Pasture grazing on the decline in Europe

Published on
August 1, 2013

Pasture grazing by dairy cows is on the rapid decline in Europe, also on Dutch dairy farms. Unless counteractive measures are taken, by 2025 two thirds of cows in the Netherlands will no longer graze outside. At present one third of Dutch cows never graze outside. This is the conclusion of a study commissioned by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and carried out by LEI Wageningen UR. The study investigated the situation in six European countries. In recent years, various initiatives have been developed to stimulate pasture grazing in the Netherlands, including a price premium to farms that apply grazing.

The study's SWOT analysis shows that intensification of the dairy sector has the largest negative effect on pasture grazing, partly because of the need for more control over business operations and partly through the decrease in available farm plots. On the other hand, low costs and social acceptance of the sector serve to stimulate pasture grazing. Furthermore, the dairy sector and the government are aware that keeping cows in pastures stimulates natural bovine behaviour.

On average, large farms where cows have more than 1200 'grazing hours' in summer realised a higher net income than farms where there is little or no pasture grazing. This is due to a combination of subsidies, lower feed costs and lower fixed costs. However, the study does not indicate that grazing is a guarantee of a higher income.

European trends

While the study focused on the Dutch situation in the most detail, it also looked at the situation in other north-western European countries. In these countries as well, with the exception of Ireland and Sweden, there is a noticeable trend towards keeping cows indoors. In Ireland, pasture grazing is the norm. Irish cows are in the pasture for twenty hours a day, weather permitting, for 9-10 months out of the year. In Sweden the law requires that cows spend six hours per day in the pasture for at least three months out of the year.

If pasture grazing by dairy cows is to be preserved, it is important to invest both funds and attention in knowledge and technological innovation, labour-saving measures, the economic optimisation of pasture grazing systems and the facilitation of strategic decisions, particularly on large dairy farms.