of this was to ensure the integration of the company in the local landscape, but also to explain Drieveld’s aim and what we are actually going to do.

And, to be honest, we also had quite a wish list for the layout of Drieveld itself with an eye to its research facilities. We certainly did not make it easy for Gerard.”

What was on that wish list of research facilities?

Van Beek (laughing): “How long do you have? The entire stall is equipped to carry out multiple studies at the same time on calves of different ages. The stall is divided into five sections, three of which are for research into calves in the veal sector and two for research into the rearing phase of calves in both veal and dairy farming. Regular stalls have one feed kitchen, but Drieveld has no fewer than three, so that the research team can easily administer multiple types of feed.”

Mulder: “The latter is a very important component. Not only can we carry out several studies at the same time, but we can also put one of our research themes into effect: the collection and recording of individual animal data. This enables us to discover the effect of different feed compositions on animal health and welfare, but also on emissions. This is also known as smart farming. Based on the knowledge gained, we can better tailor our feed packages to the needs of our customers.”

With a view to the future, cooperation with the dairy farming sector and the mutual exchange of knowledge and data will be essential. Healthy, robust animals are in all our interests.

The VanDrie Group produces breeding feeds for dairy farming, and also purchases bull calves for upcycling. The dairy farming sector is therefore an important customer and supplier of the VanDrie Group. In specific terms, how does this relate to Drieveld?

Mulder: “We consider the dairy farming sector to be even more than a partner. With a view to the future, cooperation with the dairy farming sector and the mutual exchange of knowledge and data will be essential. Healthy, robust animals are in all our interests. Every dairy farm is different and makes different choices. We test various concepts and want to continue to improve our breeding feeds. Which feed should be used in which circumstances, whether it should contain a high level of dairy ingredients or a low level, and what the ideal protein content is; these are all issues that keep us occupied.”

The company’s subsidiary, Alpuro Breeding, is located across the street. How do you seek a connection there?

Mulder: “Alpuro Breeding and Schils are the VanDrie Group’s calf rearing experts. The total concept of Alpuro Breeding provides dairy farmers with practically everything they need to successfully breed calves. From high-quality feed products to expert advice and assistance. This enables us to quickly share the knowledge and experience we develop in the field of nutrition and animal health with our colleagues at Alpuro Breeding and Schils. In so doing, we can have a valuable impact, not only on calf husbandry but also on the dairy sector.”

We designed the stall in such a way that it meets the standard for sustainable livestock farming.

With Drieveld, the VanDrie Group wants to involve not only customers, but also other stakeholders and to promote cooperation. Why is that so important?

Mulder: “We are facing major challenges as a sector. Each year, the VanDrie Group invests heavily in research in order to find innovations that contribute to solutions, both through its own R&D and through participation in joint ventures. With Drieveld, we want to bring different parties together so that we can further accelerate the transfer of knowledge. As a market leader, we consider that our responsibility. At the same time, there are many questions about the sector. Not only from customers, but also from stakeholders and society. As a company, we have always been focused on improving our products and processes, but we haven’t made this sufficiently clear. With Drieveld, we want to be transparent about our activities.” 

Van Beek: “We have therefore taken this into account in its design. There are many windows at the front and side of the stall, through which any passers-by can look inside. Inside, we built a special viewing area, so that visitors can see into the various accommodations. Drieveld also has various presentation rooms where the VanDrie Group can receive customers and stakeholders.”

Drieveld is located on the edge of a protected nature reserve. Given the current social debate on agriculture, nitrogen reduction and conservation, you may well imagine that stakeholders are asking, why there?

Mulder: “There was once a stall at the location where we built. We therefore had the necessary rights to build a new stall. We designed it so as to comply with laws and regulations concerning environmental impact, while also retaining the option to make further adjustments should this be necessary in the future.”

Van Beek: “We designed the stall in such a way that it meets the standard for sustainable livestock farming. To obtain that certificate, a stall must meet practical requirements such as extra insulation, more space per animal and heavy-duty air scrubbers that substantially reduce emissions by up to 70% in the case of ammonia, 60% in the case of particulates and 45% in the case of odour. Drieveld also had to be energy-neutral, which we achieved by using the residual heat from Alpuro's production processes.”

As you previously mentioned, the sector is facing a number of major challenges. How do you both see the future and the role that you each must play? 

Mulder: “We need to have clear goals. As the VanDrie Group, we have our own ambitions and objectives, but governments need them just as much. If a clear dot is identified on the horizon, the sector can use the knowledge and skills at its disposal to take significant steps towards reaching it.”

Van Beek: “It is however vital that we make use of each other's strengths. Together with Drieveld, the VanDrie Group is seeking solutions in the field of food in areas such as animal health, animal welfare, emissions and circularity. We are addressing these same issues by continuing to innovate in the area of stall design. I think that with the creation of Drieveld, we are setting a good example of how to work together as a sector.”