November 28th 2014

Role of input self-sufficiency in the economic and environmental sustainability of specialised dairy farms

What are the structural characteristics necessary for the self-sufficiency of specialised dairy farms located in the grassland area? What are the relationships between input self-sufficiency, environmental and economic sustainability?


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Increasing input self-sufficiency is often viewed as a target to improve sustainability of dairy farms. However, few studies have specifically analysed input self-sufficiency, by including several technical inputs and without only focussing on animal feeding, in order to explore its impact on farm sustainability.

To address this gap, our work has three objectives as follows: (1) identifying the structural characteristics required by specialised dairy farms located in the grassland area to be self-sufficient; (2) analysing the relationships between input self-sufficiency, environmental and economic sustainability; and (3) studying how the farms react to a decrease in milk price according to their self-sufficiency degree. Based on farm accounting databases, we categorised 335 Walloon specialised conventional dairy farms into four classes according to their level of input self-sufficiency. To this end, we used as proxy the indicator of economic autonomy – that is, the ratio between costs of inputs related to animal production, crop production and energy use and the total gross product. Classes were then compared using multiple comparison tests and canonical discriminant analysis. A total of 30 organic farms – among which 63% had a high level of economic autonomy – were considered separately and compared with the most autonomous class.

We showed that a high degree of economic autonomy is associated, in conventional farms, with a high proportion of permanent grassland in the agricultural area. The most autonomous farms used less input – especially animal feeding – for a same output level, and therefore combined good environmental and economic performances. Our results also underlined that, in a situation of decrease in milk price, the least autonomous farms had more latitude to decrease their input-related costs without decreasing milk production. Their incomes per work unit were, therefore, less impacted by falling prices, but remained lower than those of more autonomous farms. In such a situation, organic farms kept stable incomes, because of a slighter decrease in organic milk price. Our results pave the way to study the role of increasing input self-sufficiency in the transition of dairy farming systems towards sustainability. Further research is required to study a wide range of systems and agro-ecological contexts, as well as to consider the evolution of farm sustainability in the long term.


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