Nagy, Géza
                                              Pető, Károly
                                              Vinczeffy, Imre
                                              Bánszki, Tamás
                                              Debrecen University of Agricultural Sciences
                                              Debrecen, Hungary


    The paper starts with an evaluation of grasslands as feed resources for sheep farming. The yield potential, its
seasonal distribution, and its nutritive value will be matched with the feed requirements of sheep production
based on grasslands.
    The situation analysis of the present Hungarian grassland management as land use system is going to reveal
the relations between grasslands and sheep production and try to outline the future potentials in this respect.
Results will be presented on the regional distribution of grasslands and sheep stock in the country. A regression
will be made between the sheep stock and grassland area according to the counties’ data.
    Grassland based sheep industry will be investigated from the point of sustainable land use systems. Sward
composition and landscape development will be predicted as a result of lack of grazing or severely overgrazing.
    The present Hungarian grazing systems will be compared to systems available in more developed countries.
    Social aspects of grazing sheep production systems will also be presented.
    Finally simplified approaches on and some technical elements of grassland based sheep production systems
will be presented in order to contribute to sustainable rural development.


   Grassland based sheep farming is the most common sheep production system all over the
World. Except for intensive indoor lamb production, grazing is the most important feeding
system in the sheep industry. However, elements of sheep farming differ according to
ecological, social and economic conditions. In general, favourable ecological conditions and
strong economies have developed more intensive grassland sheep systems, while under
unfavourable ecological and poor economic conditions extensive systems are mostly
   In Hungary, grassland and sheep farming are not in the mainstream of interest. Due to some
ecological, social and economic reasons the overall agricultural development in the last
decades has avoided grassland and sheep farming. Although 18 percent of the agricultural
lands are grasslands, their contribution to total agricultural output is very low. As cattle
production is mostly based on arable forages, only sheep farming can be considered as a
typical grassland based animal production system. This system is still practiced in the old,
traditional ways instead of the modern farming practices.
   In the following three main chapters this study will focus on the present arts of grassland
farming, on the grassland and sheep relations and tries to outline the future prospects for
grazing sheep production.

   The presentation will be mostly based on the results of grassland research and development
projects run at the Debrecen Agricultural University.


Grasslands as land use systems

   In Hungary the total area of grasslands is 1 150 million ha. It comprises 18.6 percent, 14.3
percent and 12.3 percent of the agricultural, productive and total area, respectively (Table1).
There was about 10 percent decrease in the total grassland area in the last 15 years.

Table 1. Grassland area in land use in Hungary - 1996 –

      Grassland area                                - 1000 ha -                      1 148.3
      Grasslands in agricultural land                 - % -                            18.6
      Grasslands in productive land                   - % -                            14.3
      Grasslands in total area                        - % -                            12.3
                                                                                          Source: KSH (1996)
   The regional distribution of grasslands among the big geographical regions is uneven
(Table 2). There are fewer grasslands than the average in the Western regions and around the
capital, Budapest. In the Eastern part of Hungary there are more grasslands than the national
average. It is also remarkable that the area of grasslands in these Eastern regions is increasing
from the South to the North.
   During a few thousand field visits to grasslands in the different regions of Hungary it has
been observed that size and shape of grassland fields are also differing according to regions.
Western Hungary has rolling surface. In those regions the average size of grassland fields is
relatively small. In Northern Hungary we can find bigger grassland fields on the slopes, and
small grassland fields as well, in the valleys. In Eastern Hungary - on the great Hungarian
Plain - the surface is flat, and grassland fields are much bigger (Nagy and Pető, 1997).

