4.1. The Trend for Less Grazing in Europe
The surveys among WG Grazing members in the period 2010–2019 provided, for the first time, an insight into the occurrence of grazing of dairy cows in Europe and created a unique dataset (Table 3
). A global overview of grazing in Europe became available that showed that Europe can be divided into six distinctive regions with respect to the extent of grazing and the trends in grazing that have been observed:
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.
Next to the results from the WG Grazing, there are data available from 2001 onwards for three countries (Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark) (Figure 1
). It is striking that around 2000 the three countries had relatively similar rates of grazing. For Ireland, the rate has almost remained stable throughout the last 20 years, while for Denmark, it has dramatically declined. The Netherlands is in between these two countries. WG Grazing members indicate that in Ireland grazing is consistently seen as the most cost-effective method for dairy production. In Denmark, the average herd size per farm has increased considerably. The available grazing platform per cow has decreased and the corresponding percentage of grazing decreased [6
]. It is expected that the percentage grazing will not decrease much further in Denmark due to the relatively high percentage of organic dairy farms. These dairy farms are obliged to graze. The trend in the Netherlands is in between Ireland and Denmark. In the Netherlands, market-driven practices led to less grazing. This dominant logic however was increasingly challenged by institutional logics centring round cultural identity and sustainability values [16
]. Notable actions in the Netherlands in recent times were a Grazing Covenant signed by more than 80 parties from the full dairy chain, strengthening of advice and education, and the initiation of grazing premiums for farmers. As a result, the trend of a decrease in grazing has been reversed and there has been an increase in grazing since 2016. The example of the Netherlands is, however, an exception from the more general trend of less grazing in Europe.
4.2. Is Less Grazing in Europe a Problem?
If Europe is experiencing less grazing, the question arises whether this is a problem or not. Grazing affects many aspects on a farm (e.g., economy, labour, nutrient flows). In north-western Europe, grass based dairy production is mainly seen as an economic activity with low costs and high farm profitability [3
]. The value of grazing, however, also goes beyond the farm (e.g., landscape, environment, image of the dairy farm). Next to the farmer, there are other stakeholders that value grazing. The WG Grazing members underline the importance of grazing for a large group of stakeholders (Table 4
). The importance of grazing to different stakeholder groups was also shown in the FP7 project MultiSward (www.multisward.eu
). This project aimed to increase the reliance of farmers on grasslands and on multi-species swards for competitive and sustainable ruminant production systems. Active participation of stakeholders was one of the key objectives of the project. MultiSward studied the importance of the various functions of grassland for stakeholders in Europe. An on-line questionnaire in eight languages yielded almost 2000 valid responses from representatives of different stakeholder groups (farmers, governments, businesses and organisations focusing on advice, research and education). The results clearly showed that the importance of grazing was strongly recognised by all these stakeholder groups. They in fact ranked grazing the highest out of 42 predefined functions of grasslands [18
Appreciation of grazing is based on the balance between perceived advantages and perceived disadvantages. Table 6
provides a general view of the effect of grazing based on literature. It shows a mix of advantages and disadvantages, also within themes. The advantages and disadvantages of grazing have often been discussed during WG Grazing meetings. It was concluded that they vary from farm to farm and from region to region. For many themes, the more hours of outdoor grazing, the greater the effect. Many of the advantages and disadvantages are highly dependent on the type of dairy farm. For example, the effects for a farm on sandy soil differ from those for a farm on clay or peat soil, for an intensive compared to an extensive farm and for a large compared to a small farm. Moreover, for farms with a small land base, pasture offers a completely different perspective than for farms with a large land base. Furthermore, the effect of grazing is often intertwined with an effect of farm layout. Due to the great diversity of dairy farms, it is difficult to say what ’the effect of grazing or not grazing’ is on the entire dairy farm. The management of the dairy farm also plays a major role in this. A grazing dairy farmer will use targeted management to exploit the advantages of outdoor grazing as much as possible and eliminate the disadvantages of outdoor grazing as much as possible. And that is also what a non-grazing dairy farmer will do for his or her situation. Grazing is indeed an inseparable part of total business operations. When it comes to the overall effect of grazing, the importance attached to the various effects of grazing presented in Table 6
is very personal and depending on the types of stakeholder. The positive image of grazing may explain the higher importance of grazing for the general public as presented in Table 4
The occurrence of grazing in Europe has changed in the last decade. Surveys on the extent of grazing in Europe show a trend of declining numbers of grazing dairy cows in favour of indoor feeding systems, although there are a few exceptions. At the same time different stakeholder groups value grazing. Therefore, the question is what the constraints to grazing are for farmers and how to overcome these constraints.
4.3. Constraints for Farmers and Support to Overcome These Constraints
Focus group meetings of the WG Grazing have revealed that major constraints for farmers to practice grazing can be classified in three groups, i.e., region specific, farm specific and farmer specific constraints. Region specific constraints are those that are present and cannot be influenced by individual farmers. The only thing a farmer can do is adapt to the situation. Farm specific constraints are related to the set-up of the farm. They can be customised by the farmer, but often not in the short term. Region specific constraints and farm specific constraints can be quantified; they could be considered ‘hard constraints’. Farmer specific constraints are related to the farmers themselves and to their mind-set. They deal with attitudes and perceptions. The farmer specific constraints cannot easily be quantified; they could be considered ‘soft’ constraints. They relate to intrinsic motivation, social pressure, image/perception of grazing and farmers skills.
