Knowledge Based Bio-Economy


Adapting livestock to low-input farming

Project acronym: Lowinputbreeds

Title of project: Development of integrated livestock breeding and management strategies to improve animal health, product quality and performance in European organic and ‘low input’ milk, meat and egg production.

Research area: Agriculture & Forestry (Improving animal health, product quality and performance of organic and low-input livestock systems through integration of breeding and innovative management techniques)

Contract No: 222623

EU contribution: €6 000 000 000 EURO

Start date: May 2009

Duration: 60 months


Most European agriculture is still based on high-input systems. However, there are many alternative systems, such as organic farming, that use lower inputs. Previous studies have shown that livestock breeds developed for ‘high-input’ production systems lack sufficient focus on the traits required by such low-input systems based on extensive or free-range grazing. There are currently only a few breeding concepts available which focus on such requirements. Hence, there is a need to develop integrated livestock breeding and management strategies with the aim of improving animal health, product quality and performance in European organic and low-input milk, meat and egg production systems.

This project aims to improve animal health, product quality and animal performance in European organic and ‘low-input’ milk, meat and egg production through research, dissemination and training activities. It is focusing on four livestock species (dairy and meat cattle, dairy and meat sheep, pigs and laying hens) within the main alternative livestock production systems. It has four main science- or technology-based objectives that include genome-wide and marker-assisted selection with farmer participation in breeding strategies, which will deliver genotypes with ‘robustness’ and quality traits required under low-input conditions. It also expects to design species-specific breeding strategies for various macroclimatic regions of Europe.

It will also integrate the use of improved genotypes with innovative management strategies, including development of improved diets, feeding regimes and rearing systems. It will focus on issues such as mastitis and parasite control as well as other animal welfare problems where breeding or management innovations alone are unlikely to provide satisfactory solutions. It will identify potential economic, environmental, genetic and ethical impacts of the project deliverables to ensure that they conform to various societal priorities and consumer demands/expectations and are acceptable to producers.

Expected impacts

The project will have a significant impact on farmers using various low-input systems who, at present, rely on information and animals mainly derived from more intensive farming systems. This leads to a number of problems that cannot be resolved as they are generally solved in intensive farming by the use of additional chemical inputs, such as antibiotics to cure mastitis or anthelmintic medicines to control flukes and parasitic worms. As these are not permitted in low-input systems, the animals either suffer or are treated but then fall outside the approved parameters set by the various bodies each EU Member State has designated in compliance with Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and other related legislation, thereby reducing farm incomes. Low-input farm systems may also suffer economic loss due to factors relating to product quality and shelf life which, in turn, may reflect the nutritional status of the animals influenced by feed quality. Whereas intensive farming depends on fertiliser application on pastures and supplemented diets for more intensively reared (housed) animals, this is not permitted for low-input systems. Use of the improved strategies developed by this project, that stay within the boundaries set by national inspection bodies, will not only benefit the farmers but will also be passed on to consumers in terms of improved product characteristics. They will also contribute to better animal welfare through the development of improved feed and better control of disease and parasite infection.

Expected results

The project aims to establish an efficient training and dissemination programme aimed at encouraging the organic and other low-input livestock industries to rapidly adopt beneficial procedures and management strategies and invest in improved livestock strains. These improvements will arise from a detailed experimental programme for the animals indicated above. As a result, strategies will be developed for the main perceived problem areas for each farm sector. Mastitis is a recurring problem for milk cows, while poor diets can lead to an increased incidence of metabolic disorders and fertility problems. The project will develop more ‘robust’ genotypes via traditional and marker-assisted breeding strategies as one of the most promising ways of addressing these issues, resulting in ‘within breed’ selection/breeding programmes matched to the needs of the alternative production systems. This will result in a genome-wide selection scheme for the Swiss Brown Cattle sub-populations as well cross-breed Holstein Friesian cattle with improved animal health, milk yield and product quality parameters.

The selected strains will also show greater resistance to biotic and abiotic stress factors. Procedures such as feed supplementation with tanniniferous forages, strategic use of clean pastures, and parasite-tolerant feeds will be recommended for parasite control. More robust strains of pigs will be produced by genetic strategies in order to reduce pig losses, especially during the pre-weaning period. These will be suited to the small populations typical of this farm sector rather than those bred at present which are adapted to high nutrient density diets. Improved diets will be outlined for laying hens as these are shown to reduce behavioural problems such as feather-pecking, smothering, and nesting behaviour leading to associated mortality rates. Results of work focused on identifying the effect of layer genotypes and storage conditions of the shelf life of eggs will also be made available since the shelf life of eggs from organic and some free-range systems is reported by egg merchants/supermarket buyers consulted during the preparation of the project to be lower than that of conventional in-door produced eggs.

Website of


Coordinator: Carlo Leifert,


University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK,

Scientific coordinator: Veronika Maurer,


Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland,


National Agricultural Research Institute, France,

Wageningen University and Research Centre, Livestock Research, The Netherlands,

Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany,

University of Catania, Department of Animal Sciences, Italy,

National Agricultural Research Foundation, Greece,

Federal Research Institute for Rural Areas, Forestry and Fisheries, Germany,

Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment, University of Copenhagen, Denmark,

University of Ljubljana, Animal Science Department, Slovenia

University of Louvain, Centre for Philosophy of Law, Belgium,

Swissgenetics, Switzerland,

Swiss Brown Cattle Breeders’ Federation, Switzerland,

Applied Genetics Network, Switzerland,

Institute for Pig Genetics, The Netherlands,

TOPIGS Iberica, Spain,

Institute for Animal Selection, Hendrix Genetics, The Netherlands,

The National Agricultural Research Institute of Tunisia, Tunisia,

Lincoln University UL-NZ, Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences, New Zealand,

University of Guelph UG-CAN, Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock, Canada,

Federal University of Vicosa UVF, Animal Science Department, Brazil,