21 February 2020

Feed autonomy in organic cattle farming

Increasing the level of feed autonomy is usually considered as a prerequisite for conversion of cattle farms to organic farming. In this context, feed autonomy was analysed in eleven organic cattle farms in Wallonia in order to generate technical and economic references for farmers.

Feed autonomy in organic cattle farming

European regulations, high feed prices, improvement in the quality of the final product, reduction of the environmental impact of the production system, compel and motivate organic farmers to achieve a high level of feed autonomy. However, this is not technically easy. It requires, in particular, properly managing the feed production capacity and the animal requirements, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, to maximize in fine the gross profit margin.

The present study was based on six dairy and five suckler farms. It enabled (i) initiating a detailed classification of self-produced fodders and concentrates under organic farming conditions, and (ii) characterizing the level of feed autonomy in Walloon organic cattle farms and its relationship with the achieved economic performances and the underlying technical features.

The average level of feed autonomy on the monitored farms was high, varying between 79 and 99%. The total cost of feeding, including the production and purchase of animal feed, decreases with the level of feed autonomy. Furthermore, farms with a high economic efficiency were found to have a level of feed autonomy of 90% or higher. However, the reverse was not always true; a farm with over 90% autonomy was not economically efficient. These observations suggest that reaching 90% autonomy is necessary but not sufficient to be economically efficient.

Three types of production systems with a high economic efficiency were finally described. The first type is based on polyculture, and has relatively high production levels (~ 5800 to 6500 litres of milk/cow/year, presence of a fattening house in suckler farms), combined with high levels of feed autonomy (94 to 99%). The second type is based exclusively on grass; it has relatively high production levels (~ 5000 to 5500 litres of milk/cow/year), combined with levels of feed autonomy from 90 to 93%. The third type is based on polyculture and has a relatively low production level (~ 4000 litres of milk/cow/year), combined with almost complete autonomy (purchase of minerals only).

In conclusion, we emphasise the importance of (i) knowing the quality of the on-farm produced fodders and possible concentrates in order to optimise their use, and (ii) adapting the requirements of the herd (size, level of production) to its feed production capacity (quality and yields) in order to achieve a level of feed autonomy of at least 90%.

Full results are available on the website https://www.cra.wallonie.be/fr/dossier-autonomie-alimentaire-en-elevage-bovin-biologique.

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