From the earliest times, humans, who were unable to consume grass, learnt how to put it to good use by becoming herdsmen, long before they became farmers. Keeping livestock in fact enabled them to make the best use of spontaneous plant growth of this kind, and still remains the best way of turning primary production to good account in areas where, because of latitude or altitude, low temperatures or the limited amount of daylight do not permit farming.
Over the years, land, climate and history have all shaped European agriculture.
The European Union (EU-15) has an area of 3.2 million km², of which:
· 43% is agricultural land,
· 38% is woodland.
Nearly half the woodland is located in the Scandinavian countries (Sweden and Finland), while grassland tends to be located in the centre of the EU, in Germany, France, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg.
In countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland or even France, useable agricultural area is largely given over to the production of forage (over 70% for the British Isles). This leads to extensive agriculture, whereas in some other European countries like Italy, forage area is relatively restricted (26% in Italy), leading to more intensive farming, and leaving little room for grassland rearing of livestock (especially with regard to cow-calf production).
Dependence of livestock production on climate and relief
Cattle production systems are partly dependent on climate and relief, since the amount of grass available over the year depends on rainfall and temperature, and because the size of buildings providing shelter for livestock is dependent on the amount of bad weather.
Livestock production tends to be located in areas with a high proportion of natural grassland, and also in mountainous or hilly areas. Other areas, mainly lowlands, are more suited to crop production (cereals, vegetables, oleaginous plants, etc), which requires ploughing and high quality soils.
The total main forage area is receding, however, falling from 55 million hectares in Europe (EU-15) in 1988 to 41 million hectares in 2001, i.e. a drop of 20% in thirteen years.
With regard to forage area, over one quarter of land in France, for instance, is used for grazing (nearly 15 million hectares) or as range (open country, sometimes common land, where the livestock moves around on a route which enables the best use to be made of land which is frequently of mediocre quality). In order to protect the environment, this land therefore needs to be managed with the aim of developing it for meat or dairy production rather than leaving it to lie fallow.
A map showing the area of land in France given over to forage production (Main forage area, MFA) as a proportion of the useable agricultural area (UAA) in each Département highlights the location of the main areas of livestock production.
There appears to be a connection between certain features of the environment and the geographical distribution of main forage area:
- altitude: in upland areas (altitude over 500 m) in the Alps, Pyrenees and Massif Central, main forage area is over 75% of useable agricultural area. In upland areas at lower altitude, the proportion of main forage area is always over 60% of useable agricultural area.
- annual precipitation: apart from the upland areas mentioned above, regions such as Aquitaine (France), Great Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands enjoy over 800 mm of rainfall per year.
- available water: areas mainly given over to forage production all have soils with average to poor available water (under 200 mm of water in the soil). Available water is an important factor for farmers, since summer temperatures can rapidly affect the level of available water and hence the quality and quantity of grass available for grazing.
Ireland, a country with a maritime climate, has 3 193 000 hectares of permanent grassland, i.e. 73% of the useable agricultural area. With its lush natural pasture, it is an ideal country for livestock farming.
The dry, warm, Mediterranean climate of southern Europe is not naturally suited to semi-intensive or intensive forage production, but rather to areas of range. With its warm, dry climate, Greece, with only 3% of its farmland given over to pasture, illustrates this well, whereas in Italy this percentage reaches 29%, and shows wide regional variation.
However, it is possible to make up for this lack of natural grazing land by using arable land for additional forage production. Typical figures are 7% for Italy or 4% for Greece, as compared to 17% for Denmark, mainly for milk production, requiring more intensive feeding.
In conclusion, it is possible to distinguish between two types of forage producing region, depending on the amount of rainfall and whether summers are dry or not. One type has a maritime climate, with dry summers of varying intensity, while the other has a continental and/or mountain climate, with heavy rainfall in spring and summer. The latter are characterized by permanent grassland making up a high proportion of main forage area, with little land given over to annual forage crops and temporary grassland.
