The trade-off between food production and biodiversity conservation is one of the major challenges for policymakers in the Anthropocene [1
]. The expansion of agriculture and the use of unsustainable practices are the main threats to terrestrial natural habitats [2
] and to biodiversity conservation in tropical and temperate regions [3
]. The global agricultural land area was 4.9 billion hectares (Gha) in 2016—38% of the global land surface [4
]. Two thirds (3.3 Gha) of the agricultural land were used as pastures for livestock.
Pastures are the main anthropic disturbances world-wide and have expanded more rapidly than cropland. While agriculture expanded from 265 ha to 1471 million ha from 1700 to 1990, pastures expanded from 524 ha to 3451 million ha in the same period [5
] and to 3340 million ha by 2005 [6
]. This expansion is mainly due to the increasing pressure to produce animal protein, mainly from cattle. The global cattle livestock population was estimated to be 1.5 billion in 2012, producing 67 billion kg of beef carcass and 625 billion kg of milk [7
]. The expected increase in animal protein demands of 1.3% per year until 2050 may lead to a 40% increase in cattle population [8
Besides deforestation, livestock farming may cause high environmental impacts such as soil degradation [9
], water eutrophication [11
], water scarcity due to intense use and water spring deterioration [12
]. In addition, livestock raising requires the use of fossil fuels in the entirety of the productive chain, leading to high emissions and pollution [13
]. Methane is the main greenhouse gas in cattle raising and is responsible for 15% of global warming, representing ~14.5% (7.1 Gt CO2
per year) of all anthropic emissions [14
]. Livestock raising is largely viewed to be an unsustainable activity [15
]. However, the direct impacts of livestock raising on biodiversity loss are still contentious. For instance, most studies in Europe show that livestock raising for meat or milk production in intensive farming systems has negative impacts, while livestock raising for land management or conservation has positive impacts [16
]. In addition, the use of sustainable methods and technology to increase productivity has been suggested to increase and conserve on-farm biodiversity (e.g., [17
In Brazil, pastures for cattle livestock increased in the last 33 years from ~118 million ha ± 3.41% to ~178 million ha ± 2.53% [19
]—an increase of nearly 60 million ha—leading to the rapid deforestation of Brazilian ecosystems. Presently, most of the pasture area is degraded (60%) or exhibits a reduced carrying capacity [20
]. The increase of pasture productivity is of utmost importance to restrain the ongoing expansion in Brazil [21
], using more technology in both cattle raising and pasture restoration. For instance, the restoration of degraded pastures in 2006 would have prevented the occupation of 147.5 million ha of new area in the Amazonia and Cerrado biomes [22
The Cerrado biome in central–west Brazil is one of the major cattle raising regions, with 44% of the Brazilian cattle population and 60 million ha of pasture, which is the most dominant anthropic land use class [23
]. From 2002 to 2013, the pasture area in the Cerrado increased by 11% and contributed to the consolidation of the anthropization of 50% of the biome [24
], considered one of the world hotspots of biodiversity [25
The expansion of cattle raising in the Brazilian Cerrado has been characterized by low levels of technification, such as free grazing and low pasture management, and has usually been associated with the primary land occupation [26
]. As a consequence, degraded pastures currently represent 39% of Cerrado pastures [27
]. Identifying the levels of technification—i.e., practices and management systems in feeding, pasture improvement, milking, sanitary control, stocking rates and animal selection and breeding—in livestock farming is a challenge in Brazil due to the wide variety of systems and technologies employed [28
]. This diversity is mainly exhibited in feeding [29
], milking management and breeding practices [30
]. In Brazil, most dairy farmers still apply traditional production systems with low levels of technification, such as the natural service breeding method [31
The relationship of the technification level in dairy farms and the conservation of natural vegetation is still overlooked in Brazil, especially in the Cerrado. Despite its huge biodiversity, the lack of information on how technification affects conservation limits sound conservation planning for this biome. The low productivity of pastures is a major driver of deforestation in Brazil, leading to overall environmental and socio-economic impacts [32
]. Cattle ranching is mostly extensive and uses low-productivity systems, leading to pasture degradation [34
]. However, although the adoption of technologies that improve production efficiency may also decrease impacts on natural resources and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, a rebound effect may lead to a loss of initial resource savings over time due to the increase in total resource use driven by socio-psychological adaptation ([35
]; but see [36
]). However, technification in pasture management in the Brazilian Amazonia, for instance, increased livestock and milk productivity and reduced environmental impacts such as soil degradation [37
]. Because increasing the efficiency of livestock farming can reduce pasture expansion and deforestation [38
], understanding how technification levels in farms can reduce deforestation is of utmost importance for Cerrado conservation and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, as we investigate here.
