Livestock Research for Rural Development 27 (11) 2015 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Dynamics of extensive sheep production systems in Morocco

A Boughalmi, A Araba and M Yessef

Hassan II Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine, Madinat Al Irfane, Morocco


Sheep farming represents the cornerstone of the south Mediterranean countries economy and was for centuries extensive in nature, with sheep being farmed on pasture either on the plain or on the high or hill areas. However, changes are occurring in the production systems because of many pressures. To understand these changes in the Moroccan Middle Atlas, 75 sheep farmers were surveyed to collect data on rearing practices and drivers placing pressure on the productions systems.

Multiple Correspondence Analysis of data distinguished three production systems i.e. agro-silvo-pastoral, pastoral and oasis production systems. The extensive ones are constantly changing in the area, following extension of crop land at the expense of pasture resulting from farmers’ settlement, scarcity of specific labor force, lack of successor, dependency for the concentrate feed because of the degradation of pasture enhanced by animal pressure and climate change. Furthermore, the area did witness the emergence of an olive-based oasis farming system in the river-irrigated area, very often, because of pastoral farmers’ settlement. These changes happening in the production systems may question their sustainability.

Keywords: middle atlas, production systems’ changes, sheep farming


Livestock uses about half of the global surface area (Reid et al 2008), and provides a several goods and services across the world through a variety of animal species and resources provided by an extensive range of agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions. Within this heterogeneity and the wide differences in terms of resources utilization, livestock production systems have been categorized according to the land use into grazing systems, mixed farming systems and industrial or landless systems (Seré and Steinfeld 1996). Over the last few years, livestock production systems are undergoing rapid change mainly in developing countries (Steinfeld et al 2007). There is a shift towards more grain-based production and away from traditional livestock production systems based on locally available feed resources, such as natural pasture, local fodder, crop residues and unconsumed household food (Van Der Zijpp et al 2010). Rapid evolution is demonstrated by the growing contribution that livestock makes to satisfy the increasing global demand for foods of animal- source, the continuous adjustments at the level of resource-use intensity and product orientation and marketing channels (Rota and Sperandini 2010, Smith et al 2014). These changes are the result of a variety of factors including inter alia,, demographics (population growth and urbanization), general economic development, environment and climate change, available technologies and knowledge (Moyo and Swanepoel 2010). Several theories of agricultural intensification and change exist to explain this phenomenon (McIntire et al 1992 and Baltenweck et al 2003). Similarly, in the Mediterranean area important changes have occurred during the last half of the 20th century due to the modernization and intensification of agriculture (Bernués et al 2011). This study was undertaken to study such changes in the extensive sheep production systems in the Middle Atlas of Morocco and the factors influencing these changes.

Materials and methods

Area of study

The study area included mountainous, hilly and plane areas of the Eastern part of Middle Atlas of Morocco, which is characterized by differences in altitude, generating diversity in topography, climate, feed resources and sheep breeds. Indeed, altitude ranges between 750 and 1850 meters. Consequently, the territory has varied climate zones: the mountain area is characterized by hot summer and cool winter with an average precipitation of 475 mm/year. The steppe area is characterized by a pre-Saharan climate with a cool climate in winter and very hot summer (temperature exceeds 35°C) with an average precipitation of 150 mm/year. The hilly area represents an intermediary zone between the mountain and steppe areas, and it is characterized by a dry climate with an average precipitation of 250 mm/year (MI 2007). Vegetation responds accordingly, and consists mainly of Stipa tenacissima and Artemisia herba-alba in the steppes, and of Quercus rotundifolia and other forestry plants (Thymelaea sp, Thymus ciliatus.) iin the high altitude area.

Farmers Survey

The study involved 75 farmers chosen randomly from the studied area. Farmers were selected from the mountainous part (29 farmers), the hills (18 farmers) and the steppe (28 farmers).