Table 2. The proportion of grasslands in land use in the Hungarian regions - 1994 May 31 –

            Regions                     Grassland                Grasslands %           Grasslands %
                                          area                in agricultural land      in productive
                                        1000 ha
   Pest county                             64.8                      16.1                      11.9
   North Hungary                          215.0                      27.5                      18.34
   North Hungarian Plain                  261.8                      19.5                      16.9
   South Hungarian Plain                  243.7                      17.7                      15.3
   West Trans-Danubia                     117.9                      17.6                      11.6
   North Trans-Danubia                    117.2                      17.5                      13.8
   South Trans-Danubia                    124.0                      14.4                      10.4
   Total/mean                            1 148.0                     18.8                   14.4
                                                                                      Source: KSH (1994)
   It has to be mentioned that at an international comparison the proportion of grasslands in
land use is relatively low in Hungary. At present the Hungarian agriculture is focused on

arable crops. All these are not favourable for the development of grassland based animal
systems. If we consider that the utilization of grasslands is influenced by the proportion of
grasslands in land use, by the size of grassland fields and by the topography and field surface
as well, there are better conditions for the development of grassland animal systems in Eastern

Ecological conditions for grassland farming

   Decades of ecological research have concluded the effects of ecological conditions for
grassland production (Vinczeffy 1985). Hungary has less annual rainfall than the optimum,
and its seasonal distribution is uneven and does not meet the need of grasslands. The
temperature in the growing season is higher than the optimum. Especially the summer heat is
a real constraint for grass growing, as it is mostly associated with shortage of water in the soil.
According to the optimum ratio of temperature and precipitation for Hungary, annual rainfall
should be 730 mm, so there is shortage of water of 130-230 mm annually.
   Soil conditions under Hungarian grasslands are not favourable either. It has to be
recognized that grasslands can be found on marginal soil conditions, as grasslands with soils
suitable for arable cropping were turned up in the past.
   The dry climatic conditions and low fertility grassland soils may predict low yield potential
for grassland under natural conditions, especially in the summer period.

Present inputs on grasslands

   Recent information on grassland inputs indicate that the level of inputs has decreased in the
last two decades. The big farms (cooperatives, share holding companies, limited enterprises),
where the level of farming is higher than the national average, supplied negligable inputs on
grasslands (Table 3). They fertilized 5.2 percent of the total grassland area and the average
fertilization rate per ha of total grassland area was 4 kg ha-1. Weed and disease control was
applied on less than one percent of their grasslands (Table 3).
   At these very low levels of inputs farming cannot eliminate unfavourable ecological
conditions (e.g. low soil fertility) and cannot enhance grass production to remarkable degrees.

Table 3. Inputs on grasslands (Large joint farms) - 1996 –

                   Fertilized area %                               5.2
                   Fertilization kg/ha/total area                  3.6
                   Fertilization kg/ha/fertilized area            68.8
                   Weed control area %                             0.21
                   Plant protection area %                        0.26
                                                             Source: KSH (1996)
Grasslands as feed resources for animals

   The poor ecological conditions and low level of inputs have been reflected by the sward
composition of grasslands. In Hungary seeded grasslands could hardly be found. The semi-
natural permanent pastures and meadows have a relatively high number of species, poor
quality rank and low yield potential (Table 4). The most common grasslands are the narrow
leaved Fescuses (e.g. Festuca pseudovina, Festuca ovina), which are of good quality, low yield

and poor N-response. They may be improved only with overseeding and renovation. These
poor swards can only meet the requirements of extensive production systems. However they
have great potential for bio-farming, as many of companion plants have medicinal effects and
melliferous potential (Vinczeffy 1997).

Table 4. Hydrological conditions, species number, quality rank and annual yield of
        native grasslands

    No. of                Ecological                   Average                    Average                Annual
  grasslands              conditions                    species                    quality                yield
    types        wet       medium          dry     (extreme values)         (1=poor, 5=very good)       t/ha DM
      36         12          11            13        42.4 (11-66)                    2.2                 1.5-2.5
                                                                                     Source: After Vinczeffy (1993)
   Beside the poor grassland conditions the socio-economic transition period has also had its
negative effects on grassland farming in the country. In the last 15 years there was 10 percent
decrease in total grassland area. The restructure of land ownership and farm system have
decreased the harvested grass per year. It has led to extremely low average yield per ha of
grasslands, which does not fit the average level of Hungarian agriculture (Table 5).