Here we address the relationship between the level of technification and conservation in dairy farms in an intensive-farming landscape (Figure 1
). We specifically test the hypothesis that dairy farms with higher levels of technification have higher amount of natural vegetation and connectivity. Alternatively, to account for the effects of environment, we test whether farm area and differences in environment features among farms, such as slope, percentage of riparian forest along water courses, percentage of agriculture and pasture explain conservation of natural vegetation in dairy farms. Riparian forests, i.e., forests adjacent to water courses, are Areas of Permanent Protection (APPs) meant to protect sensitive ecosystems by Brazilian environmental law. We hypothesize that farms with more water courses, and thus with higher amount of riparian forest and lower amount of agriculture or pasture have higher amount of natural vegetation and connectivity, despite the technification level. For this, we applied questionnaires to characterize dairy production and farm management system, and to obtain variables related to the level of technification in feed and milking management, sanitary control, and genetics and breeding systems. Using the Brazilian SICAR (Brazilian System of Rural Environment) database of rural properties, we obtained farm boundaries and mapped the area of natural vegetation remnants and estimated the connectivity among these remnants to predict the effects of technification on natural vegetation conservation.
Here we show for the first time that farmers using cutting edge technology such as artificial insemination in cattle breeding tend to conserve higher percentage of natural vegetation in the COFA-LTER landscape. However, larger dairy farms and with higher percentage of riparian forest also showed higher conservation status. Cattle raising farms in Brazil use predominantly extensive pasture-raised (free grazing) system with low productivity, which may hamper conservation of natural vegetation due to the constant need for new pasture areas [21
]. In the Cerrado biome, ~39% of pastures are degraded [27
]. In the COFA-LTER landscape, most dairy farmers use pasture-raised with free grazing or semi-confinement that includes free grazing and free-stall or Barn systems, which is similar to the most used feed management system in Brazilian dairy farms (e.g., [55
]). The predominance of these feed management systems may contribute to the relatively low percentage of natural vegetation and connectivity among patches of vegetation in dairy farms due to the demand of pasture and grain plantation for cattle feeding. Few dairy farmers (16%) had higher proportion of vegetation remnants than 20%, which is the minimum determined by Brazilian environmental law (see Figure 2
a). Moreover, larger farms with higher percentage of riparian forest preserved higher percentage of natural vegetation, and had higher connectivity (see Figure 2
b,c). However, it is important to note that overall connectivity was very low, which may compromise biodiversity conservation in the landscape.
Indeed, this result was not a surprise, because farmers do not have technical support to design priority areas for conservation within the rural property that would maximize the trade-offs between ecological and economic benefits, such as improving connectivity. Usually, farmers in Brazil conserve unproductive areas, or with technical limitations for management that will not interfere in daily management practices (see [56
]). The higher conservation status in larger farms with higher percentage of riparian forest suggests that in the COFA-LTER landscape farmers are not preserving vegetation above the required by Brazilian environmental law. Farmers may adopt conservation practices based mainly on short economic benefits and in other factors such as previous experience, familiarity with technologies, perceived risks, labor requirements, and interactions with peers and advisors [57
]. In addition, public visibility and the influence of neighbor farmers that use conservation practices can drive the decision of surrounding farmers to adopt new or more ecological management practices [57
]. To our knowledge, the local government has no economic incentives to guarantee conservation, restoration or sustainable practices to improve local and regional connectivity and conservation.
Furthermore, the adherence of farmers to the SICAR (Brazilian System of Rural Environment) seems to be more related to restrictions to credit and rural financing and insurance imposed by Brazilian policies than to conservation. SICAR declaration is related to the access to rural credit and adoption of practices to improve pasture management in cattle farms in Brazil [32
]. In the COFA-LTER four dairy farms have no register in the Brazilian government database SICAR, that requires the information of legal reserve area or which area will be restore in the future to comprise the legal reserve and APPs. However, even with the SICAR declaration, most of the dairy farmers in the COFA-LTER landscape (84% of the dairy farms) do not conserve the minimum of natural vegetation established by law, suggesting that the current environmental policies provide no additional incentive to conservation in the study area.
