Does the recoupling of dairy and crop production via cooperation between farms generate environmental benefits? A case-study approach in Europe

John T. Regan*, Silvia Marton, Olivia Barrantes, Eimear Ruane, Marjoleine Hanegraaf, Jérémy Berland, Hein Korevaar, Sylvain Pellerin, Thomas Nesme

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


The intensification of agriculture in Europe has contributed significantly to the decline of mixed crop-livestock farms in favour of specialised farms. Specialisation, when accompanied by intensive farming practices, leaves farms poorly equipped to sustainably manage by-products of production, capture beneficial ecological interactions, and adapt in a volatile economic climate. An often proposed solution to overcome these environmental and economic constraints is to recouple crop and livestock production via cooperation between specialised farms. If well-managed, synergies between crop and livestock production beyond farm level have the potential to improve feed and fertiliser autonomy, and pest regulation. However, strategies currently used by farmers to recouple dairy livestock and crop production are poorly documented; there is a need to better assess these strategies using empirical farm data. In this paper, we employed farm surveys to describe, analyse and assess the following strategies: (1) Local exchange of materials among dairy and arable farms; (2) Land renting between dairy and arable farms; (3) Animal exchanges between lowland and mountainous areas; and (4) Industrially mediated transfers of dehydrated fodder. For each strategy, cooperating farm groups were compared to non-cooperating farm groups using indicators of metabolic performance (input autonomy, nutrient cycling and use efficiency), and ecosystem services provision. The results indicate that recoupling of crop and dairy production through farm cooperation gives farmers access to otherwise inaccessible or underutilised local resources such as land, labour, livestock feed or organic nutrients. This in turn leads to additional outlets for by-products (e.g. animal manure). Farmers' decisions about how to allocate the additional resources accessed via cooperation essentially determine if the farm diversifies, intensifies or expands operations. The key finding is that in three of the four crop-livestock integration strategies assessed, these newly accessed resources facilitated more intensive farming practices (e.g. higher stocking rate or number of milking cows per hectare) on cooperating dairy farms relative to non-cooperating, specialised dairy farms. As a consequence, cooperation was accompanied by limited environmental benefits but helped to improve resource use efficiency per unit of agricultural product produced. This article provides a critical step toward understanding real-world results of crop-livestock cooperation beyond the farm level relative to within-farm crop-livestock integration. As such, it brings practical knowledge of vital importance for policy making to promote sustainable farming.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)342-356
JournalEuropean Journal of Agronomy
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Crop-livestock integration
  • Dairy production
  • Ecosystem services
  • Farm specialisation
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Resource use efficiency


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