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World's first floating dairy farm could be wave of the future

Image: Netherlands Floating Dairy Farm
Floating dairy farm concept drawing. Copyright Beladon/Floating Farm
Copyright Beladon/Floating Farm
By Tom Metcalfe with NBC News Tech and Science News
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"It's a logical step to produce fresh food on the water."


You've heard of offshore drilling platforms and offshore wind farms. Now a Dutch company is developing what's being called the world's first offshore dairy farm. Plans call for the high-tech, multilevel facility to open this fall in Rotterdam, a port city about 50 miles southwest of Amsterdam.

The floating farm will produce milk and yogurt near Rotterdam's center, taking advantage of unused space while helping curb the expense and pollution associated with transporting food products from distant farms to local grocery stores.

"Seventy percent of the face of the Earth is water, while the world population is growing and arable land is limited so we have to look in other ways to produce fresh food next to the citizens, to reduce transport," said Minke van Wingerden, a partner in the Rotterdam-based property development firm Beladon and the leader of the project. "It's a logical step to produce fresh food on the water. Most big cities are situated in [river] deltas, and it's easy to use the deltas for food production."

Floating dairy farm concept drawing.
Floating dairy farm concept drawing.Beladon/Floating Farm

She said the floating farm concept could be adopted by other port cities, with farms producing poultry and fruit as well as dairy products.

The first of up to 40 Montbéliarde cows, which are known for long lives and robust health, will come on board in November, van Wingerden said. By December, the farm — built on a floating concrete platform near the mouth of the New Meuse River — should be producing more than 200 gallons of milk and yogurt a day. The animals' manure will be collected by poop-scooping robots and sold as fertilizer.

The cows will be kept on the farm's second level, a garden-like enclosure where the animals will be milked by robots. One level up, greenhouses will grow grass, clover and other crops that will used to feed the cows. The farm's bottom level will house the machinery needed to process and package the milk and yogurt.

Floating dairy farm platform under construction.
Floating dairy farm platform under construction.Beladon/Floating Farm

The cattle, which will also feed on leftover food from local restaurants, will be able to descend a gangway to graze on nearby land. But dairy experts working on the project think the cows will prefer the shelter of the floating habitat and spend most of their time on the waves.

The farm will be anchored to the bottom of the harbor and should be stable even in bad weather, according to van Wingerden. "We asked vets in Utrecht if the cows would get seasick [on the floating platform], and they said no," she said. "So the cows will [be] very comfortable."

But not everyone is entirely comfortable with the floating farm concept.

"Attempting to grow and sustain cows, and more broadly livestock, in an indoor environment is ambitious," said Weslynne Ashton, a professor of environmental management and sustainability at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

She said the farm might pollute the water on which it floats and that the transportation needed for supplying feed to the city-based cows could displace some of the environmental benefits of making fresh dairy products in the city.

But, she added, "We need [a] lot of experiments...that are attempting [to] figure out smart ways to sustainably feed growing urban populations."

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