However, it is important to highlight that positive outcomes can be identified at regional scales, as we found higher percentage of natural vegetation in a set of dairy farms that use higher levels of technification (see Figure 3
). Furthermore, planned interventions with few interferences on the production systems can favor local biodiversity and ecosystem services [58
]. Some of these interventions support the restoration of strips of natural vegetation between the crop fields [60
] and the reduction of agrochemical inputs [61
]. In the COFA-LTER landscape farmers are prone to restore areas of natural vegetation, particularly farmers with ecosystem service awareness and with higher number of springs in their properties [62
Feed management may affect greenhouse gas emission directly due to both the forage production and feed conversion rates [63
], and indirectly due to expansion of new areas of pasture and grain plantation for animal feed leading to deforestation [64
]. However, we found no relationship between feed management and the percentage of natural vegetation, and also no relationship of percentage of pasture and conservation status. It is possible that farmers may have cleared their farms for pasture planting before the adoption of cutting-edge technology, and then turned to higher levels of technification [21
] such as insemination, milking using automatic machines and confinement.
The increase in productivity of cattle raising and in general, the ecological intensification of agriculture [57
] may improve not only direct economic incomes but also conservation of vegetation remnants [22
]. In fact, our results evince that increasing technology and cattle raising efficiency may improve economic benefits. Artificial insemination was directly related to productivity in COFA-LTER landscape, i.e., dairy farms applying artificial insemination tended to have higher daily milk production (see Figure 4
), which may increase economic benefits. The benefits of applying technification can also be detected in other important indicators of productivity, for instance, dairy farms adopting artificial insemination (mean = 48.6, SD = 30.5) have higher number of dairy cows (t
= 3.25, p
= 0.012) than those with natural service with selected breeding bulls (mean = 14.9, SD = 7.4).
However, although our novel findings indicate opportunities to improve economic and ecological benefits on dairy farms, these opportunities may vary throughout Brazilian territory, restricting our conclusions to the study area. Also, it is not easy to establish patterns in the production systems in Brazil. The country is very heterogeneous in a set of factors such as the environment, technology availability and adoption, which may establish patterns utterly different in the same production system such as dairy farms.
Sustainable intensification in Brazil can potentially increase 113% in pasture grazing beef and milk production without increasing land demand and sparing areas for biodiversity conservation [67
]. Our findings point to important outcomes about technification and conservation in the COFA-LTER landscape, showing that additional economic incentives and programs aimed at improving technification in cattle breeding can increase dairy production and, consequently, may lead to additional incentives to the conservation and restoration of vegetation remnants. Besides artificial insemination, our results suggest that practices such as confinement and semi-confinement may contribute to less land demand. However, it is essential to mention that non-ecological intensification practices may reduce pasture area, but may cause a set of additional impacts on the environment. Farmers tend to adopt new management practices when they do not require high modification in the establish farming systems [57
]. Furthermore, evidence-based new management systems have higher chances of adoption when the most relevant costs and benefits to the farmers are clear [57
]. In this context, we are providing evidence that technification may bring positive income to dairy farms in the COFA-LTER region.
5. Concluding Remarks
This is the first study in Brazil showing that dairy farms using cutting edge technology in cattle breeding, such as artificial insemination, significantly conserve higher proportion of natural vegetation in their farms. Therefore, technification affected positively the conservation of natural vegetation in the COFA-LTER landscape. Farmers adopting artificial insemination had higher daily milk production and tended to use other technification systems related to dairy farm management more frequently than the other farmers, such as confinement and semi-confinement, and milking with automatic machine.
Brazil harbors a diversity of social, environmental, and economic conditions with can provide different perspectives to other parts of the territory and other productive systems (see an example in [32
]). Our dataset provides evidence that incentives to technification may promote economic benefits to dairy farmers and can provide opportunities to preserve or restore habitats in COFA-LTER landscape. Our dataset can be a starting point to design successful strategies aimed at the conservation and dairy production in the study area. However, the use of new practices or strategies can be seen as a barrier if enable conditions are not offered safely, like technical assistance and training for labor [32
The significant relationships between farm size and percentage of riparian forest and farm conservation status highlight the importance of riparian forests to maintain the connectivity at farm level, and to favor conservation status in productive dairy regions. Ecological initiatives should be designed at local and regional levels to favor essential components such as connectivity and designing farms and landscapes more permeable to organism’s movement. Additional incentives of local government are essential to support the dairy farmers to achieve economic benefits, sustainable intensification, maintain or restore habitats, and ensuring ecological benefits within farms. These initiatives are necessary independently of farm size, to promote a conservation status at landscape level. We acknowledge the limitations of our results due to the sampling size, i.e., the number of dairy farms analyzed, and the dairy farm sizes. Most farms in the COFA-LTER region are family, small or medium size, thus our results may be used with caution to large size and very large states. Also, the specific environmental conditions of the region may also influence the results, since riparian forests are important landscape components in the region due to the topography and geomorphology. Also, more studies are necessary at the farm level to understand the relationship between technification and conservation, identify barriers, and promote efficient strategies to fix it.