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Agroecology: new research paths for livestock production

INRA researchers have defined five principles to enable a reduction in the ecological footprint of livestock farming systems by stimulating natural processes. These principles open the way to new research paths that will supply farmers with innovative management strategies.

Aubrac cow and calves. © INRA, WEBER Jean
Updated on 09/30/2014
Published on 11/12/2013

Livestock production, a world neglected by agroecology

During the 1980s, the neologism "agroecology" appeared in the scientific literature to designate a scientific discipline at the crossroads between ecology and agronomy.  Today, agroecology is also considered as a set of farming practices, and a social movement in reaction to the intensification of agriculture.  It forms part of a background trend around the idea of "How to produce better with fewer inputs", in production systems where efforts are being made to reconcile technical, environmental, economic and social performance.  Nevertheless, despite their key role in land-use change, livestock farming systems have so far been ignored in most agroecological thinking.

Five organising principles

Based on a classification proposed in the field of integrated crop management, INRA researchers have proposed five principles for the development of an agroecological approach to livestock production.  These principles are:

  1. adopt management practices which aim to improve animal health, by encouraging the selection of more resistant animals, preserving animal health by improving rearing conditions (respect for animal welfare), using tannin-rich plants for their anthelminthic properties, using nutritional supplements (prebiotics or probiotics.) as an alternative to antibiotics, etc.  The INRA metaprogramme GISA is indeed dedicated to the Integrated Management of Animal Health
  2. decrease the inputs needed for production by improving animal feed efficiency (by selection), using ingredients that favour nutrient digestion (enzymes of natural origin, etc.), resources that do not compete with human food supply (grasslands) and developing new food resources: sainfoin, sorghum, by-products from the agri-food industry, etc
  3. decrease pollution by optimising the metabolic functioning of farming systems, by using animal waste to fertilise crops in integrated systems, or even as a diet component for another species, etc.
  4. enhance diversity within animal production systems to strengthen their resilience, by using the complementarity between cultivated grasslands and rangelands to deal with random climatic events, or  of the adaptive trajectories of animals within herds, etc.
  5. preserve biodiversity by adapting management practices and developing landscapes so that they can provide ecosystem services, by maintaining the floristic diversity of grasslands, ecological corridors, etc.

Inter-disciplinary research

Scientists are working at present on research priorities  regarding animals, resources and livestock systems that could favour the scaling-up of agroecology.  These efforts involve researchers from different Divisions within the Institute (Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems, Science for Action and Sustainable Development and Animal Health).
The GISA and ECOSERV (Ecosystem Services, Agriculture and Forestry) metaprogrammes offer a favourable context to reinforce the operational nature of this research and encourage their inter-disciplinarity.
Two experimental systems involving dairy cows and organic sheep, managed at the Monts d'Auvergne Experimental Unit, are contributing directly to addressing these issues.  Complementary skills and disciplines within the Clermont-Ferrand-Theix Research Centre, in the Herbivore Research Unit, the Joint Research Unit for Changes in Activities, Spaces and Forms of Organisation in Rural Areas (Metafort), the Animal Epidemiology and Grassland Ecosystem Research Units, will be mobilised in order to ensure that the Centre becomes a cluster whose reputation will be enhanced through its work in the field of agroecology for livestock farming systems.  

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
Associated Centre(s):
Auvergne Rhône-Alpes

For further information

  • Dumont B., Fortun-Lamothe L., Jouven M., Thomas M. & Tichit M., 2013. Prospects for agroecology and industrial ecology for animal production in the 21 century, Animal 7: 1028-1043.