French cattle breeders in search of a new agricultural model

French cattle breeders in search of a new agricultural model

At 7 a.m. that morning, the mercury stood at 2°C. The mist blurs the horizon of the meadows and the cold destroys the last yellow and purple leaves still clinging to the trees. In the stable, clouds of mist betray the presence of a figure moving, pitchfork in hand, in the middle of the herd. Like every morning, Iris Charrault got up at dawn to feed the 150 Charolais cows that she raises with her partner, Nicolas, at the Vieux Charme farm, in Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye (Nièvre).

Lying in the straw, a little three-day-old calf barely opens its eyes. With a staggering step, he hastens to find his mother’s breasts for his first feeding of the day. “He’s cute, isn’t he?” It’s the youngest,” slips Iris. During this calving season, the couple sleeps little at night: the alarm goes off every two hours so that they can ensure that the births go well. Guided by her passion for animals, Iris joined forces in a Joint Agricultural Group (Gaec) with Nicolas in 2017. If she remains “amazed at each birth”, the 33-year-old breeder, mother of two daughters 9 and 12 years old, admits that the physical commitment and time constraints of the job weigh on the body and morale.

With only one week of vacation in the year – during which a neighbor, also a breeder, comes to cover for them – it is difficult to escape from everyday life. “Leaving your herd is far from trivial and breeding suffers from a shortage of labor, so we help each other,” explains Nicolas. The agricultural orientation and future law, announced soon, should allow “each breeder to be able to go on leave or benefit from continuing training”, by making it easier to use temporary workers in the sector, assures Marc Fesneau, the Minister of Agriculture.

If the government intends to restore “its letters of nobility to breeding”, the INSEE statistics appear, for the moment, clear: almost a quarter of breeders live below the poverty line, according to a report from 2021. In daily contact with their customers in the surrounding markets where they sell their meat directly, Iris and Nicolas have recently managed to pay themselves one minimum wage each every month. “We are breeders for whom things are going well. But at what cost? comments the young woman with a touch of bitterness. Our weeks vary between sixty and eighty hours of work. »

1/4 of French breeders lived below the poverty line in 2021.

Source: INSEE

According to the latest agricultural census, the number of farms specializing in suckler cattle ( cows feeding their calves in the herd and raised for their meat ) decreased, between 2010 and 2020, by 23%, and that of dairy farms (cows raised for their milk, then providing the ground meat) by 27%. Stemming this demographic hemorrhage becomes imperative when half of farmers will have reached retirement age in ten years. The future orientation law provides for the creation of a guarantee fund of 2 billion euros, of which 400 million, at least, will be directed directly towards breeding in order to encourage young people to settle down, via tax mechanisms. and credit reductions.

To renew itself, the agricultural world must open up, believes Julien Rouger, member of the Young Farmers union. “It is essential to promote people who do not come from the agricultural world. Because there certainly won’t be enough farmers’ children to take over the farms. We need strong forces instilling new ideas. » In recent years, these newcomers have represented 60% of project leaders identified by the chambers of agriculture. Desired by the government, the creation of a one-stop shop “France service agriculture” aims to better support them by centralizing training, installation and farm transfer systems.

Jérémy Canivet is one of them. Since 2021, he has made his dream come true: becoming a dairy farmer in his native region, Lower Normandy. By teaming up with Éric Hurquin, a farmer close to retirement, he offers a second life to his herd of 60 prim’holstein. But at 24, he is taking on a major challenge. “To join I took out a 98,000 euro loan which allowed me to buy back half of the shares and, in three years, when Eric leaves, it will be all over again. » Sitting behind his desk, he observes his animals through a large bay window overlooking his stable. In single file, they follow one another facing the automated milking robot.

Milk, better valued

A cup of coffee in one hand, a pen in the other, Jérémy scrutinizes his pay slip drawn up by Lactalis. Every two days, the multinational collects the milk produced on its farm. At the end of the chain, the white liquid is transformed into cheese from world-famous brands: Camembert Président, Pont-l’Évêque, etc. This month, the price stands at 405 euros per 1,000 liters. “40 cents per liter, that’s not crazy, but it’s still better than a few years ago,” sighs Jérémy.