Widely differing distribution of land given over to forage production according to country:
European Union total
Source Eurostat 2002 - in 1 000s hectares
Milk in the North, meat in the South
Since the post-war years, European construction has led to cattle production becoming increasingly regionalized, with an added split between dairy production and suckler production.
> Over 60% of the cattle herd and under 50% of the useable agricultural area, but over 80% of dairy production, is to be found to the north of a line joining Bordeaux and Venice. Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain only total 22% of the dairy farms and under 15% of dairy production in Europe (Source: FADN EU 1999).
> On the other hand, suckler cows (exclusively used for beef production) are distributed equitably, with 50% on either side of the line mentioned above.
Milk quotas: meat is gaining ground.
Since 1984, when European milk quotas were set up, the suckler herd has been expanding and gaining ground northwards. Once weaned, young bulls are frequently exported from countries in the heart of Europe (France, Germany, the Netherlands, etc), to feed lots in the Mediterranean countries of the EU, where a high proportion of consumers are concentrated.
The distribution of the cattle herd varies widely according to country: Spain has consolidated its place as the second largest suckler herd after France. The UK is ranked third, although its herd has diminished by 15% in 5 years.
France is certainly the country where the move from dairy to suckler herd has been the most marked over the last thirty years, with the restructuring of the industry and a shift to high quality beef production leading to a very sharp drop in the number of cows in the dairy herd, their place being partly taken by suckler cows from specialized breeds. As the graph below shows, the herd is now divided almost equally between dairy and suckler cows. It should also be pointed out that the number of crossbred beef x dairy cattle has dropped sharply, thus reinforcing the improved quality of information for consumers about the origin of the beef they buy.
Widely differing farms and farming systems
The large farms of England or Scotland are not comparable with the smallholdings of Ireland or the north of Portugal. But in all cases, the suckler herd (suckler cows) is characterized by the utilization of grassland (ability to convert grass into meat) and by the low income generated per cow. From around April to November, the herd mainly grazes on permanent grassland, and for the rest of the year is fed on hay. Increasing use is made of grass or maize silage for fattening. While grazing is more usual in the west of the continent (the UK, Ireland and the Atlantic regions), as well as in upland areas, feeding based on cereals is found in the more southerly parts of Europe, where they grow well, and this also enables the fattening and finishing (i.e. fattening in the last few weeks before the cattle are sold for slaughter) of the cattle to be carried out near the areas of consumption.
For instance, in Spain beef production is mainly based on intensive fattening. The main fattening areas are in Cataluña, Aragón, and Castilla y León.
The main regions in Italy are the North and the Po delta.
Farmers and cattle producers in Europe in 2000
2 farms out of 5 rear cattle
Number of farms
6.8 million, of which 40% rear cattle
127 million hectares
Size of farms
58% are under 5 hectares in area
3% are over 100 hectares in area
6,3 million people
24% are women
52% are aged over 55
Average area of cattle farms
37 hectares, of which 61% is given up to forage crops
with 45 large animal units on average
With regard to cattle farms, there are big differences between North and South.
> 17% are mixed farms combining crop growing and livestock farming to various degrees,
> 22% are specialized farms, of which 7% are dairy farms.
Half the land farmed is located in less favoured areas, defined in Europe as mountain areas, piedmont plain areas and fragile areas.
Europe is virtually divided into 2 vast zones of production
Farming systems which put the greatest emphasis on productivity are concentrated in the north and centre of Europe
> high productivity of land, capital and labour,
> a wide variety of farming systems,
> located in the wealthiest and most populated countries in Europe (GDP greater than the European average, population density often over 100 inhabitants per km²).
Within these areas 3 major systems of intensive livestock production can be distinguished:
>Grassland farming. This makes use of natural grassland, either permanent or temporary. If well managed, this grassland can provide grazing for up to 2 cows per hectare (i.e. 2 cows can feed for one year on the production of 1 hectare). Part of the production is harvested when suitable and then stored (as hay, silage, etc) to feed the herd in winter.
