Extensive or low-input farming is considered a way of remedying many problems associated with intensive farming practices. But do extensive farming systems really result in a clear reduction in environmental impacts, especially if their lower productivity is taken into account? This question is studied for Swiss arable cropping and forage production systems in a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) study. Three long-term experiments (DOC experiment comparing bio-dynamic, bio-organic and conventional farming, the "Burgrain" experiment including integrated intensive, integrated extensive and organic systems and the "Oberacker" experiment with conventional ploughing and no-till soil cultivation, are considered in the LCA study. Furthermore, model systems for arable crops and forage production for feeding livestock are investigated by using the Swiss Agricultural Life Cycle Assessment method (SALCA). The analysis covers an overall extensification of cropping systems and forage production on the one hand and a partial extensification of fertiliser use, plant protection and soil cultivation on the other. The overall extensification of an intensively managed system reduced environmental impacts in general, both per area unit and per product unit. In arable cropping systems medium production intensity gave the best results for the environment, and the intensity should not fall below the environmental optimum in order to avoid a deterioration of eco-efficiency. In grassland systems, on the contrary, a combination of both intensively and extensively managed plots was preferable to medium intensity practices on the whole area. The differences in yield, production intensity and environmental impact were much more pronounced in grassland than in arable cropping systems. Partial extensification of a farming system should be conceived in the context of the whole system in order to be successful. For example, the extensification solely of fertiliser use and soil cultivation resulted in a general improvement in the environmental performance of the farming system, whereas a reduction in plant protection intensity by banning certain pesticide categories reduced negative impacts on ecotoxicity and biodiversity only, while increasing other burdens such as global warming, ozone formation, eutrophication and acidification per product unit. The replacement of mineral fertilisers by farmyard manure as a special form of extensification reduced resource use and improved soil quality, while slightly increasing nutrient losses. These results show that a considerable environmental improvement potential exists in Swiss farming systems and that a detailed eco-efficiency analysis could help to target a further reduction in their environmental impacts.