Producing Beef Economically on Grassland while Promoting Biodiversity

Grass-based beef production is markedly less productive than intensive year-round indoor-housing system-based production. Agroscope experts therefore studied how grass-based farms can produce both economically and in an ecologically sound manner. 

On the grasslands of the Swiss mountain and lowland regions, grazing animals are seen as landscape gardeners. Without them, the forest would overrun pastureland and biodiversity would vanish. Together with dairy farming, meat production is one of the few land-management options available in regions where arable farming, vegetable production and fruit production are not possible due to the climate or topography. But how can beef be produced both sustainably and economically in grassland regions? Agroscope researchers attempted to get to the bottom of this issue.

More calves per suckler cow aimed for

Thirty-five suckler-cow farms producing for two different quality labels – Natura-Veal (slaughter age of calves: five months) and Natura-Beef (slaughter age of calves: ten months) – were studied. These farms were classified into four production systems at three locations in Switzerland: Natura-Veal, mountain region, extensive; Natura-Beef, mountain region; Natura-Veal, hilly region, intensive and Natura-Beef, lowlands. The focus for improving efficiency lay primarily on the sale of more slaughter animals per suckler cow, i.e. through lower animal losses and higher fertility, or through the additional purchase of calves that are suckled by a suckler cow or nurse cow.

Proper adaptation of production systems to the location

The mountain farms studied showed a significantly higher share (31% to 45%) of biodiversity promotion areas (BPAs), while farms in regions with better grass growth had fewer BPAs, but higher productivity. Consequently, it was important to properly balance the measures for improving economic efficiency so as not to reduce biodiversity. In favourable forage-growing areas, improving the efficiency of the suckler cows by buying-in calves rather than increasing stocking rates led to greater profitability. In mountain regions, the potential for optimisation was lower. Site-specific, i.e. smaller and more-robust breeds of cow led to better efficiency of the suckler cows, which even in an extensive production system are able to keep profitability and biodiversity at equally high levels. Here, however, it must be borne in mind that income in the mountain region is more strongly determined by direct payments due to the low productivity. Overall, it appears that both income and biodiversity can be optimised if suckler-cow efficiency is increased at the same time as the production systems are adapted as closely as possible to the location.


  • Swiss grassland is very heterogeneous. Consequently, both income and biodiversity can be optimised by adapting production to the relevant location.
  • Farms at higher altitudes can be economically optimised through extensive management, by keeping smaller, more-robust breeds of cow and by setting up biodiversity promotion areas that generate direct payments.
  • In favourable forage-growing areas in the lowland and hilly regions it is of benefit to increase suckler-cow productivity inter alia by buying-in calves. Productive, robust breeds of cow with higher milk yields and increased fertility can bring success. With a better income comes the potential for setting up more biodiversity promotion areas.
  • Advisory services and agricultural policy-makers should create suitable incentives for promoting location-appropriate, sustainable intensification.
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