This system is widely used in the Netherlands, where grassland makes up over 50% of the useable agricultural area. The rest of the useable agricultural area is taken up by forage beet, barley or potatoes intended for livestock production. Livestock producers in Britain and Normandy, where farming was long based purely on grassland farming, are also now using more intensive methods. After the war, the cooperative system and work simplification spurred them on to more intensive methods, which saw a substantial expansion of the Friesian dairy herd (which subsequently became the Holstein), and of techniques such as artificial insemination, feed concentrate, functional cowsheds, better use of manure, the use of artificial fertilizer, crop rotation, etc.
>Farmer-producers. They use even more intensive farming practices, and crop production provides most of the forage needed for livestock production. This system is relatively labour-intensive, and was pioneered by the Danish.
In Lombardy, in the north of Italy, an interesting variation on this system combines irrigated grassland farming with grain production and associates the use of wheat and maize with that of clover and alfalfa. With over 2 cows per hectare, this is an intensive system which relies on the production of milk, butter and cheese (gorgonzola) for its revenue. Veal produced in feed lots from young animals purchased mainly in France has become a profitable operation. Large farms work under contract to major agri-food firms, cooperatives or private companies in the Milan area and in the Po delta.
>Mixed farming. Livestock and crop production are given roughly equal importance, but productivity varies according to the region.
Mixed farming plays a major role in the Po delta in Italy, except in the lowest-lying part of the plain, which is home to specialised cereal farming, livestock farming and orchards. Mixed farming is also very frequent in Emilia-Romagna: the landscape is crisscrossed with cereals, vineyards, forage crops and orchards. There is also a considerable amount of cattle and pig farming, with the production of Parmesan, Parma ham and mortadella.
In France, this kind of farming is more usually found in the south, in Provence or Aquitaine.
There is less emphasis on productivity in Southern Europe
> low productivity of capital and labour,
> variable productivity of land,
> a wide variety of farming systems,
> location in areas where GDP is below the European average.
In upland areas, for instance, extensive systems with low land productivity tend to be the rule. This type of traditional farming is hardly industrialized at all.
Farm tourism is expanding. This activity makes it possible to combine farming and the protection of the environment with the development of quality products, much appreciated by visitors who are keen to purchase them.
In Southern Europe, dry-land farming contrasts with irrigation farming, which is divided into various systems.
> Extensive systems can be divided up into 2 groups:
>>> Systems which combine monoculture of cereals and sedentary sheep farming (e.g. in the Abruzzo region). These are present everywhere in the inland regions of Spain, the Italian Mezzogiorno, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Greece. These systems may be either sedentary or migratory.
Despite low capital and labour productivity, the added value per hectare remains high. In the Puglia region in Italy, large areas of land are still given up to extensive cereal farming, as well as to sheep and goat farming.
>>> Systems specialised in extensive livestock farming and transhumance. The latter has declined considerably, but some regions wish to revive it in order to maintain and provide jobs connected to the farm tourism industry.
In the Calabria region in Italy, herds of dairy cattle belonging to smallholders in the valleys graze in mountain pasture and on the edge of forests in summer.
In Greece, much land in the mountains is now left idle, reflecting the decline of agriculture. Livestock has become the only option, and flocks of sheep (whose milk is used in the production of feta), as well as a few herds of hardy breeds of cattle now graze in these mountains.
> The more recent high productivity farming systems are scattered around over a small total area. It is possible to distinguish between:
>>> systems modelled on cereal or livestock farming in Northern Europe,
>>> and systems which are specific to the Mediterranean countries, based on tree crops (citrus fruit, olive groves or vineyards).
In Italy, the large dairy farms are located in Lucania and Umbria, and the area of land given over to forage production has caught up with that of wheat. But the most modern farms are located in the Po delta.
It is thus clear that not all EU countries are equally attracted by suckler production. Genuine livestock production (i.e. with a herd, rather than just fattening alone) requires large areas of grassland, particularly considering the CAP subsidies allocated for suckler production. Because of this, countries with high meat consumption, but with insufficient land for calf production (which will provide young bulls in Italy, for instance), are forced to import live young animals in order to fatten them (using a limited area of land). Movement is mainly from countries in the North of Europe, with extensive areas of grassland, to countries in the South of Europe, which are drier and where it is harder to produce forage.