Table 5. Comparison of grassland figures in the last years

        Years:                    1981-85               1986-90                    1991-95              1996

Grassland area                       1 256.8             1 205.6                   1 137.7             1 148.3
1000 ha
Total harvested hay                  2 020.0             1 511.7                    896.3                   912.0
1000 t per ha
Average yield                          16.1                 12.5                       7.9                   7.9
100 kg hay per ha
                                                                                                Source: KSH (1996)
   The decreasing yields of grasslands have produced a decreasing contribution to the national
forage resource (Table 6). In 1996 the total area and average hay equivalent yields of arable
forages were 480 000 ha and 5.06 tonnes ha-1, respectively. This latter exceeds the yield of
grasslands by several times, but we have to consider the different level of inputs as well. As a
general trend it can be seen that the proportion of grasslands in the forage resources has
decreased from 46.5 percent to 30.9 percent by 1996. It seems that lucerne has taken the part
of grasslands.

Table 6. Forage resources in Hungary

                                  Years                            Years                             Year
                                 1986-90                          1991-95                            1996
                       1000 tonnes             %      1000 tonnes            %           1000 tonnes           %
Forages (hay)            3 478             100            2 379             100              2 949            100
 From this
  Grassland              1 512             43.5             899             37.9              912             30.9
  Lucerne                1 619             46.5           1 275             53.5             1 772        60.1
                                                                                              Source: KSH (1993-96)

   In grazing animal production systems the yield distribution among different growths is of
key importance. The growth pattern of grasses is well known. It has a great peak in May, then
a decline through Summer time and a slight Autumn increase. The exact figures of growth rate
in a given period of time depend on the ecological conditions and the inputs to grasslands. In
Hungary ecological conditions are poor, the inputs are negligable, so growth rates of our
natural grasslands are very low. In general, in the hot and dry Summer months there is no
grassland growth. However with increasing inputs (fertilization, renovation and overseeding)
remarkable yields can be provided in the Summer period as well (Figure 1) which enchances
sheep grazing through the grazing period.



                                                                                   dry matter yield (t/ha)





                      1st growth
                         2nd growth
                                                                    3                          1 extensive
                              3rd growth                   2                                   2 semi-intensive
                                                   1    level of farming
                                                                                               3 intensive
                                      3rd growth   2nd growth     1st growth

                                                                           Source: After Nagy (1988)

 Figure 1. Dry matter production of different cuts according to the level of farming intensity

   Results shown in the above Figure 1 were achieved in the same trials without any inputs on
natural grassland (1 = extensive level of farming), with fertilization (2 = semi-intensive level
of farming), or with complex renovation (subsoiling, surface cultivation and overseeding) and
fertilization (3 = intensive level of farming). On the basis of these research results there was a
study on the yield potential of Hungarian grasslands. The calculation of potential yields was
made according to the ecological regions. The theoretical approach of potential yield was
based on the ratio of temperature and rainfall, on the sloping rate, on the soil fertility, and on
two technical levels of farming. The yield potential of grasslands under farm conditions
exceeds the present yields several times (Table 7).

Table 7. Yield potential of Hungarian grasslands - DM t ha-1 –

      Present                                      Yield potential according to

 Harvested yield       ratio of                                                                technical
                     temperature       topography          soil fertility                    farming level
                     and rainfall                                                  80%                       60%
       0.079            16.41             14.08               11.53               9.22              6.9
                                                                             Source: Nagy and Vinczeffy (1995)
   When grasslands as feed resources are discussed, forage quality has to be negotiated as
well. At cutting forage systems the traditional cutting times are late May, mid-July and early
September. Under extensive, semi-intensive and intensive farming conditions (see before) the
average quality of annual forage yield is different (Table 8). With farming intensity there is an
increase in crude protein and crude fat contents, and there is a decrease in crude fibre content.
Due to relatively late harvesting times the net-energy content is less than 6.0 MJ/kg DM.

