Smart Farmer: Custom dairy from the “mini milk factory”

On-site milk-processing plant connects farm and consumer

Guus van Roessel’s organic dairy farm has its own milk-processing plant connected to his milking robots. This innovative technology allows him to sell milk directly to supermarkets, influencing milk quality, freshness and supply chain efficiency.

“Being farmers together.” That’s what his dairy farm stands for, says Guus van Roessel. Based in the south of the Netherlands, De Dobbelhoeve family farm has produced organic milk since 1985 and operates on circular farming principles. In addition to not using pesticides or chemical fertilizers, De Dobbelhoeve also strictly limits the amount of medicines used on cows. Its social and environmental focus has led the farm to host educational projects and recreational activities and to develop nature reserves. Most recently, Van Roessel has taken innovation to the next level.

This year De Dobbelhoeve began supplying milk in its own bottles to some 500 Albert Heijn supermarkets – the largest chain in the Netherlands. It’s all thanks to the farm’s mini milk-processing plant, which pasteurizes and bottles milk on-site. This installation is directly connected to two milking robots. The ‘ladies,’ as Van Roessel calls his cows, can enter the milking station and allow themselves to be milked at their own convenience.

World premiere

The on-site milk-processing plant is the first of its kind, and since its launch earlier this year the ‘mini milking factory,’ as some have called it, has been attracting global interest.

It’s no accident that De Dobbelhoeve is the first farm to try out the machinery. “Our business delivers high-quality milk, and that includes taste,” explains Van Roessel. “It was such a pity to see our product ending up in an anonymous pool of milk, even though it was organic milk. That’s why we started looking for opportunities to strengthen the link between our farm and the consumer.”

It helped that, in addition to running his farm, Van Roessel is Director of Business Development at Lely, a milking robot manufacturer. Through Lely, he came into contact with VM Engineering, a firm that was developing a small-scale milk-processing plant. Van Roessel and his Lely colleagues recognized the product’s potential, particularly if it were directly connected to a milking robot. It was clear: De Dobbelhoeve was the perfect pilot location.

“It was a pity seeing our milk ending up in an anonymous pool”

- Guus van Roessel, De Dobbelhoeve

A significant risk

The decision to build its own milk-processing plant had significant consequences for De Dobbelhoeve. Lely’s offer to make a pre-investment lowered the hurdle, but it was nevertheless a major business risk, says Van Roessel. “It meant that we would no longer be selling our milk to cooperatives but directly to the supermarket, which called for a distinctive brand and marketing strategy. With our milk, we are creating a completely new segment, actually.”

Buyers of De Dobbelhoeve’s ‘My Milk’ line in the supermarket can see which of the four cow families their product comes from, and on the farm’s website they can watch live images of the cows walking into the milking robot station. Van Roessel says the new milk brand is popular: “Sales are exceeding the store’s expectations.”

In the spotlight

It took Van Roessel some time to get used to the fact that his milk no longer disappeared into a huge pool of milk. For it now means that he is directly accountable for the delivery and quality of his product. “Customers are now really buying our milk. If something goes wrong, we notice it right away. When we first started, for example, there was a disruption in our production that caused a delay in our delivery by a couple of hours.”

The business is also increasingly in the limelight. De Dobbelhoeve must be in tip-top shape 24 hours a day due to the live camera on its website. And it is also getting quite a bit of media attention. Van Roessel: “We have been getting very enthusiastic reactions from customers, but we have also had to endure criticism. For example, from vegans who are categorically against keeping cows, and from people who think farmers should not bypass the cooperative in the supply chain.”

Guus van Roessel with ‘My Milk,’ bottled directly on his own farm.

Still, the benefits easily outweigh the drawbacks. De Dobbelhoeve’s own milk-processing plant has many plusses, such as the fact that its milk is fresher due to the absence of a middleman. Moreover, Van Roessel believes his way of producing and distributing milk is better for the environment. He is currently having the environmental effects of the process investigated so that he can publish the results in the future.

Customized food

De Dobbelhoeve is also in a unique position to capitalize on new trends. For example, Van Roessel sees major opportunities for more customized food: “This trend already exists among top athletes, but it is now beginning to extend into other areas like nursing care. Certain groups of patients need food with more protein or other components, and with our new production method we can meet such needs. We can influence the make-up of our milk through the feed we give our cows, and we can set aside this customized milk for specific buyers.”

De Dobbelhoeve is in touch with a caterer serving hospitals that is interested in buying this special milk, says Van Roessel. And he sees many more opportunities ahead: “This is just the beginning of a completely new vision for producing food.”