Despite it’s being a long, northern country with young cows, suspicion towards other countries, self-imposed regulations and a grain market that could use improvement, it’s easier to make money on milk here than in the Netherlands.
Sweden. Together with Finland, the European Union’s most northern country. A country two-thirds covered by forests. With only 6.5 percent of arable land (some three million hectares), Swedish agriculture is basically three glades in the forest – Västergötland, Östergötland/Mälardalen and Skåne, with the latter the epicenter of Swedish food production.
Even though Skåne only holds about 17 percent of the nation’s arable land, half of the food produced in Sweden is produced in Skåne. One of the cities in Skåne, Kristianstad, claims that every Swede, every day, eats something produced within Kristianstad city limits.
More horses than dairy cows
With 90 percent of the food production concentrated in the southern part of the country–with a growing season three months longer in the south than in in the north, they are sowing in the north when they harvest silage in the south. It’s fair to say that Sweden is really several countries. To give some perspective: the distance from Trelleborg in the south to the northern end of Sweden is nearly the same as from Trelleborg to Naples, Italy.
What keeps the smaller countries, or regions, together as Sweden is the firm belief that everyone outside Sweden is wrong. This could also explain the drop in Swedish production. Especially in dairy and beef. Although Sweden has good conditions for both dairy and beef, the production has declined. Sweden now has more horses than dairy cows.
Best in class
In fact, nearly all production except cereals, carrots and onions has been in a constant decline since Sweden joined the European Union. Since the deregulation in 2012, starch has had a very positive development.
Over the same period as the decline in production, the farmers’ federation declared Swedish farmers as world leaders, best in class and on the only right track. They have launched campaigns like “Swedish farmers – on the way to the world’s cleanest agriculture” and “The Swedish model,” which in essence dismisses every other farmer outside Sweden.
Since the Swedish farmers constantly have been fed with the message of their superiority, they have stopped looking at other countries’ efforts and developments. After all, since they are superior, they have nothing to learn. For over two decades, the constant mantra has been that the market would soon, really soon, appreciate the self-imposed higher costs. This erroneous belief, in combination with higher taxes, led to a poor ability to compete with other European countries. It also has had a negative impact on animal welfare.
The cows die before they get ill
A broad cross-section among Swedish farmers, politicians and consumers argue ng that Sweden has the best animal protection laws and that every other country treats their animals poorly, or at least not as well as Swedish farmers do. In reality, Swedish dairy cows live for less than 2.5 lactations. The average cow actually dies before she has paid her own costs.
This could help explain the low use of antibiotics in Swedish dairy production. Cows die before they get ill. However, it must be noted that Sweden has some benefits when it comes to other diseases: the country is free from both paratuberculosis and BVD, and between four and 13 bovine herds are infected with salmonella each year.
The remaining few turn a profit
The situation is much the same when it comes to pig production. Swedish sows have the shortest life in all the EU. Due to the required age for weaning at 28 days and since all sows don’t farrow the same day, the youngest in the group must be 28 days before weaning. This means that the piglets get so big that they harm the sow’s teats. The weaning weight is over ten kilos.
The Board of Agriculture has made some efforts to improve animal welfare by introducing a program in December 2017 that allowed weaning at 21 days as long 90 percent of the piglets were older than 26 days. Although the adjustment was rather minor, it was heavily criticized by animal protection groups. On the upside with pig production, it can be mentioned that Sweden is free from PRRS, that less than five herds a year are hit by salmonella and that the production now is so small that the few farmers who remain do earn money.
When it comes to cereal production, the situation is just the opposite. The production is growing, and Sweden is a net exporter of cereals. The arable farmers seem to compare themselves to their foreign colleagues to a greater extent than dairy farmers. They also appear to show a greater interest in innovation. Arable farmers have been ready adopters of labor-saving and efficiency-increasing engineering. Their debt is also higher than in comparable countries.
Swedish agriculture has the highest nitrogen efficiency in the OECD. Since growth regulators between 1985 and 2011 were prohibited in crops other than rye, Swedish farmers had to learn to do without. Growth regulators are now approved in all four cereals, but the use is still rather low due to the Swedish mills agreement to not buy wheat that has been treated with growth regulators. At least, not if the wheat comes from Sweden.
