Livestock farming in France: a profession requiring ever-increasing levels of passion and professionalism.

10-07-2015
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In France, pasture lands account for 25% of the country’s land use.

Livestock farming still covers a significant area in France, essentially comprising cattle farming (198,000), from a total 250,000 livestock farms in France in 2013.

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The farmer is responsible for feeding the animals and monitoring their health, which is the mainstay of his profession. He must also carefully monitor their growth and development, and sustain the farm and pasture land. His ultimate aim is to sell his production, be it meat, milk, eggs or cheese, to maintain the farm’s profitability. In fact cheese is particularly profitable, with exports in 2013 worth €2,814 million. (Source: French customs).

 

There are two main approaches to livestock farming: industrial and organic. For the former, animals are reared in buildings or sheds (in cages or “above ground“). Some animals benefit from partial freedom, either inside or outside. “Organic” certification is awarded through a hierarchical system of labelling: “free range, in an open air environment”, or organic. The organic production system for livestock animals is governed according to strict standards that complement European Council Regulations 834/2007 and Commission Regulation (EC) 889/2008.

(Source: Direction Générale des Politiques Agricoles, Agroalimentaires et des Territoires).

 

What skills are needed to run a farm?

 

First and foremost it’s all about passion. Anyone can do it, based on two fundamental premises: a profound love of animals and respect for mother nature. After that, the skills can be learnt at college, for those who have not already gained practical experience working on a farm, backed by a minimum qualification in agriculture from a specialised agricultural college (e.g. CAP Agricole). In practice, it is important to have a sound knowledge of rearing and know how to apply an understanding of agronomy and agriculture. At the same time, a farmer also needs to be an excellent manager, given the importance of managing the herd and feeds. For this he must plan orders and analyse data for each animal. Computer skills are also valuable to navigate specific software programmes. The profession also requires sound accounting and administrative management skills and the farmer must also be familiar with the latest legislation relating to the farm’s social, judicial and tax status.

 

But by far the most important element relating to this profession is being “at one” with the animals, to coin an expression often used by farmers. It is vital to be receptive to the herd and scrutinise every detail. From loss of appetite to change in eye colour, the slightest change could equate to an illness capable of decimating an entire herd and the farm with it. All behaviours must be understood to be able to intervene rapidly in an urgent situation. Knowledge of biology and animal anatomy are therefore also a requirement.

 

How is the French livestock sector standing up in the face of fierce international competition?

 

Since the end of the 1990s, French farmers have had to face increased competition in the light of the internationalisation of markets. Added to which, the significant decline in farm numbers and general rural exodus. French farmers are faced notably with competition from Germany in the sheep farming sector, and more generally from Argentina, Brazil and even the US. To respond to these agricultural challenges of the 21st century, the entire industry has had to reflect on new methods and technology. The modernisation of farming equipment has allowed French farmers to stay competitive. Producing using cutting edge technology – including GPS, robotic milking machines and processing units – coupled with robust training schemes, and investing in and discovering new techniques of production, management and sales, are integral to the overall health of the French livestock sector. In addition, the diversity of production systems is considered to be an essential element responsible for the typical character of its products.

 

Farmers committed to best practice in production

 

The industry is characterised by behavioural change, namely but not exclusively. There has been a rise in voluntary approaches (Charter for good agricultural practices, relating to cattle), incentives (Contrat territorial d’exploitation which forms part of the EU Rural Development Plan, and relating specifically to sheep or grazing cattle), and soon coercive measures (a condition of direct aids relating to the first “pillar” of the CAP).

To date 100,000 cattle farmers have signed up on a voluntary basis to the Charter for good agricultural practices, which is the most common. The charter aims to raise awareness of the industry’s commitment to its social responsibilities through best production practices, including animal traceability and health, healthy diet, the strictest hygiene to protect milk quality, animal welfare and protecting the environment. In so doing, the charter ensures the long term future of farming and farms and provides consumers with the reassurance they need in terms of all meat and dairy produce.

 

Fewer farms, increased productivity

 

In 2013, the French Ministry of Agriculture counted some 250,000 farmers in France. A decline in the use of forage crops has triggered a fall in the number of farms, which has continued throughout the last decade, while production remains unaffected. As a result, labour supply is in demand, and from now until 2018, the livestock sector will recruit 4,500 people in the cattle sector and a further 4,000 for the sheep population.

 

Livestock farming also has a role to play in maintaining the countryside as an element of “terroir”. Quite apart from economy-related issues, the sector can sometimes be the only activity maintaining certain landscapes, as is the case in mountainous areas.

Key facts relating to France’s livestock farming sector in the EU:

Leading poultry producer

Leading cattle/beef producer

3rd biggest pig producer

3rd biggest sheep herd