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


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 prevailing.
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

- % -


Grasslands in productive land

- % -


Grasslands in total area

- % -


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 Pet, 1997).

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


1000 ha

Grasslands %
in agricultural land

Grasslands %
in productive

Pest county




North Hungary




North Hungarian Plain




South Hungarian Plain




West Trans-Danubia




North Trans-Danubia




South Trans-Danubia





1 148.0



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 Hungary.

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 %


Fertilization kg/ha/total area


Fertilization kg/ha/fertilized area


Weed control area %


Plant protection area %


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 grasslands types




(extreme values)

(1=poor, 5=very good)

t/ha DM





42.4 (11-66)



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






Grassland area
1000 ha

1 256.8

1 205.6

1 137.7

1 148.3

Total harvested hay
1000 t per ha

2 020.0

1 511.7



Average yield
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






1000 tonnes


1000 tonnes


1000 tonnes


Forages (hay)

3 478


2 379


2 949


From this



1 512







1 619


1 275


1 772


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.

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 -


Yield potential according to

Harvested yield

ratio of temperature


soil fertility

farming level


and rainfall










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



fetilized natural grassland

overseeded and
fertilized grassland

Crude protein %




Crude fat %




Crude fibre %




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










950-1 250





first 15 weeks

1 150-1 500





last 4-6 weeks

1 550-2 050






1 700-2 300





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.

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.

Source: Nagy and Pet (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 importance.

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 1990).

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 potential;
· 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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