Managing the Aso grasslands for sustainable agriculture — a decade after recognition as agricultural heritage

KUMAMOTO, Aug. 7 — In the Aso district of Kumamoto Prefecture, vast grasslands spread on one of the world’s largest calderas, providing feed base for grazing some 5,000 Japanese brown cattle.

The dynamic landscape of meadows, also a popular tourist destination, was not created naturally but nurtured through more than 1,000 years of constant human efforts to coexist with nature — pasturing, controlled burning and mowing.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the management of the Aso grasslands for sustainable agriculture certified as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The grasslands stretching 20,000 hectares are managed by 156 pasture unions, but only 104 of them raise cows on pasture. The area of pasture land is shrinking rapidly along with the declining number of farms.

For the past 24 years, volunteers have been conducting controlled burning to preserve the grasslands.

Masanobu I, 58, a member of Kamitajiri pasture union in the village of Ubuyama in Kumamoto Prefecture, is raising high-quality Japanese brown cattle.

The mainstream of cattle raising in the district is raise them on pasture in summer and put them in sheds during winter, but he pastures them throughout the year.

He succeeds his father’s motto that great cattle are raised on grass. He created his own grasslands separate from the pasture land and built a breeding barn to let his cattle freely go back and forth between the mountains and the barn.

His cattle feed not on pasture grass but on wild grass growing on the slopes at the back of the barn.

As the slopes undergo controlled burning every winter, new sprouts emerge in spring and plant diversity is maintained there.

He says mother cows become healthy by eating dozens of different species of wild grass, excreting moderately firm feces, and their reproductive performances also improve.

In addition to wild grass, he feeds his cattle with rice plants, wheat and soybeans completely from Kumamoto.

While the livestock industry is struggling to cope with a sharp increase in prices of imported feed, feeding cattle with grass — a natural resource of the community — means breeders will be less affected by outside fluctuations.

“Modernization is not everything. Looking at the cattle’s conditions, I can see that the grasses here are fit for them,” I said. “By showing our way of raising cattle, I want to let others know that you can do well with local feed.”

Hiroaki I, 73, a Japanese brown cattle breeder of Kamitajiri, and his family runs a farm restaurant Yamanosato, serving Japanese brown beef steaks with rich flavor.

His daughter Yuri, 42, returned to her hometown with her husband and took over the business.

“Japanese brown beef is not highly evaluated under the grading system focused on marbling. That is why we want people to come here to eat it,” she said.

The landscape of caldera agriculture in Aso was nurtured by humans coexisting with the grasslands and livestock.

How can we preserve our predecessors’ wisdom and skills of obtaining their own food and at the same time creating landscapes which fascinate people around the world?

Vast grasslands of Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, home to one of the world’s largest calderas, maintained by pasturing of Japanese red cattle, mowing and controlled burning

Vast grasslands of Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, home to one of the world’s largest calderas, maintained by pasturing of Japanese red cattle, mowing and controlled burning

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