   Table 8. Nutrient contents of grasses at different farming intensity

                                    Extensive                   Semi-intensive                       Intensive
         Nutrients                   natural             fetilized natural grassland             overseeded and
                                    grassland                                                  fertilized grassland
Crude protein %                       10.00                         13.87                              15.44
Crude fat %                            1.51                           2.73                             2.79
Crude fibre %                        30.24                          30.18                             28.73
Net-energy                             5.67                           5.73                             5.50
NEm MJ kg-1 DM
                                                                                                 Source: Nagy (1988)


Feed requirements of sheep

   The daily nutrient requirements of sheep depend on the production cycle. For example, dry
ewes require the least amount of daily feed. With pregnancy it is increasing and suckling ewes
need the most feed (Table 9).

Table 9. Daily nutrient requirements of a 60 kg ewe at different stages of production cycle
      Production           Dry                Energy           Crude                   Ca                     P
         cycle            Matter               NEm             protein
                           kg                  MJ                 g                     g                      g
Dry                     950-1 250              6.67             111                    2.6                    2.0
Pregnancy             1 150-1 500               8.01             133                   3.5                    1.3
first 15 weeks
Pregnancy             1 550-2 050               9.17             182                   5.8                    3.6
last 4-6 weeks
Suckling              1 700-2 300             12.62              249              7.4              5.0
                                                                 Source: Hungarian Animal Nutrition Standards

   In grazing systems a requirement matching grass allowance is necessary for sheep farming
through the grazing season.

Grassland potential to meet feed requirements

   In the most common extensive grassland systems in Hungary, daily grass allowance can
meet feed requirement of grazing sheep in the first part of the grazing season. From mid-July
there is a shortage of grass allowance due to the extremely low or even nill regrowth rate. The
restricted grazing without supplementation results in liveweight loss of sheep. Under more
favourable condition in the UK e.g., restricted Summer grazing with ewes led to a condition
score of 2.0, instead of 3.0 with substantial grass allowance (Speedy and Basely, 1987). To
eliminate liveweight or condition score loss, there are two alternatives. Indoor or field
supplementation with concentrates or annual forages (grazing or zero grazing) are well known
practices. However, it is less known that intensification of grassland farming is also a real
alternative. In Figure 2 both herbage mass of different growths and grazing requirements of
sheep are presented. Stocking rate of sheep was set to the annual yield of grasslands of
different intensity. It is remarkable that with intensive grassland farming (subsoiling +
overseeding + high rates of fertilizers) grass requirements of grazing ewes can be met through
the grazing season.

                                                                                    dry matter yield

         1 extensive

         2 semi-intensive                                                    4
         3 intensive
                                 2nd growth
                                grazing requirement                     3
                                                           1   level of farming
                            grazing requirement   3rd growth   2nd growth         1st growth

                                                                                       Source: After Nagy (1991)

Figure 2. Grass requirements and grass allowance according to growths and level of farming

   In general, daily feed intake of grass can meet the energy requirements of grazing sheep. In
some cases however, e.g. lamb fattening on pasture, ewes, suckling twins or triplets, the
energy content of grass becomes more important. Traditionally the cutting date of primary
growth for silage or hay is late May or early June, and first grazing lasts till mid June. Intake
from late cutting or grazing may not meet the energy requirements of sheep. Dér (1987)

investigated energy content of primary growth of some grasses. He concluded that mean
energy content of grasses decreased by 40 percent between early May and early June. From his
results it is obvious, that early cuts for preservation and elimination of grazing old primary
growth increases the energy contents of forage intake and meets animal requirements.
   Finally, it has to be mentioned that due to the efficient grazing ability of sheep even
marginal grasslands can efficiently be utilized by sheep. There are countries or regions in the
World where sheep can be grazed at as low as 1 stock unit per ha (1 ewe + 1 lamb) as a
maximum (Veress and Nagy, 1986).

