Grazing of Dairy Cows in Europe—An In-Depth Analysis Based on the Perception of Grassland Experts
- Technical factors related to the set-up and organisation of the farm (e.g., available land area, soil type, infrastructure, fragmentation) ;
- Economic factors (e.g., productivity, production costs, labour) ;
- Social factors that have to do with the intrinsic motivation and the mind-set of the farmer .
2. Materials and Methods
- Occurrence of grazing: surveys among members of the WG Grazing;
- Importance of grazing: surveys among members of the WG Grazing;
- Constraints for farmers: focus group meetings of the WG Grazing;
- Support needed to overcome these constraints: focus group meetings of the WG Grazing;
- Future of grazing: surveys among members and focus group meetings of the WG Grazing.
2.2. EGF Working Group “Grazing”
- Extent of grazing (input for the occurrence of grazing);
- Importance of grazing for different stakeholder groups: farmers, government, scientists, teachers, students, general public, respondents to the survey themselves (input for the importance of grazing);
- Biggest challenge for grazing in the next decade (input for the future of grazing).
2.4. Focus Group Meetings
3.1. The Occurrence of Grazing
3.2. The Importance of Grazing
3.3. The Constraints to Grazing for Farmers
3.3.1. Region Specific Constraints
- Climate conditions, e.g., under hot conditions with low rainfall, grass stops to grow leading, for example, to reduced or no summer growth in South Europe.
- Abiotic site conditions like topography, e.g., some mountains are too steep to graze.
- Length of the growing season, e.g., Ireland can rely on grazing during the majority of the year, while, e.g., Sweden has a short growing season.
- Soil type, e.g., in some regions soil type prevents extended grazing, e.g., peat soils.
- Culture, tradition, heritage, history, e.g., in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, the knowledge about good grazing practice has not been passed on or taught to farmers and advisors for the last three or four decades, advisors mainly focussed on barns; Hungary lost the tradition of grazing during the communist era.
- Market and prices, e.g., there is no market for products based on grazing; also different price relations of milk, concentrates, land, labour, etc. in different regions.
3.3.2. Farm Specific Constraints
- Infrastructure of the farm. This is considered the most important constraint to grazing for farmers. Grazing animals need enough land area near the barn. Fragmented land areas are not suitable.
- Large herds. This constraint is related to the previous one, since large herds need bigger grazing platforms. Often the herd size of a farm increases without an increase in grazing platform.
- Automatic milking systems (AMS). AMS is seen as a constraint, since the cows need to be able to go from the grazing platform to the AMS continuously.
- Difficult to adapt high production cows to grazing.
- Lack of grazing infrastructure (roadways, fencing, water supply), sometimes considered to be too expensive.
- Weather variability leading to fluctuations in grass supply and grass quality.
- Grass supply, grass quality and grass intake per cow are unknown, therefore supplementation not well adapted.
- Cow genotype not suited for grazing; modern cows are not adapted to grazing.
- Environmental problems, e.g., more nitrate leaching as a result of grazing.
- Less advise available for farmers who want to graze due to many technical and salespeople promoting non-grazing systems.
3.3.3. Farmer Specific Constraints
- Attitude; e.g., members mentioned that “grazing is economically profitable, but not perceived like that”; “among farmers, research and policy there are different perceptions about the benefits of grazing”; “farmers are not motivated to graze”; “it deals with the mind of farmers, this is related to personal perception of life comfort, personal motivation and preferences and the way farmers are locked in their current system”.
- Culture; e.g., in some areas grazing is perceived as old-fashioned and unproductive.
- Social environment; e.g., what is the neighbour doing?
- Social pressure by consumers as a result of public perception of benefits of grazing
- The farmers position in the supply chain, farmers are very dependent on other supply chain actors, particularly retailers.
- Opinion of advisors with a mind-set of keeping animals inside.
- Management capacities: providing grass silage and maize is easier for the farmer than grazing, grazing is complicated.
