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Mixed crop-livestock systems: an economic and environmental-friendly way of farming?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2012

J. Ryschawy*
INRA, UMR 1201 Dynafor, INPT/ENSAT, F-31326 Castanet-Tolosan, France
N. Choisis
INRA, UMR 1201 Dynafor, INPT/ENSAT, F-31326 Castanet-Tolosan, France
J. P. Choisis
INRA, UMR 1201 Dynafor, INPT/ENSAT, F-31326 Castanet-Tolosan, France
A. Joannon
INRA, UR 0980 SAD Paysage, F-35042 Rennes, France
A. Gibon
INRA, UMR 1201 Dynafor, INPT/ENSAT, F-31326 Castanet-Tolosan, France
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Intensification and specialisation of agriculture in developed countries enabled productivity to be improved but had detrimental impacts on the environment and threatened the economic viability of a huge number of farms. The combination of livestock and crops, which was very common in the past, is assumed to be a viable alternative to specialised livestock or cropping systems. Mixed crop-livestock systems can improve nutrient cycling while reducing chemical inputs and generate economies of scope at farm level. Most assumptions underlying these views are based on theoretical and experimental evidence. Very few assessments of their environmental and economic advantages have nevertheless been undertaken in real-world farming conditions. In this paper, we present a comparative assessment of the environmental and economic performances of mixed crop-livestock farms v. specialised farms among the farm population of the French ‘Coteaux de Gascogne’. In this hilly region, half of the farms currently use a mixed crop-livestock system including beef cattle and cash crops, the remaining farms being specialised in either crops or cattle. Data were collected through an exhaustive survey of farms located in our study area. The economic performances of farming systems were assessed on 48 farms on the basis of (i) overall gross margin, (ii) production costs and (iii) analysis of the sensitivity of gross margins to fluctuations in the price of inputs and outputs. The environmental dimension was analysed through (i) characterisation of farmers’ crop management practices, (ii) analysis of farm land use diversity and (iii) nitrogen farm-gate balance. Local mixed crop-livestock farms did not have significantly higher overall gross margins than specialised farms but were less sensitive than dairy and crop farms to fluctuations in the price of inputs and outputs considered. Mixed crop-livestock farms had lower costs than crop farms, while beef farms had the lowest costs as they are grass-based systems. Concerning crop management practices, our results revealed an intensification gradient from low to high input farming systems. Beyond some general trends, a wide range of management practices and levels of intensification were observed among farms with a similar production system. Mixed crop-livestock farms were very heterogeneous with respect to the use of inputs. Nevertheless, our study revealed a lower potential for nitrogen pollution in mixed crop-livestock and beef production systems than in dairy and crop farming systems. Even if a wide variability exists within system, mixed crop-livestock systems appear to be a way for an environmental and economical sustainable agriculture.

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Copyright © The Animal Consortium 2012

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