Roberto Ruiz; Nerea Mandaluniz; Isabel Albizu; Luis M. Oregui.

Dept. Agrosystems and Animal Production. AZTI-Granja Modelo de Arkaute. Spain


The Basque Country is a small region of 7,300 Km2 and a population of 2.2 million people located in the North of Spain, which means a high average density (300 people/km2). Moreover, and due to the abrupt orography (from 0 to 1,500 m.a.s.l.), people is mainly concentrated at the valleys. In fact, 36% of the total surface is classified as objective 5b areas (2,657.7 km2 ) and protected areas are nowadays 11.6% (in a medium term it is planned that these will increase to 14.6%). The climate can be described as Atlantic: warm (monthly average temperatures from 3 to 22ºC) and wet (from 800 to 1,500 mm of rain/year).

The unity of exploitation is the baserri or caserio (farm), which has subsisted by a process of mayorazgo (primogeniture). They are small-sized farms, most of them from 5 to 30 ha, subdivided into separate small parcels, giving to the landscape a typical image of a chessboard. Pluriactivity is also another main feature of this entity, being usually a mixture of livestock (normally of several species and aptitudes), agriculture, and even work in industry or services.

As for livestock, the species that are breeded are sheep (311,000 ewes in 4,800 flocks), dairy cattle (82,500 cows older than 2 years), beef cattle (57,000 cows older than 2 years), goats (16,500) and horses (15,000), which, except dairy cattle that is managed in specialized exploitations, are usually harnessed in mixed farms. From the data collected by means of a survey to a sample of shepherds, it was observed the presence of beef cattle in 62% of the farms; dairy cattle in 17%; meat horses in 25% and goats in 19%.

If we take into account that the management of dairy cattle is quite standard and does not use much natural resources, goats and meat horses do not mean a significative number, this work will be focused on the most important mixed system from the point of view of the use of natural resources: dairy sheep-beef cattle.


The main characteristic of this traditional mixed system, determined by the existing conditions, is that during great part of the year (summer and part of spring and autumn) it involves nearly completely extensive conditions.

2.1.- Animal basis

It consists in the breeding of a local dairy race, the Latxa ewe. The milk it provides is the base for the elaboration of the Idiazabal cheese, a high-quality and well-known product nowadays controlled by the corresponding "Denomination of Origin" (Appellation d'Origine Controllé). From the total population of 311,000 ewes, 21% are implicated in the existing Breeders' Associations. Although they only belong to 5% of the flocks, these are the most "professional" and biggest ones (335 ewes/flock), providing most of the information available. The rest constitute very small flocks (65 ewes/flock). From a representative sample of those associated ones, 62% also have beef cattle, meaning 39% of the total GBU of the farm. They are usually local breeds, somehow rustic, with different percentages of absorption with more specialized ones such as Limousine or improved Pirenaica.

2.2.- Productive schedule

As for both species two periods can clearly be noticed: the stay at the valley and the movement to the mountain pastures (transhumance).

Sheep remain at the farm from November-December to June-July, taking place during this period lambings in autumn-winter and lactation, or milking period, from winter-spring to early summer. Later, animals will graze at the communal pastures until the arrival of the following winter (from July to November), staying milked ewes for about 122+-24 days, and dry ewes 184+-53 days. During this period ewes are dry and matings and pregnancy happen.

As for cattle, calvings are concentrated mainly from February to May, during the stay at the valley, but some of them extend until autumn, while the stay in the communal pastures. In the attempt to avoid the accumulation of work, farmers try not to concentrate the winter-spring calving period when that of lambings. First calving takes place at the age of 2.5-3 years old. Cows are taken up from May to November-December (180-210 days). Every kind of animal can be found there (pregnants that will calve up during this stay, non-pregnants, cows with the calve born during the previous winter-spring...).

2.3.- Land disponibility

According to the data of the previous sample, land disponibility varies from 15 to 50 ha, rented ones included, according to the different geographical location (Atlantic vs. Mediterranean side), with high average productions of around 8-10,000 kg DM/ha. This means a theoretic average stocking intensity (ASI) of 1.6 GBU/ha. But 65-70% of these farms use also mountain resources for quite a long time (sheep for 4-6 months per year, and cattle for 6-7 months). If we consider this fact, real ASI decreases to 0.8, allowing all these farms to maintain and even to increase the number of animals. This could not be supported just upon the valley resources.

