French farmers with Charolais beef cattle only get 53 percent of the potential yield, says Aart van der Linden, the first person to make a yield gap analysis for a livestock branch. His method provides insight into how production in livestock farming can be boosted sustainably.
Charolais cows, photo: Shutterstock
The scope for increasing crop production, the yield gap, is the difference between the actual yield and the yield that is theoretically possible if all the production conditions are optimal. Ever since the 1960s, Wageningen researchers have been analysing yield gaps for crops, but never yet for a livestock farming system.
Van der Linden, who recently received his PhD for research supervised by Wageningen professors Imke de Boer and Martin van Ittersum, was the first to develop a generic method for analysing the scope for increasing production in livestock farming. He then linked the yield gap for Charolais cattle with an analysis of the feed crops for these beef cattle. This generated a yield gap for meat production per hectare.
And this yield gap is remarkably big. This is because there are limiting factors for both the cultivation of cattle feed and the production of beef. French Charolais farmers mainly produce their feed on their own farms. The average beef farmer produces only 53 percent of what is theoretically possible with the feed used and the rainwater currently available for crops. This makes the yield gap 47 percent.
French livestock farmers could reduce the yield gap by, for example, grazing more cows per hectare of land, this increasing beef production per hectare. The purpose of the analysis is to pinpoint the most feasible options for improving production, and not to maximize production, emphasizes Van der Linden. ‘That is why we also look at sustainability indicators. Respect for people, animals and the environment must be upheld when reducing yield gaps.’