- Technical skills; e.g., grazing of larger herds and grazing in combination with AMS requires more technical skills, farmers have little information on grazing techniques, lack of confidence around decision making.
- Labour. Daily workload can be perceived as less predictable when animals are on pasture because damaged fences or water troughs must be repaired immediately. A mix of grazing and confinement (e.g., grazing only during the day) needs more labour than a confinement system only, so farmers move away from grazing; the decrease in grazing induces the perception of difficulty in managing it.
- Lack of knowledge and education of farmers.
3.4. Support to Farmers to Overcome Constraints to Grazing
3.4.1. Develop New Knowledge
3.4.2. Bring Available Knowledge to Farmers
- Strengthening of the extension system, investments in the extension system to inform and motivate people. More grazing advisors are needed and preferably advisors which are experts in animals and plants. Holistic thinking is necessary in advisory as well, as was said: “we need whole system advisors”.
- Discussion groups where farmers learn from farmers, both positive and negative issues. It was said: “Front runners may act as inspiring persons for other farmers”.
- Farm visits, preferably in the grazing season in the field to discuss relevant management strategies at that particular time in the season.
- Demonstrations of practical systems with a slight transition towards grazing rather than presenting the ideal grazing system that farmers cannot imagine to realise, for example, adding a few hours of grazing in high output systems; showing small steps may demonstrate that grazing is achievable.
- Improve communication of research results.
- Education must not only focus on the hard facts, but must improve the perception of grazing among farmers. It was said: “In our educational systems, we learned to be securely in control of our environment. By practicing the grazing system, we are out of control. Dynamic adaptation to varying environmental conditions is needed. This needs to be considered and accepted, before applying this system”
- Organising competitions, e.g., a ranking list of best grazers published in all farmers journals, give farmers the opportunity to compare and compete by benchmarking of technical and economic performance.
- Focus on knowledge transfer of the constraints related to perceived behavioural control, e.g., management capacities, technical skills and perception of labour.
- Provide a basket of fact based options, the farmer needs to have a choice.
- Focus on young farmers, advisors and teachers. It was said: “In contrast to other agricultural fields, young famers know less why and how grassland systems, and grazing systems in particular, should and could be managed with modern technologies. Grazing looks like a black box to them. And don’t forget to teach the teachers”.
3.4.3. Reward Farmers for Grazing
3.5. The Future of Grazing
4.1. The Trend for Less Grazing in Europe
- North of Europe: Countries where welfare legislation is a driver for cows being outside for six weeks to four months. While for Norway and Finland, dairy cows in some systems (mainly tie-stalls) are obliged by law to go outside; in Sweden, this is true for all dairy cows. There are no requirements regarding the contribution of pasture to the total energy supply. Cattle must have access to pasture or alternative exercise areas outdoors for a minimum of time during the summer. The length of the grazing period depends on the region: the more north, the shorter the grazing season. In this region of Europe, the percentage grazing is expected to remain high since grazing is required by law. The number of hours that cattle spend outside is, however, decreasing.
- West of Europe: Grass based dairy systems dominate and the percentage of grazing is high, especially in Ireland. In Ireland, grass based seasonal systems of milk production still predominate. The length of the grass-growing season varies from about eight months in the northeast to up to 11 months in the extreme southwest.
- Central Europe, countries with more than 50% grazing, especially near the North Sea: In this region, the percentage of grazing cows has been decreasing during the last decades. Not only are more and more cows no longer grazing, but also for the cows that graze, the days grazing per year and the number of hours grazing per day are declining. Only recently this development has slowed down due to the introduction of a premium price for ‘pasture milk’, like in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
- Central Europe, countries with less than 50% grazing: This region has shown a rapid decline of grazing in the early 2000s and now only a minority of the cows graze. A possible explanation is the considerable increase in average herd size per farm in the countries belonging to this region, which led to a decrease in available grazing platform per cow.