The potential farmer specific constraints, identified by the WG Grazing members, could be classified according to the Theory of Planned Behaviour [41
]. This theory assumes that the intention of a person to express a certain behaviour (in this case grazing) depends on (1) the attitude towards the behaviour, (2) subjective norms, and (3) perceived behavioural control. In the case of grazing, this is:
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.
The farmer specific constraints may amplify the farm specific constraints. For example, farmers will be reluctant to invest in grazing infrastructure (tracks, fencing, water troughs) while it is easy to invest in machinery. As mentioned by one of the members of the WG Grazing: for successful implementation, farmers’ intrinsic motivation to apply a new technology is one of the basic prerequisites.
Next to constraints to grazing, focus group meetings of the WG Grazing have revealed many options to support farmers to overcome these constraints. Three areas were identified:
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.
These three solutions can logically be linked to the constraints for farmers that were identified (Table 7
). Region specific and farm specific constraints can for a large part be overcome by new knowledge, e.g., new technologies or development of new grazing systems, or by bringing the already available knowledge to farmers. Farmer specific constraints are related to the mind-set of the farmers. The mind-set of the farmer can change by bringing knowledge to practice and by rewarding farmers for grazing as a service to society [12
]. The first solution (knowledge) is mainly related to a change in perceived behavioural control, while the second solution affects the attitude of the farmer and/or reflects changes in subjective norms on grazing. Due to rewards, grazing will become more attractive to farmers. Rewards do not need to be necessarily monetary awards. The wide-spread assumption that farmers strive to maximize profit is often not true. They are also motivated by other aspects, like appreciation by other farmers, family, neighbours or society or by improved animal health, e.g., [42
4.4. Policy Implications
The surveys among WG Grazing members in the period 2010–2019 provided, for the first time, an insight into the occurrence of grazing of dairy cows in Europe and created a unique dataset. There is a clear trend of less grazing in Europe. This is in contrast with the importance of grazing as described in literature and underlined by the results on importance for different stakeholder groups, including the general public and the government, from surveys and focus groups of the WG Grazing. If grazing is considered to be important by societal stakeholders, then grazing should be stimulated by policy. For effective stimulation, knowledge is needed about the constraints that farmers actually experience related to grazing and the options to overcome these constraints. The analysis, carried out by the WG Grazing, showed that there are specific types of constraints. First, there are region specific and farm specific constraints. To support farmers in overcoming those constraints, region specific knowledge is needed. This could be supported by regional governments, e.g., national and local governments can support national or local research and extension programs for this purpose. Furthermore, there are farmer specific constraints. These farmer specific constraints are the most important constraints, since the farmer is a key actor for the future of grazing. It is the farmer that decides on the overall farm system and on the day-to-day management of the farm. Farmer specific constraints are also the most difficult to overcome. Studies show that farmers are motivated by personal values, preferences, experiences and habits, e.g., [11
]. They are also influenced by the human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance [42
]. Therefore, the mind-set of farmers must be considered and special attention must be paid to attitude of farmers, social norms and perceived behavioural control. For this purpose, governments could support knowledge dissemination and education and could reward farmers for grazing. Obviously, rewards can also come from the market, e.g., by rewarding added value of quality products for consumers. However, governments could play a role to reward farmers for the ecosystem services they provide to society, for example by subsidies or legislation to support grazing farmers. While formal education plays a significant part in training farmers and farmer mind-set, on-going informal learning, facilitated by extension officers from government and industry, plays a very important part in providing knowledge around grazing management and skills to overcome constraints. Indeed, the students of today are the farmers and farm advisors of the future, and as such, they determine the future of grazing. Therefore, special attention should be paid to the young farmers, since they represent the next generation of farming.
It has to be emphasized that our dataset is not a result of a thoroughly designed study. It is rather a post-hoc analysis, which means that it might not have the same analytical power compared to a fully designed study. Yet, valuable results were obtained due to the unique ensemble of methods and well documented observations/data, and due to the coverage of a period of ten years. In order to overcome constraints to grazing in the farming practice, it would be necessary to have a more interdisciplinary approach, i.e., including more explicitly people from a wider range than grassland experts, e.g., agricultural engineering, animal breeding/husbandry, agricultural economics, sociology, rural development, political science etc. Such a broader approach might have further strengthened our results and conclusions.
In the end, members of the WG Grazing stated that support is not a scientific decision, but a political decision. In the end, it is stated, “given the complexity and multifunctionality of grasslands, there cannot be only one way, one strategy for grassland management and grazing. Therefore, feasible areas should be identified and targeted where grazing can be maximised and in areas which are not suitable for grazing, other types of land-use should be considered sustainable.”
WG Grazing members state, “if grazing is not supported, the proportion of grazing dairy cows will further decline”.
However, a joined endeavour has the potential to make a significant difference in transforming grass-based production systems and stimulate grazing. A good example for this is the case of the Netherlands (illustrated in Figure 1
). A mix of stimulating actions (a Grazing Covenant signed by more than 80 parties from the full dairy chain, the initiation of grazing premiums for farmers and a strengthening of advice and education) [16
] has led to a trend change and an increase of the percentage of grazing dairy cows.
To conclude, in most countries in Europe the proportion of dairy cows grazing has been declining during the last decade. The WG Grazing identified a number of areas which can help increase levels of grazing, finding solutions in (1) new knowledge, (2) bringing the knowledge already available to practice, and (3) rewarding farmers for grazing as a service to society. In addition, the mind-set of the farmer is crucial and providing him/her with knowledge and support can have a positive impact and reverse the trend of declining grazing.