Who let the cows out?

Denmark celebrates organic farming tradition on Økodag

By Annabella Stieren

For a big part of Jutland’s cow population last Sunday was a very special day – that the day they all have been dreaming of during the long, dark winter nights, crowded together in their cold stable: The Økodag! While most of the human “Jutlanders” spent the day eating first ice-creams, or taking a sunbath on their terraces, the cows that were lucky enough to be born on an organic farm, were set free to eat their first portion of delicious fresh grass and take a bath in the spring-mud. It is the day “the cows dance”, a much-loved family-event, and Denmark’s celebration of its long organic farming tradition.

Approximately 247,000 Danes put on their rain boots this year and watched the cows leaving their winter stables on farms across Denmark. An all-time attendance record as organizers said. Around 6.000 of them came to Karl and Mikkel Nielsen’s small dairy cattle farm in Følle, 25 kilometres out of Aarhus. Karl and his son Mikkel participate in the Økodag since 2008, when only 500 people visited. Today the event has become popular among families with young children. Grandparents, often reminded of their own childhood, sit next young hipsters that see the day as an opportunity to take pictures in their farmer’s outfits. Everybody is waiting for the big gate to open.

Many people say that they don’t have a connection to the farms anymore today. That’s why we do it!”,Karl Nielsen explains. He owns the farm and its land since 1982. Trying to take another path than his farmers parents, he originally became a teacher. But something kept drawing him back to the countryside, he says: “Especially in the spring time it is a problem to keep away from farming”. On a sunny morning like Sunday, one can easily understand that.

Karl points at the fresh green grass, where the cows will soon pasture on: “It has the perfect height this year”. The hilly meadows of his farm almost stretch until the coast of Kale Vig, the small bay in the North of Åarhus. On the other side one can see the roofs of the village Rønde and the foothills of Mjols Bjerge national park. A quiet perfect place to set up a farm. Mikkel and Karl run it together with the help of only one more employee. “It is nice that Mikkel takes over the farm, so it stays in the family. But it was not a must”, Karl underlines.

With only 130 cows their family business is much smaller than the average Danish cow farm. In the region around Åarhus they are also one of the only farms producing milk that gets the governmentally certified organic Ø-label. One of the conditions for getting the label is that the cows have to be outside for at least six hours a day from now until the first of November (only 16% of the non-organic cows go out during this time). Every cow will eat a portion of approximately 50-100 kilograms of grass and produce 26 litres of milk per day from now on.

Denmark at the forefront

In Denmark, as in other European countries, the agricultural production changed dramatically after the Second World War. Especially since the 1950s increased economic subsidies for agricultural production led to a growing focus on large-scale production.

For cows it meant that new milking systems allowed the milk output per dairy cow to be almost tripled, while their living conditions became worse. Pastures with fresh grass such as the one Karl and Mikkel’s cows will soon enjoy, were almost non-existent.

Denmark has always been a pioneer in terms of implementing policies and subsidiaries to promote organic agriculture. It was the first country in the world that implemented a state control measurement for organics in 1987: the famous red Ø-label. In fact, today 96% of the Danes know the logo, and over 90% of them put high trust in it, as a recent survey showed.

Danes and cows enjoy the sunny day, Photo: Shulun Huang

Danes and cows enjoy the sunny day, Photo: Shulun Huang

An organic culture

The main transition to organic farming in Denmark took place in the 1990ies. For small farmers such as Karl and Mikkel organic production became the only alternative to compete with commercial mega-farms. “It is just a better way to cultivate the nature, no chemicals come into the water. And it consumes less energy, it is cheaper”, Karl explains his choice to restructure the production in 1996.

Today the demand for organic products is higher than ever. The total market share has risen from 3.9% in 2005 to 8% in 2013. This is the highest percentage in the world and it is increasing. Oats are the most popular organic products, with a market share of almost 40 %, directly followed by milk (29.3 %) and eggs (26,8 %). Reason for such high numbers are not only the new environmental awareness of well-situated, high-educated, 30-39 year old singles and families from the Greater Copenhagen area, but also supermarket campaigns. In 2005 for instance Netto, among other retail chains, sharpened their organic profile through increased marketing efforts and by widening their selection of organic products.

The Danish Ministry of Agriculture still can’t get enough: With the Organic Action Plan for Denmark the ministry recently announced that until 2020 the area devoted to organic agricultural production should be doubled. With 67 specific initiatives and DKK 400 million they want to speed up the transition from conventional to organic production on publicly owned land, help public kitchens such as hospitals and canteens to “go organic”, educate primary school kids, increase the global export of Danish organic products and invest in research.

Photo: Shulun Huang

“What are those humans looking at?”. Photo: Shulun Huang

Where the grass is not so green…

One of the world’s most important research institutions on organic agriculture is the “International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS), based in Denmark. It coordinates all the national and international research activities. The current Danish research programme Organic RDD 2 is carried out in the period 2014-2018 and consists of 10 projects. One of them is SOBCOWS, lead by Morten Kargo from Åarhus University. He tries to research on manipulating genetic codes of cows in order to establish organic breeding lines based on the existing Danish dairy breeds.

Even though the future of Danish agriculture seems to be well planned, farmers such as Karl and Mikkel Nielsen today are facing problems. In order to sell Ø-labelled products the department for organic products of The Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fishery (known as Agrifish Agency) controls the farmers at least once a year. In the case of milk it means that the cow’s food may not contain any chemicals. This is one of the challenges for Karl and Mikkel, as they can’t fight diseases with pesticides or let the grass grow better.

At the same time organic farms are nowadays also subject to the general tendency towards fewer, larger farms. While the organic cultivated area remained stable from 2012 to 2013 (180.000 hectares), the number of farms decreased by 53 compared with the previous year (2,627 authorized organic farms in 2013).

Who don’t seem to care about their future today are the cows themselves. At 12.00 they are finally let free; the flock runs outside, stirring up the dust with their hooves, shaking their heads in the warm spring air and, yes, one could say they were smiling.


See how the cows danced  being set free after the long, dark winter nights, crowded together in their cold stable


Annabella Stieren is a journalist from Berlin, Germany and a contributor at Jutland Station.