A survey questionnaire was developed to collect information regarding production systems and covered the following topics: (i) General information about the farm (situation, labor force, flock size, animals’ species and breed, land utilization), grazing management and the kind of production; (ii) Livestock management (feeding and reproduction management, production and animal welfare); (ii) Economical aspects (inputs and transport costs, products selling, income, turnover).

Statistical analysis

The Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA) method, based on multiple nominal variables, was used to evaluate the diversity of the situation in the studied farms. The choice of variables was limited to a small number of discriminative indicators that explain better the total variation. Data processing was performed using the SPSS software (2012). The MCA was based on five variables, namely: livestock management (vertical/horizontal transhumance, zero pasture and sedentary on pasture), location area (mountains, hills and foothill mountains, steppes and olive-based oasis), raised breed and sheep herd size.


Homogeneity analysis computed solution for two axes statistically independent. Nearly, all the variance in the data is accounted for by the solution, 91% by the first dimension and 88% by the second. The two dimensions together provide an interpretation in terms of distances. Examining the plot (figure 1), it is clear that objects in the same category are close to each other and make an only one production system. The first dimension (the horizontal axis) discriminates farmer of the high altitudes from those of the steppe, while the second dimension (the vertical axis) discriminates the steppe farmers on two groups. Therefore, three sheep production systems were identified based on the distribution of the discriminative variables. The first system regroups farmers of mountains and hilly areas where the main raised sheep breed is Timahdite. It is a local breed of the Middle Atlas and is valued for meat production, good conformation, ease of fattening, and high carcass yield, along with excellent adaptation. It is considered one of the country’s best meat breed (Boujenane 2005). In the surveyed sample, Timahdite herd’s size varied between 100 and 300 reproductive ewes, usually raised on forestry pastures from spring to summer and on pastures of mountains and foothills during autumn and winter. Concentrate feed supplementation is usually practiced between September and March when plants are scarce on pasture due to snow and cold climate. Joffre et al (1991) has classified this system as agro-silvo-pastoral farming system. In this group, farmers practice the vertical transhumance or are sedentary on pasture where herds are moving, often over long distances between mountains and their foothills and the farm. In 81% of surveyed cases, shepherds are hired to insure transhumance and take care of sheep, while farmers take care of animal selling and concentrate feed purchase. High salaries, lack of a competent labor force and disinterest of young to the sheep farming practice, are becoming a real problem for the farmers of this system. Indeed, the average annual salary of shepherds is 1500 ± 390 Euros, which is high for these farmers, in addition to other advantages such as monthly food provision, as well as allowing the shepherd to raise some animals with the farmer’s herd and benefit from the concentrate feed provided by the farmer. In addition to the sheep farming, 68% of farmers belonging to this system practice vegetable crops in small irrigated area (from 1 to 5 ha) located on the foothills of mountains using well water. Integration between agriculture and sheep production is becoming necessary for these farmers to provide another source of income for their household, especially during the drought periods when animals are sold at cheap price.

The second system gathers farmers situated in eastern part of Middle Atlas, who raise their sheep on steppes of Alfa and sagebrush. Although 73% of them have rainfeld olive lands, all surveyed farmers practice the horizontal transhumance during all the year. Herds move for long distance depending on availability of pasture in conjunction with the seasonal distribution of rain and water points. Crop residues, mainly cereal stubble, subsidized cereals and purchased grain make up the rest of the animal feed. Otte and Chilonda (2002) have classified this system as a pastoral production system. Contrary to the first system, 60% of pastoral sheep farms are still family industries where sons and brothers collaborate with the farmer in managing the flock.

