How Much Livestock Does Switzerland Need for Optimal Land Use?

Livestock can convert grassland and by-products into valuable food. But how many animals would Switzerland need if arable land were primarily used for food production instead of animal feed?

The federal government’s climate strategy for 2050 envisages using arable land primarily for food production. Grassland, which currently accounts for 70% of the agricultural land (AL), and food industry by-products will continue to be available to livestock. Based on this strategy, this study calculated how many animals are needed in order to make optimal use of Switzerland’s grassland for food production and use the resulting by-products as judiciously as possible in animal feed. The areas of grassland were therefore recorded, with 20% of arable land being considered as artificial meadows for the maintenance of soil fertility. The remaining arable land would be available for food production. The grassland yields were estimated using the data from the Principles of Agricultural Crop Fertilisation in Switzerland (PRIF). This was used as a basis to determine how many cattle it would take to utilise the forage produced. The required number of pigs was estimated based on the amount of whey produced in cheese production. The by-products from the food industry were divided between pigs and cattle; poultry was not considered.

A large proportion of grassland yield comes from natural meadows

Every year, around 5.9 million tonnes of dry matter (DM) grass can be produced on Swiss meadows and pastures. Natural meadows contribute 73% of the grassland yield. With artificial meadows accounting for 20% of the arable land, their contribution to the total yield is 17%. Although the area of summering land is similar in size to the area of natural meadows, its yield is much lower at 12 dt DM/ha. Thus, the contribution of summering areas to the total yield is 10%.

The cattle population would remain similar, the pig population would decline

To make these 5.9 million tonnes of dry matter grass usable for human consumption, a similar number of cattle would be needed as are currently kept in Switzerland. At 545,485 animals, the dairy cow herd would remain at practically the same level as today, as would the milk produced for human consumption. Suckler cows and fattening calves would be replaced by grazing animals. In terms of livestock units (LU), the 887,573 cattle represent 94% of cattle LU in 2019. The slaughter weight of cattle would also hardly change compared to today.

The pig population would fall to 61,411 LU, which represents 35% of the current pig population. The by-products from the food industry would amount to 321,541 tonnes of dry matter, 13% of which could still be used to feed pigs. The remainder would be available to cattle as concentrated feed.

Change in populations of dairy cows, suckler cows, fattening calves, beef cattle and breeding calves, and pigs (source of current herd: SBV et al., 2023; FOAG, 2022; Proviande, 2022)


  • If Switzerland’s arable land is used primarily for the production of food, this leaves 66% of Switzerland’s agricultural land that can only be used as grassland.
  • Each year, 5.9 million tonnes of dry matter grass and 320,000 tonnes of dry matter by-products from the food industry are produced on the land, which can be used as feed for livestock.
  • To utilise the feed produced, a comparable number of cattle would be needed as today. Milk and beef production would only change slightly. The pig population would be reduced to between a third and a half of the current level.
  • Consumption of milk and beef would remain stable, while demand for pork and poultry meat in particular would have to fall significantly.
  • Such a system would require massive changes to current structures and is hardly realistic under the current circumstances.
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