A generic method to analyse yield gaps in feed-crop livestock systems

Submitted by aart.vanderlinden on Thu, 03/23/2017 - 14:08
Beef cattle, grass, production ecology, yield gap analysis
Aart van der Linden
Prof. dr ir I.J.M. de Boer and prof. dr ir M.K. van Ittersum
Dr ir S.J. Oosting and dr ir G.W.J. van de Ven
The Netherlands


Global livestock production is expected to increase in future decades, and expansion of the agricultural area for feed production is not desired. Hence, increasing livestock production per unit agricultural area is essential. The bio-physical scope to increase production of livestock systems with the corresponding feed crop production (feed-crop livestock systems) could not be assessed generically at the start of this research. In crop production, however, crop models based on concepts of production ecology are widely applied to assess the bio-physical scope to increase actual production. The difference between the biophysical scope and actual production is referred to as the yield gap. The objectives of this thesis were 1) to develop a generic framework to assess the scope to increase production in feed crop-livestock systems based on concepts of production ecology, 2) to develop a generic livestock model simulating potential (i.e. maximum theoretical) and feed-limited livestock production, and 3) to apply this framework and model to feed-crop livestock systems, and conduct yield gap analyses.

Concepts of production ecology for livestock were specified in more detail. Feed efficiency at herd level was a suited benchmark for livestock production only, and production of animal-source food per hectare for feed-crop livestock systems. Application of the framework showed that the yield gap was 79% of the potential beef production of a cow-calf system, and 72% of a cow-calf-fattener system in the Charolais region of France. The model LiGAPS-Beef (Livestock simulator for Generic analysis of Animal Production Systems – Beef cattle) was developed to simulate potential and feed-limited production of beef cattle using input data about animals’ genotype, climate, and feed quality and availability. The model consists of sub-models describing thermoregulation, feed intake and digestion, and energy and protein utilisation. Model evaluation under different agro-ecological conditions indicated live weight gain was estimated fairly well (15.4% deviation from measured values). LiGAPS-Beef was coupled with crop growth models to simulate potential and resource-limited production of twelve grass-based beef production systems in the Charolais region. Resource-limited production combines feed-limited production of cattle and water-limited production of feed crops. Yield gaps were on average 85% of potential live weight production per hectare, and 47% of resource-limited production. Yield gaps were attributed to feed quality and quantity limitation (41% of potential production), water-limitation in feed crops (31%), the combination of sub-optimal selling or slaughter weights, culling rates, calving dates, age at first calving, and stocking densities (9%), and the combination of prolonged calving intervals and calf mortality (2%). Improved grassland management and an earlier start of the grazing season may increase live weight production per hectare. Furthermore, the resource-limited production of bulls was simulated to increase by 6-14% from 1999-2006 up to 2050 due to climate change.

From the results of this thesis, it can be concluded that 1) a generic framework using concepts of production ecology is available now to assess the bio-physical scope to increase production in feed-crop livestock systems per unit area; 2) the mechanistic model LiGAPS-Beef simulates potential and feed-limited production of beef cattle fairly well; 3) combining LiGAPS-Beef with crop growth models allows to quantify yield gaps in feed-crop livestock systems, and to analyse these yield gaps. The method described in this thesis can be used subsequently to identify options to mitigate yield gaps, and to increase livestock production per unit area, which may contribute to sustainable intensification of agriculture.

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