How Cost-Efficient is Organic Pasture Fattening?

Beef can be produced in various ways. Intensive fattening is more productive and extensive organic pasture fattening achieves higher prices – but which is more profitable? Agroscope compared the two production systems to learn the answer.

Most beef comes from specialised cattle-fattening farms whose animals for the most part originate from dairy farms. These so-called weanlings are usually males, often with a sire from a specialised fattening breed. They are raised either on the dairy farm or on specialised weanling farms. Weanlings are the greatest cost factor on a specialised cattle-fattening farm.

Here, intensive and extensive fattening systems part ways: pasture beef according to Bio Suisse standards is based on meadow forage, while intensive beef fattening uses energy-rich supplementary fodder such as maize silage or concentrates, and the animals are kept indoors year-round.

Agroscope researchers investigated how the two production systems performed in terms of productivity, cost structures and cost-efficiency.

450 kg slaughter weight per hectare with pasture fattening

The researchers randomly selected ten specialised pasture-fattening farms from the ‘Bio-Weidebeef’ and ‘Silvestri Bio-Weiderind’ programmes. Requirements for participation were a minimum delivery of 20 fattening animals per year, no suckler-cow production, and location in the plain region. The data on intensive beef fattening stem from the same accountancy year (2019) and related to 11 farms operating to IP-Suisse standards surveyed according to the same methodology in a previous study. The pasture-fattening farms and the IP cattle-fattening farms had an average of 51 and 57 fattening places, respectively. Based on the IP cattle-fattening farms, an extrapolation to a conventional intensive cattle-fattening farm with 100 places complying with the minimum legal standards (Swiss Animal Protection Ordinance) was also performed.

The pasture-grazing system produced around 450kg slaughter weight (SW) per hectare main forage area almost exclusively with meadow forage. Nevertheless, at 1200kg per hectare, the productivity of the intensive fattening system was almost three times higher.

Good economic efficiency with organic pasture fattening

The working hours per fattening place and year were 31 hours for organic pasture fattening farms and IP-Suisse intensive fattening farms, while the conventional model farm required only 20 hours per fattening place owing to the larger herd and simpler housing system (slatted floors). The use of forage grasses and the purchase of concentrates allow for larger cattle herds on less surface area as well as higher daily weight gains, which essentially explains the high area productivity and labour productivity of the intensive fattening system. Whereas organic pasture fattening incurs an average cost of just CHF .20 per kg SW for supplemental feed, this figure is 12 times higher (CHF 2.46) for the intensive fattening system. Added to this is the high use of maize silage in the intensive fattening systems, which is also reflected in the higher machinery costs (contractor’s costs). Higher structural costs owing to higher animal welfare standards combined with smaller herds lead to moderate economic efficiency for IP-Suisse farms, with a return to labour of just over CHF 11 per hour. For pasture fattening, lower costs, higher direct payments and higher prices lead to distinctly better results with just under CHF 21 return to labour despite lower productivity. The model farm with 100 fattening places performs even better, however: owing to its high productivity it would achieve almost full cost recovery with just over CHF 26 labour utilisation, while also producing the least expensive beef.

Meat from grass

The production of organic pasture-raised meat does not create competition for land that could be used directly to grow food for humans. This feature could gain importance in future, as resources grow scarcer. However, the market share of specialised organic pasture-raised meat is extremely small, although it is cheaper to produce than meat from organic suckler-cow production. The lack of availability of weanlings seems to be an important reason for this. Furthermore, owing to lower productivity, a pasture-fattening farm incurs 64% higher costs for weanlings per kg SW – an unfavourable premise when competing with the intensive-fattening farms.


  • Organic pasture fattening with weanlings is an economically attractive proposition. Specialisation and substantial simplification of the production system contribute to very good labour efficiency, which makes comparatively high return to labour possible.
  • Intensive cattle fattening is substantially more productive and produces meat more cheaply, but only achieves a good level of economic efficiency with larger herds.
  • The availability of weanlings seems to be a pinch point for increasing the market share of organic pasture fattening. This bottleneck could be eliminated if the entire organic cattle sector were better coordinated through the inclusion of dairy farms, resulting in more weanlings from organic dairy farms being sold to organic pasture fattening farms.
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