Mixed crop–livestock systems, combining livestock and cash crops at farm level, are considered to be suitable for sustainable intensification of agriculture. Ensuring the survival of mixed crop–livestock systems is a challenge for European agriculture: the number of European mixed crop–livestock farms has been decreasing since 1970. Analysis of farming system dynamics may elucidate past changes and the forces driving this decline. The objectives of this study were (i) to identify the diversity of paths that allowed the survival of mixed crop–livestock farming and (ii) to elucidate the driving forces behind such survival. We analysed the variety of farm trajectories from 1950 to 2005. We studied the entire farm population of a case study site, located in the ‘Coteaux de Gascogne’ region. In this less favoured area of south-western France, farmers have limited specialisation. Currently, half of the farms use mixed crop–livestock systems. The data set of 20 variables for 50 farms on the basis of six 10-year time steps was collected through retrospective surveys. We used a two-step analysis including (i) a visual assessment of the whole population of individual farm trajectories and (ii) a computer-based typology of farm trajectories on the basis of a series of multivariate analyses followed by automatic clustering. The European Common Agricultural Policy, market globalisation and decreasing workforce availability were identified as drivers of change that favoured the specialisation process. Nevertheless, farmers’ choices and values have opposed against these driving forces, ensuring the survival of some mixed crop–livestock farming systems. The trajectories were clustered into five types, four of which were compatible with mixed crop–livestock systems. The first type was the maximisation of autonomy by combining crops and livestock. The second type was diversification of production to exploit economies of scope and protect the farm against market fluctuations. The other two types involved enlargement and progressive adaptation of the farm to the familial workforce. The survival of mixed crop–livestock systems in these two types is largely dependent on workforce availability. Only one type of trajectory, on the basis of enlargement and economies of scale, did not lead to mixed crop–livestock systems. In view of the current evolution of the driving forces, maximising autonomy and diversification appear to be suitable paths to deal with current challenges and maintain mixed crop–livestock systems in Europe.