Regarded as the green gold of the Walloon area, grassland has been a major subject of CRA-W research for many years. This is understandable because it holds a prime position within our livestock farming systems. In recent years, a different perspective has emerged: in addition to its use for feeding livestock, it also provides many vital services to society.
These aspects are understood through the concept of ecosystem services, which refers to the various services that an ecosystem such as grassland can deliver to ensure the well-being of society. These services are divided into three distinct groups, namely:
- production services, corresponding to potentially marketable products obtained from the ecosystem,
- regulatory services, which adjust or regulate natural phenomena,
- and cultural services, corresponding to the intangible benefits that communities obtain from ecosystems
Numerous services that grassland ecosystems provide to society are being studied by the CRA-W in its various projects and trials. The provision of fodder for livestock, which ensures the production of milk or meat, is quantitatively and qualitatively studied on a weekly and monthly basis, throughout the grazing season.
The CRA-W is also developing innovative meat production techniques, such as organic veal and beef productions, with a view to maximising the role of grass in cattle feeding. Animals performances such as, on the one hand, weight gain, slaughter yields and meat quality or, on the other hand, dairy production resulting from these productions, are studied in order to evaluate the final production service associated with this agro-ecosystem.
Grassland also has a part to play in cattle health, since the application of good management practice in grazing is one of the factors in limiting parasite pressure. Indeed, the CRA-W has confirmed the importance of rotational grazing, a moderate ruminant stocking rate and alternation between mowing and grazing grassland valorisation schemes in limiting parasite pressure and maintaining healthy growth in heifers.
The services regulating the quality of water and air, delivered by the grassland, are also studied. For example, porous probes are used to determine the impact of various types of grassland management, particularly in terms of vegetation cover renovation or grazing management, on the risk of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater.
At the same time, an experimental barn and mobile system are providing the means of measuring the greenhouse gases and ammonia produced by cattle in barns and on pasture, according to different feeding strategies based on a greater or lesser use of grassland resources.
All this expertise provides a global vision of the services delivered by grassland agro-ecosystems, from their management for the production of fodder to the production of animal products, whilst meeting current demands of society.