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.
The cattle population declined in Switzerland over the period from 1990 to 2004 and then grew moderately until 2008. In subsequent years, it declined slightly again. Agricultural policy and macroeconomic conditions are the main drivers of the development of the cattle population. Under the agriculture policy for the 2014–2017, direct payments will no longer apply to roughage-consuming animals. As a result, the number of cattle declines slightly, but this decrease is limited by the slight price increases caused by lower production quantities.
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).