Herbivore farming is intimately linked to its territory. It is indeed the soil that produces a large part of the animals’ food, and in return the animals help maintain and develop this soil. It is therefore a question of cultivating this essential interdependence for the farmer and the environment, which varies from region to region.
The advantages of a feed produced at 90% on the farm
In France, ruminants are mainly raised in either mixed (crops and meadows) or grassland (meadows) systems. These systems make it possible to feed the animals almost entirely with the fodder and cereals of the farm. On average, it is considered that for each cow, there is one hectare of land nearby which provides food for the animal while recycling its excrement. Spreading animal excrement on the farm has a double advantage: it enriches the soil with organic matter and replaces chemical fertilizers. In addition, these quasi-autonomous systems avoid the import or transport of fodder or cereals and allow local maintenance of agricultural biodiversity and a varied crop rotation.
The place of grass
Herbivore farming (cattle, sheep, goats, horses) is practiced throughout France. It is mainly located in “less favored areas” where grazing remains the dominant form of development. In fact, herbivores, and in particular ruminants with four stomachs, are by nature capable of digesting the grass that grows on non-cultivable areas, which they transform into milk and meat.
Grass makes up on average 60% of the ration of cattle in France (See: cattle feed), this share varying according to the seasons and regions depending on soil and climate conditions. In grassland regions where the grass grows well all year round, this share rises to 80 – 90%.
In other regions with drier summers or small farm areas, the grass can be supplemented or even partially replaced by other more suitable forages such as corn harvested as a whole plant.
Herbivore farming systems in France
In France, by excluding the arable farming areas where farming has disappeared, we can schematically distinguish four major farming areas for herbivores according to soil and climate characteristics (1):
Polyculture-livestock regions: in these areas with lower and uncertain yields than in the arable crops regions of the sedimentary basins, there is an interpenetration of ruminant crops and livestock. Livestock has been maintained, often to enhance part of the non-tillable area, which remains in the grass, but also to enhance the animal by-products from the processing of beets (pulp), wheat (grains and bran) or more sunflower or rapeseed (oil cake)
Dominant fodder growing regions: on these fairly light soils, originally poor and easily plowed, efficient farming systems have been developed giving a large place to fodder corn and temporary cultivated meadows, benefiting for the North West regular rains of the oceanic climate.
Grassland regions: permanent meadows predominate. In the grassland regions of north and northwest, the soils are clayey and heavy, difficult to work, The breeding is often of mixed type (Norman type) ensuring a good development of natural meadows with a production of meat and a tradition butter and cheese. In humid mountain areas, grazing is also the only way to make the most of these large grassy areas, which cannot be mechanized or are difficult to cultivate due to the altitude. In these regions, the abandonment of agricultural land entails the risk of invading the forest and closing down landscapes.
Dry Piedmont regions: in these dry areas with a Mediterranean climate, it is mainly the breeding of small ruminants (sheep, goats) which values large areas of more or less wooded range, with low productivity, but whose interest ecological is increasingly recognized. Livestock plays an essential role in preventing fires by leaving open areas that can serve as a “firewall”.