Sustainbeef :

Co-definition and evaluation of sustainable beef farming systems based on resources non edible by humans

Context & Objectives


Due to a growing world population and changing consumption patterns, demand for animal products is expected to increase. Ruminant-based systems have the potential advantage of using resources non edible by humans and converting these into high quality human food. However, the emergence of intensive ruminant production systems, relying on increasing use of concentrate feeds, with food value, and the related increase in land abandonment in traditional grassland regions, has increased scrutiny in respect of the sustainability of EU livestock productions. Moreover the consumers’ point of view, the social acceptability of cattle products is being questioned with regards to food quality and safety, animal welfare and the competition between feed and food.


To face these drawbacks, we hypothesize that cattle farming systems which rely mainly on grasslands and agro-industrial resources non-edible by humans are more or can be designed to be more sustainable than specialized systems which use feedstuffs that could also be directly used as food or that was produced at the detriment of food production. In addition such systems would greatly contribute to circular economy. Our measure of sustainability includes, environmental and social dimensions as well as economic perspectives taking into account the services delivered by these systems. Our proposal focuses on beef production systems as they are increasingly questioned by society.

To test this, actual and potential performances of systems representative of Europe were compared, mobilizing multidisciplinary and multi-actors approaches to co-define 1-beef system types, 2-the set of sustainability indicators to be mobilized, 3-potential levers for more sustainable systems. 


Implementation plan

To reach these objectives, the project is structured as follows:


- WP1 ensure the scientific and financial coordination of the overall project and promote the exploitation and dissemination of the results.

- WP2 define :

  1. through a multi-actors and multicriteria approaches, the indicators to characterize systems’ sustainability and their relative weight
  2. beef systems typology, based on expert knowledge, national statistics and commercial farm data
  3. estimate current contribution of beef production systems to food security  

- WP3  simulate farm systems economic, environmental and social performances – including ecosystem services - for the selected farm types under the actual context and scenarios of evolution.

- WP4 identify innovations to improve systems efficiency and, on these bases, propose alternative scenarios.


Main outputs of the project

  • Methodological outputs
    • template to describe technical, structural and economic characteristics of beef production farming system (deliverable 2.1) 
    • Definition of a multi-criteria evaluation method, with an emphasis on the evaluation of the contribution of beef farming system to food security (deliverable 2.2) 
    • Development of the farmdyn model: new programming codes to simulate suckler cow production systems and intercropping, addition of sustainability indicators and graphic interface to display main results (deliverables 3.1 &  3.2) 
  • Main references produced :
    • Technical, structural and economic description of 15 case studies representative of cattle farming systems in Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy and Germany (deliverable 2.1) 
    • References for the contribution of those systems too food security (production of human edible protein and energy per ha, feed/food competition, land use, meat production costs..)  (scientific paper: Mosnier et al., 2021, Agr. Syst)
    • Description of 20 innovations that could reduce feed-food competition (Deliverable 4.1 & 4.2)
20 11 18 EAAP Evaluation de la contribution de 16 systèmes délevage

Localisation of the 16 European beef production systems analyzed

  • Main conclusions 

- Contribution of beef production systems to food security 

15+1 representative beef production systems in France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Germany and covers cow-calf systems, finishing systems, dairy and mixed dairy- finishing systems, with or without cash crops are described. The type and quantity of feed consumed by the animals was the basis for the calculation of the consumption of resources that are edible by human, such as cereals. Cow-calf farms consume little concentrated feed. Grass resources are generally sufficient to cover the needs of the growing animal. Finishing systems require considerably more concentrated feed in energy for their animals to deposit fat. However, these values vary from farm to farm depending on their degree of intensification, such as IT-F2 which uses four times as much feed as GE-F2 where animals exhibit low average daily gains. Two of the farms with a dairy herd and cow-calf-fattener system have intermediate feed consumptions. The German dairy farmer GE-DF uses a large amount of corn silage due to its zero-grazing herd management. 

