Benchmarking the economic, environmental and societal performance of Dutch dairy farms aiming at internal recycling of nutrients

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Several dairy farms in the Netherlands aim at reducing their environmental impact by improving the internal nutrient cycle (INC) at farm level. Practices to improve nutrient cycling at these INC farms, however, might not only reduce the environmental impact on-farm, but alter also the off-farm environmental impact associated with supply chain processes (production and transport) related to inputs entering the farm, such as purchased feed or fertilizer or the economic or societal performance of these farms. We compared, therefore, a set of sustainability indicators of nine INC farms with a group of benchmark farms, comparable in terms of farm size, intensity and site-specific circumstances. This benchmark group was composed using statistical matching to exclude the effect of these characteristics on economic, environmental and societal performance. Economic indicators used were: farm income per unpaid annual working unit and the costs to revenues ratio. Environmental indicators used were derived from a cradle-to-farm-gate life cycle assessment: land occupation (LO), non-renewable energy use (NREU), global warming potential (GWP), acidification potential (AP) and eutrophication potential (EP), expressed per kg fat-and-protein-corrected milk (FPCM). In addition, we quantified the soil content of organic carbon and phosphorus, and the soil nitrogen supply. Societal indicators used were: payments for agri-environmental measures, grazing hours and penalties for aberrant milk composition. Results showed that INC farms had a lower non-renewable energy use per kg FPCM, higher soil organic carbon content and received higher annual payments for agri-environmental measures, whereas economic and other environmental, societal indicators did not differed. Furthermore, we demonstrated the need for a sound benchmark to assess the effect of INC-farming on the economic, environmental and societal performance. Statistical matching enabled us to define, for each INC farm, a benchmark group with similar farm characteristics, which are known to affect sustainability indicators. Observed differences in sustainability indicators between both farm groups, therefore, truly resulted from aiming at internal nutrient cycling, and not from differences in other farm characteristics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-252
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • life-cycle assessment
  • data envelopment analysis
  • sustainability
  • agriculture
  • netherlands
  • indicators
  • nitrogen
  • systems
  • land


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