33%. This is the drop in the number of farms in France with at least 10 dairy cows between 2010 and 2020.

Source: Agreste, statistics, evaluation and forecasting department of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Boots on his feet to brave the marshes formed by the torrential rains of recent days, Jérémy will tend to the cows left in the meadow. These 125 hectares of meadows and cereals making up the farm are sources of concern for the young Norman. In tenancy, he pays rent to his owners. Some of them are hinting that they want to sell in the coming years. In a region where the price of agricultural land averages 10,743 euros per hectare (second most expensive region in France), Jérémy fears he will not be able to buy it back from them. “Land is purchased in one’s own name, and there the banks are more cautious. If it wants new farmers in the countryside, the State must help us with land, because debt has its limits. »

The public authorities are studying the possibility of purchasing land and then making it available to farmers who can acquire it at the time of their choice. A measure also supported by the Nourrir collective, which brings together 52 associations committed to the agroecological transition. “Access to land constitutes the mother of battles to succeed in our transition,” underlines Mathieu Courgeau, its president, a dairy farmer in Vendée.

For the moment, the economic sluggishness of the sector is leading to a reduction in the French herd. “In five years, the drop amounts to 2 million cattle, a drop of 10%, explains Caroline Monniot, agroeconomist at the Livestock Institute. Listening to these figures, Nicolas Charrault’s face remains impassive. A breeder since 2003, the year he took over his parents’ farm, this strapping 42-year-old has seen the economic situation in Nivernais, a historic breeding ground, deteriorate over the years. “French breeders suffer from unfair competition. The meat we import has lower production costs and is less environmentally friendly, he laments, caressing Obélix, the strongest of the two bulls in the herd. To support French breeding, we need mirror clauses (a specification, for exporting countries, similar to that in force in France, Editor’s note) , in free trade agreements. »

Promote virtuous breeding

Because the impoverishment of breeders is not the result of a fall in demand. The total consumption of beef by the French population only decreased by 1% between 2000 and 2021. The problem is that by producing less but consuming as much, France is undermining its food sovereignty. “A quarter of the beef consumed in France is imported,” says Christophe Perrot, economist at the Livestock Institute.

In addition, consumers are increasingly moving towards ground meat, which is very present in out-of-home catering services, and processed food products. A double penalty for breeders because it is largely imported, this flesh passed through the mincer is also the least lucrative for sale.

To ensure opportunities and better remuneration for the sector, Marc Fesneau wishes to legislate so that on January 1, 2024, collective catering uses at least 60% (100% for those dependent on the State) of products from livestock. sustainable or under official sign of quality and French origin: organic, geographical indication, red labels, etc.

In May 2023, a report from the Court of Auditors threw a new paving stone into the pond of uncertainties surrounding breeders. The institution recommends “defining and making public a strategy for reducing the cattle herd consistent with the climate objectives of the Global Methane Pledge”, an agreement signed by France during COP26 to reduce global emissions of this gas. Greenhouse.

“Reduce emissions, yes, but we still need to know what breeding we value,” retorts Iris. The mother, whose farm has just completed its conversion to organic farming, wants the positive effects of livestock farming on the environment to be more highlighted. “When I look at all this bocage, I tell myself that we have a moral imperative with regard to this territory,” she continues. She points out the myriad of small meadows and hedges around the farm. “These landscapes constitute niches of biodiversity and our cows, fed entirely on grass, maintain them. »

Like many, the young woman hopes the future law will promote French know-how and more visibility. Expectations shared by Marion Raffray, economist in the research department of the Chambers of Agriculture, for whom France has been losing on all fronts for several years. “By importing more and more meat, we are relocating our emissions. This agricultural policy is harmful to the ecology and our trade balance. » The flagship of French agriculture, livestock breeding is at a crossroads. The debates to come will prove crucial for our lands and for those who cultivate them.

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