Despite the northern latitudes, Swedish farmers also work without Glyphosate as a drying agent in cereals. This is because regardless of whether the consumer is animal or human, it is prohibited. Tangentially, it should be noted that while glyphosate has been accused by some of increasing gluten intolerance, despite Sweden having no glyphosate residue, the native incidence of gluten intolerance is the highest in Europe.
What is also of interest with regard to Swedish cereal production is the constant basis of three eurocent per kilo compared to the price on Matif. Swedish FOB-prices are always lower than FOB-prices anywhere else. This can most likely be blamed on the farmer-owned cooperative Lantmännen, which holds about two thirds of the grain market.
Despite the lower price on grain, the price on concentrate is high. Some of the higher prices can also be blamed on Lantmännen, others on the dairies agreement to ban GMOs in the production. Since most of the soy imported to Sweden is consumed by dairy cows, all animals eat GMO-free although the abattoirs do not require GMO-free fodder. It is simply too expensive to import regular soy to the rather small pig- and chicken production. The abattoirs have however banned the use of Belgian Blue.
The public has a large access to farmland
If Swedish farmers seem fond of self-imposed higher costs and regulations, they do have some freedom when it comes to traffic. For everyone other than farmers, the maximum vehicle is 2,6 meters. For farmers it’s limitless as long as you can fit on the road. Sweden therefore has quite a few four-meter wide Väderstad Rapid.
While the maximum weight is 60 tons and the maximum length is 24 meters, some of the bigger slurry tankers are carrying too much load on each axle (illegal with full load), but as long as there are no accidents, the police tend to turn a blind eye.
It is not only farmers who can enjoy a bit of freedom. In Sweden the public has broad access to farmland and forests for recreation. Even those that are private owned. In general, only lawns and fields with crops that are excluded from what is referred to “right of public access.”
Despite everything it is easier to earn money
The ones with least access to farmland are perhaps the farmers. In the south there is competition for land. Both among farmers themselves and between farmers and the growing cities. In the north, it is difficult to obtain more land with subsidies higher than the land’s value; landowners earn more on set-aside land than by renting it to other farmers.
Despite a significant amount of both red and green tape, property rights restrictions, both self-imposed and governmental restrictions and sometimes troubling taxes, people with experience farming in other countries like Sweden. There are some Dutch farmers in Sweden, and the general opinion among them is that it is easier to make money on dariy in Sweden than in the Netherlands.
“Advisers who can’t grasp the whole picture and inadequate regulations give Swedish milk production a competitive disadvantage of three to five eurocents per liter. But that’s possible to change”, one of the Dutch farmers in Sweden remarked to me.
Swedish agriculture in numbers
Bulls, bullocks and calves: 175 000 heads. 60 740 tons.
Cows and heifers: 140 680 heads. 44 240 tons.
Fattening pigs: 2 563 000 heads. 237 770 tons.
Sows and boars: 83 000 heads. 12 000 tons.
Ewes and rams: 43 000 heads. 1 200 tons.
Lambs: 237 120 heads. 4 410 tons.
Chickens: 98 502 540 heads. 146 280 tons.
Hens: 3 787 650 heads. 4 430 tons.
Turkeys: 509 380 heads. 4 500 tons.
Eggs: 122 800 tons.
Dairy cows: 319 000 on 3500 farms.
Milk: 2 760 000 tons 4,20 percent fat. 3,46 percent protein
Suckler cows: 214 000.
Farmland: 3 000 000 hectares in total, of which 461 000 hectares are pastureland and the rest is arable land.
Cereals in total 993 000 hectares.
Wheat is largest with 470 000 hectares. Barley; 397 000 hectares.
Grassland: 1 121 000 hectares.
Potatoes: 23 000 hectares.
Sugar beets: 30 000 hectares.
Oil seed rape: 99 000 hectares.
Sweden has most McDonalds restaurants per capita in the EU.
You can only buy beer, wine and alcohol in state owned shops.
This post is also available in: DE (DE)