Pastoral sheep herds are characterized by large sizes, exceeding 300 reproductive ewes, and a diverse genetic composition that constitute two breeds and their crossbreds i.e. the local Beni Guil breed of the Eastern area of Morocco, the introduced Ouled Djellal breed originated from Algeria, and their cross the "Safra" population. Recently, this later began to populate the steppe pastures of the area. It represents up to 50% of the reproductive females in almost the half of the surveyed farms of this system. This population appeared as a result of the tendency of farmers to change the genetic composition of their herds from the Beni Guil to the Ouled Djellal breed, which seems to achieve higher productivity under good feeding conditions. Thus, the Beni Guil is currently considered as under risk breed because of the competition from the Ouled Djellal breed in the same area (Boujenane 2005). However, in this system as in the previous one, farmers affirmed that the supplementation of grazing animals with concentrate feed is becoming nearly systematic. This practice is explained by the scarcity of plants on pastures due to the continuous droughts and animal overgrazing causing rangelands’ degradation. Concentrate feeds are usually bought or produced in part on the farm. Indeed, agro-silvo-pastoral and pastoral farmers are used to cultivate pasture lands for rainfeld cereal crops, mainly barley and oat, to cover a part of feeding needs of their flocks despite the low yield of these lands.

Finally, the third system is present also in the steppe part of Middle Atlas. In these farms sheep is raised in irrigated area, known as “olive-based oasis”, where olive trees predominate. It is an intensive farming system based on crossbred sheep from the highly reproductive D'man breed and the Beni Guil or Sardi meat breeds. It is qualified as oasis farming system where sheep herds do not exceed 100 reproductive ewes and feeding is based on purchased fodder and grains. In these farms, keeping livestock is an important risk reduction strategy for farmers, as animals can act as insurance in times of need.

Although the existing differences between the three farming system, the lack or the absence of successor for the sheep farm is a common issue for them. This problem strongly exists in the olive-based oasis farms where the total surveyed farmers declared the absence of successor for the sheep farming activity, and in the agro-silvo-pastoral farms where 66% of surveyed farms worried about the continuity of their farms because of the absence of successor and the disinterest of young people to this activity. In pastoral farms, only 40% of surveyed farmers presented this problem. Indeed, surveyed farmers ‘sons showed a rejection for sheep farming because of the harsh working conditions and the low social status associated with this occupation.


Small ruminant production systems are constantly changing in the area of study following extension of crop land at the expense of pasture, farmers’ settlement, scarcity of specific labor force, lack of successor, which could jeopardize the continuity of farming systems in the medium-long run, dependency for the concentrate feed and climate change. Furthermore, the area is experiencing sheep smuggling, which allowed the introduction of Ouled Djellal breed in the steppe area endangering the local Beni Guil sheep breed. The pastoral ecosystem is more sensitive to these mutations, which allowed the emergence of the third identified farming system: oasis production system.Genesis of this new farming system is the result of settlement of nomad farmers around the little dams of Moulouya River since the several droughts of the 70th and 80th. Actually, they reconverted their main activity from sheep farming to olive farming because of the continuous drought on the region, the pastures’ degradation, the lack of water resources and the government subsidies to olive planting. Indeed, along Moulouya Valley and its major tributaries, it has been observed the developments of small irrigated perimeters because of the river water or some small hillside dams. Consequently, perennial irrigation led to the appearance of oasis without palm trees based on olive grove. Since 1998, the development of these perimeters was accelerated outside of the traditional exploited areas, and included rangelands thanks to the government programs to manage the Moulouya Valley area (El Hanni et al 2014).

Conversion of grasslands to croplands can result in loss of carbon and fertility, increased soil erosion, decreased water quality through increased sedimentation, and non-point chemical pollution by salts, nutrients and pesticides (Safriel and Adeel 2005). It can also contribute to further fragmentation and loss of traditional dry grazing areas (Herrero et al 2010).

Figure 1. Typology of sheep farming system in the Eastern Middle Atlas area by the MCA classification method



This work was carried out under the project ARIMNet-DoMEsTIc ( with the financial support of the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Professional Training (Morocco).


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Received 7 June 2015; Accepted 28 August 2015; Published 1 November 2015

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