At the farm level, systems producing both beef and milk or cereals have higher  Human Edible Protein and Energy (HEP and HEE) production per hectare (up to 370 kg of HEP and 60,000 106J.ha−1) than specialized beef systems (up to 50 kg of HEP and 1600 106J.ha−1) and have lower production costs (approximately €6 kg−1 of HEP in mixed beef system and €29 kg−1 of HEP in a specialized cow-calf-fattener system). Beef systems are almost all HEE net consumers. Results are more variable concerning net HEP efficiency (= net efficiency of conversion of plant proteins or energy into beef protein or energy). The cow-calf enterprises are mostly net producers of HEP (efficiency greater than 1) but, in order to produce human edible meat, these systems need to be combined with finishing systems that are mostly net consumers of HEP. In most cases, cow-calf-finishing systems are net consumers of HEP (between 0.6 and 0.7) but grass-based systems using very little concentrates or systems using co-products not edible by humans are net HEP producers. The grass-based systems use more land area per kilogram of carcass but a major part of this area is non-tilled land (38 to 80 m² of non tillable per kg of carcass with less than 2 m² of tillable land per kg carc.), thus these systems are not in direct competition with human food production. The lowest meat production costs are the finishing systems producing the most live weight per livestock unit (LU) per year (2.4 €/kg carc) and dairy systems in lowland (5.1 €/kg carc) which share the costs between milk and meat. Although most of HEE and HEP efficient farms typically have higher meat production costs, some grassland based systems stand out positively for all indicators. These results pave the way for improvements of the contribution of beef production systems to food security.

- Potential innovations discussed with farmers and stakeholders

The 20 innovations discussed with stakeholders aimed at : 1) improving the use and management of grass and fodders by increasing the grazing efficiency (cattle fattening on pastures, fast rotational grazing), adapting animals to pastures (crossbreeding spring calving),  improving forage quality (alfalfa and red clover, hay dired in barn) and introducing human non edible fodder from cropping systems (cover crops for fodder, intergrated crop-livestock systems), 2) replacing concentrate with by-product by using new by-products (oil seed cakes in animal feeding, dried stoned olive pomace, whey), and by improving the conservation of by product ( local pulps and by- product in a single silo), 3) limiting meat production to non-competitive feed (ecological leftover), 4) insert alternative feed products in the cattle diet (insect, algae), 5) act on feed efficiency (genomic selection, precision livestock feeding), 6) optimizing existing agro systems (genomic selection, terminal cross breeding, agroforestry).

The most relevant innovations identified during the 10 focus groups organized in the different countries are : grass fattening, dynamic rotational grazing,  genomic selection, production of fodder through cover crops,  use of by products, alfalfa and red clover as protein supplement, with differences in classification between  regions and crountries.

- Simulation of scenarios to reduce feed-food competition based on Farmdyn (WP3)

The global results indicated that potential innovations have to be analysed in the context of a region and particularities of the farms where they are planned to be implemented. New feedstuff originating from other sectors, like algae, have the potential to both reduce feed food competition and improve sustainability. However, the success of such an innovation depend, for example, on its price, if too high, it is not adopted, but if too low, it may replace otherwise more desirable feedstuff from an overall sustainability point of view, such as grass silage. New breeding strategies, like crossbreeding and semen sexing, may improve sustainability as higher yielding animals are selected, and the amount of animals for herd replacement is reduced. However, this may lead to “over intensification”, for instance, by increasing the share of concentrates being fed to animals with unfavourable environmental footprints as a result. Fast rotational grazing, and the use of catch crop for livestock feeding, were among the most promising innovations, although their implementation might be hampered by limited access to adjacent fields and distance from the farmyard.

This research was made possible by funding from SusAn, an ERA-Net co-funded under European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (, under Grant Agreement n°696231


See also

Modification date: 23 May 2023 | Publication date: 18 September 2017 | By: JB - CM