- East Europe: Data on grazing in countries in this region are limited. Even though there are differences between countries, the general pattern is that grazing has not been common practise during the last decade with obviously little change over time. Some countries like Bulgaria and Lithuania seem to be an exception. In most of East Europe, farm sizes are increasing just like in Central Europe, which might explain the low percentages of grazing.
- South Europe: Data on grazing in countries in this region are limited. Even though there are differences between countries, the general pattern is that grazing has not been common practise during the last decade with obviously little change over time. In the South, climate is an important factor. Warm and dry summers will lead to little or no grass growth which in turn leads to cattle being held indoors.
4.2. Is Less Grazing in Europe a Problem?
4.3. Constraints for Farmers and Support to Overcome These Constraints
- The attitude of the farmer towards grazing, i.e., perception of the farmer of the costs and benefits, both monetary and non-monetary,
- subjective norms on grazing, i.e., cultural norms and social pressure that influence the farmer and, finally,
- perceived behavioural control, i.e., farmers thinking that they lack management capacities or technical skills to successfully graze their cattle.
- Finding solutions in new knowledge, for example new technology or new grazing systems;
- Finding solutions to bring the knowledge already available to practice, for example via training and education;
- Finding solutions to reward farmers for grazing as a service to society, for example via premiums, subsidies or increased market prices.
4.4. Policy Implications
Conflicts of Interest
- Your name
- Your country
- Percentage grazing for dairy cows in your country (total should be 100%, educated guess is fine)
- Grazing (i.e., cows have a certain number of hours grazing per year)
- No grazing (i.e., cows never graze during the year)
- Please indicate the importance of grazing in your country for different groups on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is unimportant and 10 is important)
- For farmers
- For the government
- For scientists
- For teachers
- For students
- For the general public
- For you
- What is in your opinion the biggest challenge for grazing in the next decade? (asked in 2018 and 2019 only)
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|Year||Country||Number of Participants||Number of Countries Present|
|Year||Topics||Number and Size of Groups|
|2014||Four groups of about 10 persons|
|2015||Five groups of about 10 persons|
|2016||Five groups of about 10 persons|
|2018||10 groups of about 10 persons|
|Region and Country||2010||2011||2014||2016||2018||2019|
|The Netherlands 1||74||71||69||65||71||65–85|
|Respondents to the survey themselves||1||15||83|
|Problem/Constraint||Examples of Technology to Be Developed|
|Labour||Anything that reduces labour, virtual fencing, cow traffic management, how to motivate cows, drones to measure grass and to fetch the cows|
|Grass intake per individual cow is not known||Develop predictors, e.g., in the milk, and cow sensors, e.g., on cow bites, head position, automatic regulation of supplementary feeding|
|Grass supply is not known||Real-time information, use of drones|
|Grass quality is not known||Non-destructive real-time grass quality analyses|
|Data are available, but cannot be translated to advice||Develop advisory systems. Develop rules of thumb|
|Environmental problems||Precision farming and site-specific management can lead to better use of nutrients, better managed cutting and grazing, detection of poisonous plants|
|Animal health and welfare|
|Grass production and quality|
|Quality of milk|
|Environment (minerals, greenhouse gases)|
|Type of Constraint||Type of Support|
|New Knowledge||Spread Available Knowledge||Reward Farmers|
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van den Pol-van Dasselaar, A.; Hennessy, D.; Isselstein, J. Grazing of Dairy Cows in Europe—An In-Depth Analysis Based on the Perception of Grassland Experts. Sustainability 2020, 12, 1098. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12031098
van den Pol-van Dasselaar A, Hennessy D, Isselstein J. Grazing of Dairy Cows in Europe—An In-Depth Analysis Based on the Perception of Grassland Experts. Sustainability. 2020; 12(3):1098. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12031098Chicago/Turabian Style
van den Pol-van Dasselaar, Agnes, Deirdre Hennessy, and Johannes Isselstein. 2020. "Grazing of Dairy Cows in Europe—An In-Depth Analysis Based on the Perception of Grassland Experts" Sustainability 12, no. 3: 1098. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12031098