Introduction to the challenge addressed

Ruminant farming enhances areas of meadows: cattle breeding makes it possible to valorize ten million hectares of non-arable meadows. These areas make it possible to offset part of the greenhouse gases emissions by storing carbon in the soil.

A 2012 study on cattle feeding characterized consumption of fodder and concentrated feed from more than 660 farms specialising in dairy and beef cattle in France. In particular, it highlighted the important place of grass in rations (grazed or preserved in various forms): 65% of the ration of dairy and meat cattle combined and up to 80% of grass in the ration of suckler cattle.

However, during the finishing phase, the proportion of grass in the ration is lowered, and is less common. So, for example, more than one in two young meat breed cattle is produced without grass in the ration. The rations of young heifers of meat breed of "12‐20 months" are based on energy rations rich in concentrates with a small share of grass. Older slaughtered heifers have building and grazing phases. Nearly one in two meat breed cows is finished with a dominant grass in the ration, but very few finishes on pasture are encountered.

A work has been carried out to identify possible rations emerging in response to the various challenges faced by the beef sector such as economic resilience, adaptation to climate change, response to societal expectations... In particular, it was a question of better understanding the prospects for the development of the place of grass in fattening rations, and the opportunities for carbon sequestration in pastures, by identifying the determining factors (opportunities / obstacles to be removed).

Description of Innovation

There is in France only 5% of suckler cows fattened on pasture.

Initiatives are taken by breeders to optimize the grassland resource as well as possible, in particular via rotating grazing. Indeed, for most basins, grazed grass remains the cheapest fodder to produce (low inputs and mechanization, less working time) with a positive societal and environmental image. On the other hand, in the majority of situations, pasture finishes require a supplementation contribution in order to secure animal performance, especially since the animals in finish do not always have the "best" meadows on the farm, reserved for the animal categories of the stock herd.

A number of brakes need to be removed at the system level to develop grass-based rations in the finishing phase. This must involve the supervision of farmers through training and technical advice (benchmarks and management of grazed grass) in a context of climate change. Finishing on pasture also requires a good knowledge of the plots from the farmer (precocity, bearing of the soil, species present) to graze the animals at the ideal time by using the complementarity of species and surfaces.

The main obstacles identified to rotating grazing are: the management of grass and pasture, the cutting of plots or the resolution of watering problems.

However, not all breeds have the same ability to be fattened on pasture (body condition of the animals at the beginning of finishing, ingestion capacity ...).

The quantity and quality of the grass available also remains very dependent on climatic conditions (drought or humidity) which makes its exploitation insecure. Still, in a context of climate change, the valorization of good quality autumn grass in finishing rations is interesting.

Risk-taking by finishing animals on pasture compared to trough diets also exists in terms of zootechnical performance and quality of the meat product with greater variability in terms of finishing condition (finishing time, fattening state, meat color ...).

Impact on farm performance

In addition to the installation of the rotating pasture, and the work on its installation (cutting, fences according to the water points and the lift of the soils), farmers must also work directly on changes to grazing pastures, through the choice of varieties (more diversified, especially with legumes and clover) and finishing periods on pasture (shortened) and through regular passages in plots to identify the stage of the grass and value it at the right moment.

Farmers are also using new food resources, for example, agroforestry, i.e. the association of trees and crops and/or animals on the same surface, is increasingly topical. Among the objectives sought by the farmer is the production of additional fodder, which is particularly appreciable in times of drought.

Different types of agroforestry developments for fodder exist such as trees or fodder hedges and can take a certain place in the fodder system to complement the meadows. Rather reserved primarily for cows in production or growing heifers, some woody fodder could also enter a fattening ration given the food value of some of them.

Farmer comment (for Good Practices)

French farmer: “The most difficult thing is to learn how to manage grass and pasture well: carry out the right redistribution of plots, solve watering problems and properly organize how the lots will turn out.”

Further information

An example of using rotating pasture and its impact on carbon storage :

100% grassland system in France :

Elevage | La finition des bovins à l’herbe | l'Agriculteur Normand (