Even though grasslands are intimately linked to agriculture and human activities, major events occured that shaped the present situation. In the present page, we will only document three facettes: the origins, the domestication of species, the fodder revolution in the middle of the 20th century.
Prehistory and Origin of Grasslands
Just some ten thousand years ago, man (Homo sapiens) led a nomadic lifestyle as his ancestors did, moving constantly to follow the herds of animals that he hunted.
To avoid these sometimes hundreds of miles long migrations, man started to raise his own animals, sparing him those challenging travels. Feeding his animals was an easy thing in the summer when pastures were rich and numerous, but it was a different story during the winter season when grass was scarce. From this emerged the necessity to build up reserves during the good season to feed livestock during the winter. Thus man dedicated herbaceous surfaces to establish these reserves: the grasslands were born.
The task of these earlier farmers is therefore to cut and collect the grass and to store it for the winter season. The sickle was invented for the realisation of this first phase. This instrument was replaced by the scythe only in the 18th century.
The large variation among years and thus the associated risks were taken into account through the type of animals. This is the reason why most human groups raised sheep and goats instead of cattle. Indeed, the lost of animals is less damaging and the herds are more easy to restore.
It is also interesting to document the change in size of the animals. This has been documented by J.M. Moriceau (1999) in the French case. He showed that before the French revolution both sheep and cattle had a much lower mean individual sizes than today. Again, this makes it possible to reduce the risks when low fodder resources were available.
Jean-Marc Moriceau, 1999. L’Élevage sous L’Ancien Régime (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles). Sedes Ed, 256 pages
Domestication of Different Fodder Plants
Most grasses and legumes that are present today in European grasslands belong to the natural flora. They have been expanded through breeding for precise agrnomic traits and through seed multiplication (see chapter on plant breeding). However, some species expanded more recently, in Europe and worldwide. Alfalfa is probably the most stricking example of such a recent domestication.
Domestication and cultivation of alfalfa
Alfalfa belongs to the taxonomic genus Medicago, that includes both annual and perennial species. Some of the annual species are grown in Mediterranean climates, especially in Southern and Western Australia. Among the perennial species, Medicago sativa was traditionally cultivated around the Mediterranea.
It probably appeared in Europe with the Roman Empire and the Phoenicians and later in the Middle Ages with the Arab invasions in Spain and in the south of France. The populations introduced in Spain became endemic and are presently described as Mielgas. Their diversity was described by E. Jensczewski et al (1998). However, these populations suffered from a low frost resistance, preventing any cultivation expansion towards Northern Europe.
From East of France to Siberia, all across Europe, a perennial sub-species, Medicago falcata, was present, showing very high frost resistance and winter, but suffering from a low biomass production.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) further spread in Northern Europe in the eighteenth century, after hybridisation of subspecies sativa and falcata gave rise to the current Flemish lucernes. A sudden increase in alfalfa cultivation was recorded from 1750 in France, at the same type as the increase in sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifoliae) recently introduced from Switzerland and red clover (Trifolium pratense). Increase in area cultivation in The Bassin Parisien have been thoroughly documented by M. Gilbert in 1787.
Jenczewski E., Angevain M., Charrier A., Genier G., Ronfort J., Prosperi J.M., 1999. Contrasting patterns of genetic diversity in neutral markers and agromorphological traits in wild and cultivated populations of Medicago sativa L. from Spain. Genetics, Selection, Evolution 30, S103-S119, Supplement: 1, DOI: 10.1051/gse:19980706
Gilbert M. (correspondant de la société royale d’Agriculture de Paris et professeur à l’Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire), 1787, Traité sur les prairies artificielles.
The Fodder Revolution
At the end of the Second World War, Europen countries emerged from years of deprivation and rationing. Therefore, the agriculture priority was to meet the food requirements of the population, to stop importing eggs and meat, and then to start exporting certain products of animal origin.
But why to increase forage production rather than grain crops, to feed human populations?
In those days, an average of three-quarters of agricultural surfaces were dedicated to animal feed, including working animals (horses, cattle). Thus there was a high degree of competition between animal husbandry and humans in terms of food. By increasing fodder production, it was possible to feed animal husbandry whilst reducing competition with human consumption. The idea of increasing forage production was thus the obvious solution.
To increase the forage yield of cultivated land, the continent was inspired by English ley-farming. Frightened by a naval blockade during World War II, the British quickly adopted this system of cereal-grassland biennial alternation. The system had proven its worth, since Anglo-Saxons were increasing their cereal production by threefold while maintaining animal production at the same level. The idea of allowing the soil to revocer after one crop made its way to France.
However, the use of nitrogen fertilisers was spreading since the late 1930s (originally invented in Germany in 1909 by Haber and Bosch, inventors of the chemical synthesis process that is still in use today). These fertilisers are used to artificially enrich the soil in nitrogen (necessary for good growth of the plant) without the need to let the land fallow. This is both time-saving and increases production. As a symbol of this inexorable desire to improve productivity, the experiments on the quantity of usable fertilisers rose to 750 (even 1000 in Belgium) kg N/ha, way more than the 150 that are commonly used today. Environmental risks were not a priority, they were also completely unknown.
At the same time, the generation born in the years following the end of World War I turned 25-30 years old in the late 40ies. In regions such as Brittany, many choose to live in small farms. Unable to increase the size of their arable lands, it was vital for them to increase the productivity of dairy cattle and increase the yield of the grassland and forage crops.
Thus, from the very late 1940s-early 1950s, France saws its practices totally completely change. Enticed by the famous slogan “L’herbe, ça se cultive” (Grass should be cultivated) by René Dumont in 1954, France standardised the use of temporary grasslands (dominated by grass species) implanted for two to six years, ploughed the permanent grasslands considered less productive, and launched large breeding programs of forage species. This change of ideas and practices much more than that of techniques or knowledge justified the name of “Forage Revolution”.
In the mid-1950s, maize silage also made its appearance. Obviously known for a much longer time in Europe and in France for the production of grain, maize varieties were not early enough to be cultivated in French cattle-breeding areas and to be harvested as whole plants to produce quality silage. But from the moment when generations of double hybrids or F1 hybrids were developed whose precocity was no longer a problem, the yield of this corn silage quickly exceeded 10, then 15 T of DM/ha, more than 5 T/ha of the permanent grassland.
Agriculture has also benefited from the emergence of drainage making it possible to cultivate flooded or easily flooded zones. The soil of these areas with hydromorphic trend is characterised by a layer of about 10 cm deep that assimilates to the mud, making any implantation impossible. The roots are unable to grow in such an environment. Thus drainage systems were extensively used. Coupled with the addition of liming materials to increase the pH close to neutrality, the agronomic potential of these surfaces improved and became adequate for annual forage crops such as maize silage.