Bees, botanists and biodiversity can boost dairy farming
When Berthus-Jans Bootsma moved to south west France from the Netherlands in 2005, he was amazed by the beauty of many of his flowering meadows. They had been farmed extensively for generations and it showed. There and then, he decided to try to manage them to maintain their natural beauty and the variety of species they supported.
In 2009, he asked a local ecological association to survey the fields, setting a benchmark for his work. Four years later, mainly to determine the pasture’s evolution, he entered the French “les Prairies Fleuries” competition. He’s since won first prize 2 years in a row for the quality of his meadows in the Parc Naturel Regional des Pyrénées Ariègeoise, where he runs 20 cows on 56 hectares of extensive pasture and uses 4 hectares to grow feed cereal.
The competition for France’s best grassland meadows first took place in 2007 in a remote part of the Northern Alps, the Bauges Massif. Today it has spread to the whole of France. Competitors display their grasslands to a jury composed of agronomists, ecologists, beekeepers, hikers, restaurateurs and farmers, each contributing their individual skills to the selection of the winner. The jury carries out detailed evaluations, using key indicator plant species, and rewards farmers who manage to achieve the best agri-ecological balance on species-rich meadows and pastures on dairy farms.
The contest was initially designed to test the implementation of a new style of agri-environment measure proposed by the Parc des Bauges. The “Flowering Meadows” contract, a results-based payment scheme, allows farmers to manage their grasslands as they please as long as they achieve specific ecological outcomes.
Many farmers like Berthus-Jan have found they benefit in many ways from this biodiversity based approach. They can choose when to mow their pastures and when to add natural fertiliser. The results they seek are multiple, achieving a balance between productivity and biodiversity which leaves them feeling both proud and autonomous. Berthus-Jan is convinced, as are many, that the quality and taste of their milk is improved by grazing cows on species- rich meadows. This not only improves the taste of their cheese and other products such as yogurt, but also helps with marketing. Consumers feel greater confidence in a product that respects the environment and contributes to biodiversity. Increasingly, consumers are keen to buy products from outside agri-industrial systems.
Results-based measures such as this help show how, with special knowledge and techniques, species-rich grasslands can boost biodiversity, sustain themselves and have a positive effect on farm income.
The “Concours Prairies Fleuries” has become a national event and is now part of the prestigious Concours Général Agricole, putting biodiversity outcomes on a national pedestal. It has also helped to bring together scientists, farmers and environmentalists – groups that had traditionally been wary of each other in France.
What future do you anticipate for such schemes across Europe? Please share your experiences of similar competitions or results-based payment schemes.