This is well illustrated by the chart below, which shows trends in the Italian herd from 1973 to 2003. The trend is towards increased productivity and a reduction in numbers of the dairy herd. But there has also been a drop in the numbers of suckler cows, with Italian breeds being replaced by imported and improved breeds such as the Charolais and the Limousin, and increased imports of cattle ready to be fattened or finished.
The same trends can be seen in Greece from 1981 to 2003:
The restructuring of the industry and the shift to a specialized beef herd observed in France (see above) also applies to Portugal, where total stock has remained more or less stable:
A specific case: the Mediterranean farming system
The Western Mediterranean: an area with similar features
The Western Mediterranean basin is bounded by Spain, southern France, Italy, and further east by Greece, and, despite the geographical barriers between these countries, they have very similar features with regard to physical environment, vegetation and land use.
The widespread presence of mountain areas, the aridity and the changeable annual and seasonal weather (especially flooding) has led to:
> increasingly intensive farming in lowland areas: annual crops, fruit-tree culture and dairy farming,
> the preservation of a balance in mountain areas between woodland and extensive grazing by sheep, cattle, horses, and even pigs. This has helped to preserve soil structure and vegetation. Production techniques and breeds are specially adapted to regular (transhumance) or irregular (nomadic practices) fluctuations in the climate (rain and snowfall, temperature).
In the Mediterranean area, farming practices need to make the best use of natural resources, which are limited regarding forage, but relatively inexpensive. It is also sometimes necessary to use more intensive techniques, such as irrigation, crops, seeding pastures, etc. However, there remain areas that can only be durably utilized by livestock production.
A bright future for local breeds
Mountain pasture in the areas around the Mediterranean is extensively grazed by local multi-purpose breeds of cattle (dairy, beef, or even draught). These hardy breeds have the following qualities:
> they adapt well to the climate (resistance to heat, the sun, parasites and patchy grazing),
> they can move for long periods over what is sometimes rough, rocky range,
> multi-purpose abilities, leaning towards either beef, dairy or draught, or sometimes all 3 together.
In mountain areas, the females of hardy breeds remain outdoors almost all year round, i.e. on open range. At certain times in winter they are fed extra hay (for about 2 or 3 weeks). The calves are weaned when they are relatively young, i.e. about 5 ½ months old.
The gradual elimination of milking and of draught animals has led farmers to look for ways of increasing beef production by crossing females with males from beef breeds, which need to be carefully selected for their ability to adapt to a tough environment that is frequently very different from their original environment.
The example of Sardinia illustrates this type of breeding very well, and many experiments have been carried out there over the past forty years. The females of the Sardinian breed are at an advantage in that temperature changes between winter and summer cause less change in their body temperature than in breeds such as the Modicana or the Brown Swiss, for instance. The paternal breeds which give the best results, and which are used the most in Sardinia, are the Charolais (the breeding stock adapt well to the mountains) and the Limousin.
To continue selecting local breeds for their hardiness and for their ability to adapt to their environment is of fundamental importance.
Protection of the environment and land-use management
For today’s farmers, the environment, animal welfare, and product quality and identification are no longer seen as a hindrance but rather as assets which can lend added value to production.
The protection of the environment and land-use management are therefore now part of agriculture’s new role, which is to help protect and renew natural resources, manage land-use and create employment. Protecting our natural heritage, as well as local products, knowledge and traditions, helps to maintain the biodiversity of the rural environment and keep the countryside alive.
Cattle and sheep farming: playing a major role in protecting the environment
Extensive grazing plays an important role in the protection of nature, especially in areas which are not easily accessible to people or machinery. Cattle and sheep farming thus act as a rampart against the deterioration of the environment, rural depopulation and threats to the beauty of the European landscape.
Disused land tends to gradually revert to woodland, after an initial phase of proliferation of invasive plants, such as reeds or ferns in humid areas, and broom and brambles in many other cases. These changes lead to a reduction in biodiversity.