Regional correlation between grasslands and sheep stock

   Earlier it has been outlined that grassland distribution among regions in Hungary is
different. It has also been shown (Kukovics et al, 1997) that distribution of sheep stock among
regions shows an uneven pattern. In an earlier grassland study, regression analysis was made
between different ruminants and grassland areas according to counties. This regression
showed a very strong correlation (r = 0.80) between grassland area and sheep stock (Figure 3).
This supports the former technical statements, i.e. by now sheep husbandry is the only animal
production system which is based on grasslands and grazing.

       sheep 100 animals

        grassland area ( 1000 ha )
                                                                     Source: Nagy and Pető (1995)

    Figure 3. Relationship between grassland area and sheep stock according to counties


Grasslands needs for grazing

   Due to the decrease in ruminant stock in the 1990s there are much fewer grazing stock in
the country than used to be in the previous decades. Grazing animals are considered as
internal elements of grassland systems. Grazing is a major factor in sward development.
Without grazing the succession process turns into undesirable direction. Personal observations
on this topic say that without grazing tall grasses dicothylodenos herbs and scrubs start to
invade short grass pastures. Where stable floristic composition of grasslands are extremely
important (e.g. nature protected grasslands) re-introduction of sheep grazing is of key

More efficient use of grazing

   On commercial farms better use of grazing for more profit can be predicted. Ecological
constraints for grasslands and grazing (short vegetation period, less than optimum
precipitation) can hardly be influenced in grassland farming, but new supplementary practices
may help to overcome these constraints. Occasional grazing of arable crops increase the
grazing period in Spring and eliminates grazing restriction in Summer. For much longer
grazing in Autumn the strategic use of grass species is a real alternative. Field investigations
in two years in late Autumn - early Winter showed very good grass allowance by tall fescue.
With standard dry matter intake, tall fescue can meet nutrient requirements of beef cattle or
sheep even in December. This may lengthen the grazing period in the end of the year (Nagy

Grazing method development

   In Hungary sheep grazing is still practiced in the traditional way. Continuous free grazing
guarded by flockmen are mostly prevailing in sheep grazing. This grazing system is less
efficient and labour consuming. It has to be recognized that controlled rotational grazing or set
stocking on fenced paddocks has to be the future, as these are the grazing systems used in the
developed countries.
   The need for technical innovation in grazing systems is also required by some social
aspects as well. The flockmen’s society is of an aged generation. The generation change is not
easy, as agricultural work is not popular with young people. The cost of labour will not allow
to employ flockmen either. So the future in sheep grazing is the fenced paddocks. Fencing
however needs state support as it has happened in every developed country (e.g. New Zealand,
The Netherlands etc.).

Social aspects of grassland - sheep system

   As land ownership has been restructured in the country, a new situation has developed for
grassland use. Grassland use by individual family farms was negligable in the past, whereas in
1996 private farmers used nearly 60 percent of the total grassland area. As these farms are
more flexible in land use compared to large farms, a development in grassland use would
seem to happen in the future.

   The average size of grassland area of a farm is changing according to the type of farms.
Joint companies mostly have larger grassland area. Private farmers however have their
grasslands on small (<30 ha) or medium size (30-300 ha) farms. Smaller farms have better
conditions to manage their total land, so a better use of grasslands is also supported by average
farm sizes. If homes on farmlands will be erected, scattered grassland fields around the farm
homes may be grazed by a few animals as grazing can better be controlled by fences or
farming family members.
   The fact that private farming is more focused on grassland outputs is supported by recent
data. In 1996 private farms produced 36.7 percent of the total forage production in the
country. In 1988-90 the same figure was only 6.1 percent.


As a result of this study the following may be concluded:
 the regional proportion and field size of grassland are different in the country, which
   provide different potential for grassland - sheep industry;
 due to the unfavourable ecological conditions extensive sheep farming has low output
 increasing management intensity has greater yield potential on natural grasslands and
   makes it possible to meet grazing requirements of sheep;
 at present only sheep show strong correlation with grassland areas according to counties;
 restructured land ownership may predict higher interests in grasslands as more than 60
   percent of national grassland has become privately owned. Private farmers however need
   state subsidy to fence their grasslands for more effective grazing methods.


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