SUSTAINBEEF - Co-definition and evaluation of SUSTAINable BEEF farming systems based on resources non edible by humans

Aim of the project

The hypothesis is that cattle farming systems which rely mainly on grasslands and agro-industrial resources that are non-edible by humans are more sustainable than systems which use feedstuffs that could also be directly used as food or that was produced at the detriment of food production.


A growing world population and changing consumption patterns continue to increase the demand for animal products. In this context, ruminant-based systems have the potential advantage of using resources non edible by humans and converting these into high quality food. However, there is also public debate on issues concerning the cattle sector such as food quality and safety, its impact on climate change, animal welfare and competition between feed and food production.

In that context, we hypothesize that beef farming systems which rely mainly on grasslands and agro-industrial resources non-edible by humans are more sustainable than specialized systems which use feedstuffs that could also be directly used as food or of which the production competes with food production. Sustainability here includes environmental and social dimensions as well as economic perspectives taking into account the services delivered by these systems. Furthermore, ruminant systems relying more on grassland and other biomass non-edible by humans could contribute to a circular economy.

What: Potential scenarios for the evolution of more sustainable systems, that would be able to convert non-edible feedstuffs into valuable human food under a diversity of beef farming systems representative of a diversity of soil and climate conditions and farm management schemes across Europe, will be evaluated. Suitable incentive measures to enhance their implementation will be tested, and when relevant, proposed.

Why: The emergence of intensive ruminant production systems, relying on increasing use of concentrated feeds with food value, and the related increase in land abandonment in traditional grassland regions, has increased scrutiny in respect of the sustainability of EU livestock production.

Where: The research is been done in eight academic centres located in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy.

Main project activities

Actual and potential performances of beef production systems will be compared, mobilizing multidisciplinary and multi-actors approaches to co-define beef system types, and the set of sustainability indicators to be mobilized. The effects of technical innovations, at farm scale on beef farming, territorial and value chain performances and resilience will be assessed.

Interim research findings

A first core step of SUSTAINBEEF was the definition of beef farm types along with the identification of innovations improving system sustainability while considering feed-food competition. Defining typical systems was beneficial to identify (1) targeted improvements of FarmDyn to assess beef farming systems in their regional contexts and (2) the data needed to clearly define and assess the innovations. Thirteen case studies were identified and described across regions. These data are used to parameterize and subsequently validate the model for the specific case studies.

As a second important step, twenty innovations were identified based on both literature work and interaction with stakeholders and clearly documented in description sheets, aiming at identifying levers and barriers on their implementation on farms. These innovations were subsequently discussed during focus group with farmers, advisers and others actors along the value chain. The related identification of barriers and levers is also important to model the constraints linked to each innovation and to estimate their impacts on the considered beef farming system.

Based on the fuzzy decision methodology, a sustainable evolution tree, including 42 indicators covering all three pillars of sustainability, was developed. A related tool was developed to calculate indicators’ values and implemented into FarmDyn.

List of innovation

Three steps were needed to identify innovation reducing feed-food competition. First, a literature review was performed to identify innovations and describe barriers and levers of their implementation. In parallel, experts were interviewed to complete the list. A first list of twenty innovations was established. Innovations were classified according to two levels: ESR (efficiency, replacement and redesign theory) method and management impact. Thereafter, this list was presented to farmers and advisers to (1) validate the innovations, (2) identify gaps and (3) characterize barriers and levers to their implementation at farm level.

Case studies

In a collaborative approach, case studies across regions were characterized according to a standardized and clearly structured description covering general, herd related and economics data. Data on diet are provided in detail for different animal categories.

Each team was free to develop their case studies based on either: (1) identification of a single farm by experts and use data of this farm or (2) use on a statistical approach to identify the most representative farms. Special attention was paid to the complementarity of case studies selected across regions.

Scenarios development

Tree steps were necessary to develop scenarios. The first step was the implementation and the characterisation of the case studies in the model. This step provides the baseline of the modelled case studies on which the innovation will be tested.

According to results of the focus group, the most interesting and feasible innovations were selected and implemented with FarmDyn tool for each region. Some hypothesis on the performances and prices were made for some innovations tested, as example the price of algae.

At the end, 43 scenarios were developed and 111 simulations were realised. A part of these scenarios was submitted to farmers, advisers and actors and of the value chain through participatory approach. The aims of these meetings were (1) to validate the simulated case studies, (2) to confirm the innovation hypotheses and their level of performance and price, and (3) to present and improve the developed scenarios.

Project consortium:

Coordinated by: Dr. Didier Stilmant - Walloon Agricultural Research Centre (BELGIUM)

  • BELGIUM: Walloon Livestock Association
  • FRANCE: Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique and Institut de l’Elevage
  • GERMANY: University of Bonn
  • IRELAND: Teagasc and University College Dublin
  • ITALY: Council for Agriculture Research and Economics

Funded by: SPW-Wallonia, ANR, BMEL, DAFM/Taegasc and MILPAAF as part of the ERA-NET Cofund SusAn through a virtual common pot model including EU Top-Up funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no 696231).

More information

  • The BPRACTICES project started on 1 February 2017 and runs until 31 December 2020. 
  • Website:

Presentations and posters

Research article