Grazing, which enables vegetation to be progressively brought under control over a wide area, plays a major role in preventing natural hazards, such as fire, erosion, avalanches, etc. Livestock clear inaccessible areas; they keep grass short on mountainsides, which reduces the number of avalanches in winter; they clear away undergrowth and keep brambles in check in hedgerows and fallow land, which reduces the risk of fire.
Numerous plant and animal species owe their survival to land-use management of the environment. In this way, livestock help to maintain ecosystems and biodiversity by playing a role as ecological regulators. This natural equilibrium has made it possible to preserve the rearing of livestock on grassland and to increase the amount of woodland in numerous EU countries.
Extensive livestock production thus helps to preserve biological balance, currently under threat in many European regions, especially in the Mediterranean area, where interaction between economic players is of a complex nature. The future of grazing land and of woodlands, the extent to which livestock farmers accept extensive production methods, and the integration of cattle production into an economy strongly influenced by the development of tourism are all criteria which have close links with research into the possibilities of livestock improvement.
Cattle and sheep: an excellent substitute for machinery
To clear a completely overgrown area the use of machinery can be an efficient solution, but to keep it clear the only answer is grazing by livestock. Usually this undergrowth clearance is carried out by hardy local breeds, which are well adapted to their environment. This is one case where the convenience of using these herds is more important than their productivity. The cattle can get right into tall undergrowth and know how to make use of these food reserves in the event of seasonal food shortages.
Practices like this make it possible to save local breeds which would not be productive enough within more conventional farm systems. All the EU countries have set up schemes for the preservation of breeds of this type for such uses.
These cattle can live out on open range year all year round as long as farmers take care to provide them with their staple feed (hay) when necessary, and with light shelters adapted to fit in with the landscape, where they can seek protection from high winds, rain or snow.
Transhumance, a useful activity in today’s world
Cattle and sheep can play this environmental role in relatively inaccessible areas by means of transhumance (from the Latin trans, ‘beyond’, and humus, ‘land’).
Transhumance can take place anywhere where livestock need to change the area where they graze in order to get enough food, i.e. generally in mountain areas. Every year, between May and June when the fine weather comes, cows and their calves, and ewes and their lambs, all born in winter, move up to their summer quarters. They leave the lowlands, where there is no grass left to graze on, and move up to summer pasture in mountainous (sometimes as high as 3 000 m, where they graze alongside glaciers or patches of snow) or semi-mountainous areas, where they remain until autumn. Once there, they browse on the mountain pasture, watched over by one or several shepherds. In this way the livestock put the mountain pasture to good use, in an area where any other human activity is well nigh impossible. At the same time, this gives farmers time to harvest the hay from the fields near their farms, ensuring food supplies for the coming winter.
Transhumance now usually takes place by lorry, although it still occasionally takes place on foot, which was the usual practice until a few years ago.
This ancestral practice still has its place in today’s world, and there is currently a return to the summering of beef breed heifers on mountain pastures, thus making good use of these inaccessible areas. On the one hand, it provides grazing for the cattle, and on the other it renders a useful service to people: in summer, the cattle graze on and around the ski slopes and keep the grass short, which helps to retain the snow cover in winter and reduce the risk of avalanches. Livestock is also put out to pasture in areas which need to be cleared or kept clear of undergrowth in order to reduce the risk of fires, especially in very hot weather in summer.
Cattle and sheep farming: a major role in land-use management
In a context of rural decline and depopulation of the countryside, cattle and sheep farming is frequently the only way to maintain economic activity and population levels in some rural areas. This is especially true in mountain areas, where any other type of farming is out of the question. Thus, by encouraging the development of farming, livestock production is bringing a new lease of life to our villages. It encourages the setting up and development of businesses, as well as the continued presence of public services such as schools and post offices. Cattle and sheep farming is a powerful economic force which can create a great many jobs: apart from jobs in farming itself, jobs are also created in the meat processing industry, the butchery trade, supermarkets, the catering trade and the dairy industry.