Grassland-based livestock farming and biodiversity

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Abstract

Grasslands dominate land cover nationally and globally, and their composition, structure and habitat value are strongly influenced by the actions of domestic and wild grazing animals that feed on them. Different pastures are characterised by varying opportunities for selective feeding by livestock; agronomically improved, sown swards generally consist of a limited range of plant species whereas longer-term leys and semi-natural grasslands are characterised by a more diverse mixture of plants. In the case of botanically diverse permanent pastures/grazing lands, the dietary preferences of different grazers have a more pronounced effect on the botanical composition of the sward in the longer term. Selection of a dominant species within the sward can give less abundant components a chance to compete, increasing community evenness and species richness. Conversely, the selection of minor components reduces sward compositional heterogeneity and hence plant species richness and evenness. Body size, gut type (foregut vs hindgut fermentation), physiological status (growing, pregnant, lactating), metabolic status (extent of body reserves) and environmental conditions all influence the nutrient requirements of a given animal and related foraging priorities. The diet selected is also strongly influenced by the availability of preferred food items, and their vertical and horizontal distribution within the sward. In general, larger animals, such as cattle and horses, are less selective grazers than smaller animals, such as sheep and goats. They are quicker to switch to consuming less-preferred sward components as the availability of preferred resources declines due to their greater forage demands, and as a result can be very effective in controlling competitive plant species consistently avoided by more selective grazers. As a result, low-intensity mixed grazing of cattle and sheep has been shown to improve the diversity and abundance of a range of taxa within grazed ecosystems. Mixed/co-species grazing with different animals exploiting different grassland resources is also associated with increased pasture use efficiency in terms of the use of different sward components and related improvements in nutritional value. In situations where cattle are not available, for example if they are not considered commercially viable, alternative species such as goats, ponies or South American camelids may offer an opportunity to diversify income streams and maintain productive and biodiverse pastures/grazing lands. Stocking rate and timing of grazing also have a considerable role in determining the impact of grazing. Regardless of the species grazing or the pasture grazed, grazing systems are dynamic since selective grazing impacts the future availability of sward components and subsequently dietary choices. New technologies under development provide opportunities to monitor plant/animal interactions more closely and in real time, which will in future support active management to deliver targeted biodiversity gains from specific sites.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100671
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal
Volume16
Issue number12
Early online date24 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2022

Keywords

  • Diet selection
  • Grassland
  • Grazing pressure
  • Habitat
  • Sward composition
  • Lactation
  • Goats/physiology
  • Biodiversity
  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Ecosystem
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Horses
  • Female
  • Sheep
  • Livestock

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