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Sustainable farming in low-income countries

Caring for smallholder livestock brings challenges in contrast with those found in industrialised production.

Pecking chicken

Livestock farming is fundamental to many livelihoods in low- and middle-income countries, where the challenges and motivations of smallholder farmers in how best to feed, care for and profit from their livestock vary from those of high-income countries.

Farm animals in low and middle income countries (LMICs) tend to be raised in smaller groups than their counterparts in industrialised countries. They may be less productive, with lack of access to nourishment, water and medication, but have evolved to survive in their challenging environments.

Animals are often kept as a source of vital nutrition, but they may also enable financial security for their owners, help to work the land or provide by-products such as fertiliser.

Farmers’ motivations in raising livestock, and their production styles, vary widely. Many subsistence farmers raise animals with little or no access to the resources that others may have to improve productivity of their livestock. Others still may be more invested in cultural or social considerations when making farming decisions.

Most farmers in LMICs will likely keep at least a few animals, and smallholder farms are the dominant source of food in developing regions.

However, increasing intensification of farming, driven by population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation, call for improved productivity, efficiency and welfare.

The difference in productivity between LMICs and developed countries is stark – for example, a dairy cow in sub-Saharan Africa may produce on average 2 or 3 litres of milk each day, compared with 10 times that from high-producing dairy cows in Europe.

Improving productivity

With a variety of cultural and socio-economic motivations for how smallholdings are managed, there is no single solution to improving their productivity and sustainability, but there are common themes.

Environmental factors are important to enable animals to thrive.

“Farmers are not likely to consistently access the most suitable breeds of animal for their production systems, whether it be chickens, goats, sheep or dairy cows,” explains Professor Appolinaire Djikeng, Director of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH), based at the Roslin Institute.

“For example, a particular breed of cow may be known for producing a lot of milk, but they may not thrive in a hot climate.”

Professor Djikeng says smallholder farmers in LMICs can be encouraged towards adoption of suitable breeds for their conditions, but the perfect solution would be a technology that selects the best breeds for a specific production system. “One could dream of an app that could customise breed selection for farmers, based on the environment in any location. Farmers would know and choose breeds which would flourish.”

Insights into genetics, and the application of gene technologies in well-designed breeding programmes, hold promise for developing or preserving breeds with characteristics suited to their surroundings.

Introducing breeds of animals with beneficial traits from other regions or communities can improve the genetics of indigenous livestock, and so support their health.

Improved understanding of genetics can also help farmers select which animals to keep for breeding and which to take to market.

Research at Roslin has demonstrated the potential of applying genomic technologies to animal breeding for genetic improvement.

Studies at CTLGH involving scientists in the UK and Africa are researching resilience to East Coast Fever, a major killer of cattle in 12 countries in eastern, central and southern Africa. This parasitic infection kills one cow every 30 seconds, with more than 25 million cattle at risk.

These studies aim to offer long-term complementary approaches to health interventions such as vaccine development, to ultimately support the selection of resilient cows with genetic profiles associated to better immunity, better response to infection and better productivity.

Aiding profitability

Support for farmers as well as their animals would help to enable sustainable, profitable production.

Health, welfare, and productivity are important – but the key is profitability. This is limiting the potential for smallholder farmers to support their families and get out of poverty.

Professor Appolinaire DjikengDirector of the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health

“Farmers need to be able to balance the books, generate income for themselves. External to the genetic and other science-driven solutions are undefined markets and value chains, where volatility and unpredictability prevents smallholders from flourishing,” adds Professor Djikeng.

Farmer coalitions can help, for example in enabling bulk milk sales, he suggests, but this may present its own paradox. Professor Djikeng adds: “There may be a trade-off involved – is there a market for the product, can farmers sell all that they make?”

There have to be viable markets for products, in order for farmers to see the need for interventions in feeds, genetics and health for their animals.

Professor Alan DuncanProfessor of Livestock and Development at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security

Understanding how to keep animals healthy, with preventative veterinary care, appropriate nutrition and good welfare, is key to their productivity.

Basic interventions, such as availability of key vaccines or drugs, and accessible knowledge for farmers, can support smallholders in raising livestock sustainably.

Creative interventions suited to the circumstances can deliver big benefits, says Professor Alan Duncan, Professor of Livestock and Development at the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security.

Examples of this from his experience in different projects include growing productive grasses for beef cattle in Vietnam, reduced feed wastage through use of troughs in Himalayan hill states, or growing Desho grass – a deep rooted plant that will grow in field margins – in Ethiopia.

In each case, optimum efficiency is sought from the resources available.

Power of data

Data science – gathering and analysing information to form useful narratives – holds great potential to determine interventions that could benefit smallholder systems.

SEBI Livestock is working in several ways to improve data and evidence for decision making at all levels of LMIC livestock value chains.

Better data is needed to inform farmers’ choice of vaccines, to help funders prioritise their development investments, and for national-level policymaking.

Relevant data may be scattered in thousands of journals or databases, rendering it inaccessible. One of the approaches SEBI Livestock is using to address this challenge is to apply machine learning to build the evidence base.

“We work closely with the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre to apply advanced informatics techniques such as machine learning to try to speed up and strengthen the systematic review of existing data and evidence,” says Dr Gareth Salmon, a SEBI-Livestock Researcher.

“We also convene the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) community of practice, to connect livestock data producers and users and discuss common challenges. For instance, one of the biggest challenges with assimilating data is a lack of standardisation. explains Dr Salmon.

A particular disease may have multiple names which makes it hard to organise vital information. The science of ontologies becomes important here.

Dr Gareth SalmonSEBI-Livestock Researcher

“We can make best use of existing, but hard-to-reach, data and evidence and help direct decisions here and now. But we also need to continue to improve the collection, collation and communication of new data,” he adds.

Professor Duncan adds: “There are lots of opportunities for improved production: increasing wealth, population and urbanisation fuels the demand for products. The temptation is to go in with ready-made technologies and await the benefits they could bring, but we have to consider the circumstances that farmers are operating in.

“It’s not only technical knowledge we need, but cultural and social awareness. Scientists can sometimes miss that bigger picture.”

Cultural matters must be considered when considering livestock interventions, says Dr Salmon. “We asked dairy farmers in Senegal if they would want to produce the same amount of milk with fewer cows, and they said no.”

“Treating animals well, feeding them appropriately all year round, and using vets as a preventative measure, are key to productivity. Give them all they need and in return they will give you what you need, at least for today,” says Professor Djikeng.

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Image credit: Josse Schoff on Unsplash