2.4.-Feeding management

As far as possible, animals use grass production by grazing. It can be said that ewes have priority over cattle, which make good use of sheep's refuses (hays or silages) and the worse or those far away pastures. So it constitutes a good complement in the utilization of farm resources. During the stay up, grass production of the prairies is collected and stored as hay or silage for the following winter. In the case of the farms that do not take cattle up to the mountain pastures, these will graze the surpluses of the prairies that sheep will graze from the following autumn-winter (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Complementarity of valley-mountain resources.

The use of concentrates is destinated mainly for dairy sheep during the last part of the pregnancy and nearly during the whole milking period. In contrast, the expenses of concentrates for cattle is usually quite limited to the calving period and for animals for replacement, and many times it does not even exist.


3.1.- At the valley

The vegetation of the valley consists of permanent natural prairies composed of a great diversity of herbaceous species.

Although productions can be considered as being quite high, the expenses and utilization of chemical fertilizers does not still involve an environmental risk. The provided recommendations about nitrogenous fertilization, apart from manure, have been 180-200 units per ha as a top in improved prairies for zero-grazing. Moreover, as the characteristics of the lands (sloping lands, small size) interfere somehow with the use of agricultural machinery, the utilization of chemical N, considering all kind of prairies, is about 30 units/ha on average.

Recently, farmers have begun to pay more attention to their management, and practices of reseeding are more common.

3.2- At the mountain

As for mountain pastures, they are a mixture of herbaceous species (Agrostis, Festuca) with different degrees of shrubby cover (Erica, Calluna).

Animals stay mixed and nowadays are kept in completely free grazing: there are neither practices of guiding animals nor fencing. It has been observed:

-An inadequate use of the available resources, so some areas are overgrazed while some others are being undergrazed or are even ungrazed.

-According to different degrees of shrubby cover and orographical limitations, there is a great variability in the ASI. For example, the highest values of stocking rates are observed (0.7 GBU/ha) in the case of areas with less than 50% of shrubby cover

-Although animal species are not separated one from another, there is some kind of separation in the use of the resources, according to the different preferences of each species: while cattle graze the plain lands and the lowest sloping ones, sheep, and also horses, use more pronounced ones and summits.

-A general increase in the shrubby cover has been observed. This fact is more noticeable in intermedium sloping lands, those used mainly by sheep. It must be that ewes are not able to maintain it at a certain degree.

Presumably, the explanations for these facts are:

-The amount of flocks that assist to the mountain pastures has decreased about 15 points in the last 12 years (from 85% to 70%).

-Nowadays shepherds do not stay at these pastures with the flocks during the whole grazing season, searching for better living conditions, and also due to the lack of labour force in the farms, practices to guide grazing are not being carried out.

In this sense it must be said that the use of fences would suppose a chance in the traditional reglamentation as areas of public or communal utilization. Moreover, the interests arising from the actual demand of landscape for leisure activities made by the urban society sometimes run into the ones of livestock activities.

-The time of permanence of sheep has decreased notably, maybe as a consequence of:

- The breeding program: increase in milk production and duration of lactation

- The system improvement: better feeding management, investments in stables and equipment (milking machines, small cheese-factories) looking for better living conditions or due to sanitary limitations (reglamentation UE 92/46).

-Return of the wolf (Canis lupus) to some areas after an absence of about 30 years.


- Since mountain pasture is a complicated ecosystem originated from grazing livestock activity, its sustainable maintenance requires of this activity.

- Maintenance of this production system (valley-mountain) is affected by several factors, some of them inherent to the system itself (production schedules), and some derived from the socio-economical environment.

-The disturbance, or even disappearance, of this part of the system involves on the one hand a serious modification of the landscape (landscape for leisure?), and on the other hand, a higher dependence of livestock on the valley by means of more intensified systems and the subsequent environmental problematic.

-Within the framework of this global context, research in order to develop techniques that allow improving the utilization of such mountain resources is essential.