The cattle population is an important indicator of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Cattle are by far the greatest source of methane. The impact of an equal amount of methane gas is 25 times greater than that of CO2 on global warming. However, there is considerably less methane than CO2 in the atmosphere.
Switzerland’s cattle population declined between 1990 and 2004. Although a small increase was apparent from 2004 to 2008, populations have been falling again slightly since 2009. The main factors affecting the cattle population trend are agricultural policy and the macroeconomic environment. The federal government’s milk quotas were finally discontinued in 2009, and since the introduction of agricultural policy between 2014 and 2017 there is no longer any direct support for roughage-consuming animals (abolition of direct animal subsidies). This explains the slight fall in the cattle population. However, moderate price rises for beef and potential alternative federal support programmes (such as contributions for pasture-based milk and meat production) are keeping this decline in check.
Large livestock numbers generate more emissions, and smaller livestock populations would have a positive effect on Switzerland’s greenhouse gas inventory. However, if Swiss livestock populations were reduced (but not the consumption of animal products), more meat and dairy products would be imported from abroad in order to meet demand. The corresponding emissions would then arise abroad. For this reason we abstain from rating the state and the trend.
While the indicator is internationally comparable, the explanatory power of total livestock population numbers is limited. Per-capita livestock numbers would be more informative. The Swiss Farmers' Union SFU (Schweizerischer Bauernverband SBV) gathers the livestock numbers and transmits them to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, faostat.fao.org). The cattle population data maintained by the FAO differ marginally from those of the SFU, as the SFU makes minor corrections ex-post.
The cattle population indicator concerns the number of dairy cattle, suckler cows and calves. The data are collected annually as part of the Farm Structure Survey by the Federal Statistical Office, the Federal Office for Agriculture and the cantonal agricultural offices. They are supplemented every three to five years by the agricultural census. Both are comprehensive censuses. The population numbers relate to a fixed point of time in a year, and do not take account of fluctuations within that year. All cattle are marked individually and can be traced precisely from birth to slaughter.
In order to ensure a consistent and comprehensive time series, the data are consolidated by Agroscope (ART) and the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL).