Four-legged futures: turning Vietnam’s cash cows into productive assets

21 March, 2013 by (comments)

CIAT Annual Report 2012-3 – Sneak Preview

Ngo Van Hung is poised to quit his job as a builder in Vietnam’s Ea Kar District. Around six years ago he started getting a lot of work in the village of Chu Cuc, a community of smallholder farmers. He’d build a new home here, another one there; all of them big stone houses replacing the smaller wooden ones.

By the time he’d built his twentieth new home in the village, he knew the farmers’ secret: they had implemented a livestock system that was earning them thousands of dollars. Now he wants to do the same.

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Until recently, livestock husbandry in this part of Vietnam’s Central Highlands was not very productive. Animals were intermittently sold to free-up cash to put towards weddings or large purchases, and the rest of the time they were left free to graze on native pasture and crop residues.

In 2000, CIAT researchers, in partnership with Vietnam’s Tay Nguyen University (TNU) and with funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), looked for ways to revitalise the region’s livestock sector. They assessed farmers’ needs, tested different kinds of improved forages selected in Southeast Asia in earlier work and, most importantly, developed improved management strategies with farmers. The partnership continued to grow through a subsequent project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), resulting in the development and adoption of a new livestock system, like the one in Chu Cuc.

Cut-and-carry

The system hinges on confining cattle to lots and providing them with high quality feed. Extension workers recommend that part of the cropland is planted with nutritious forages suited to the area, such as varieties of elephant and napier grass, brachiaria and stylo. Also, farmers are encouraged to invest in more productive crossbreeds that respond better to the improved nutrition.

The forages are cut and carried to the lots twice-a-day as part of an intensive fattening program that lasts around six months per animal. Clubs formed around groups of cattle-fattening farmers then assist individual members to get in touch with traders and stay informed about developments in the cattle market.

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While Chu Cuc used to be coffee land – part of the government’s drive to become a major Robusta exporter – the soils there are poor and coffee prices were often unpredictable. “Sometimes it would cost us more to produce and pick the coffee than what we would get for it at market,” said farmer Wang Van Ting, who switched to the new livestock system in 2006.

He’s one of the farmers in the village with a new house, and tells us he earns so much from his cattle that the government no longer classifies him as poor. The legacy of coffee lives on though: an irrigation reservoir built for Chu Cuc’s coffee plantations now serves dry-season forage cultivation.

Ting’s neighbour went one step further. In three years he’s earned enough money from fattening his nine cattle – and by trading his own and others’ – to pay the USD$25,000 to construct his nearly-completed new home. This is also where we meet his builder, Ngo Van Hung, who has seen the impacts of the livestock system unfold in front of him.

Further up the road we met Nguyn Hui Nhon, one of Chu Cuc’s pioneer farmers, also with a modern new home. She told us her eldest son is studying advertising at university in Ho Chi Minh City; her second-oldest is a photographer. She beams as she returns to her plot to cut some more king grass.

These are impressive stories from a village where each household only has around a hectare of land.

Ripple effects

According to Truong Tan Khanh, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Animal Science and Animal Health at TNU, over 500 farmers are now using the intensive cattle fattening system in Ea Kar, with those in Chu Cuc hosting exchanges of interested farmers from further afield. Despite its success so far, Khanh says the new project needs to expand to involve more marginalised farmers from some of the country’s many ethnic minority groups.

With the lessons from places like Chu Cuc, the new CIAT-led Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam Livestock Project (CLVLP) – also funded by IFAD, and officially launched in 2012 – is now working to promote the adaptation and adoption of improved livestock production systems in neighbouring provinces across the area known as the Cambodia-Lao-Vietnam Development Triangle.

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“The aim is to transform livestock from a cash reserve into a productive asset, drawing on the successes in places like Chu Cuc,” explained CIAT’s Adrian Bolliger, the CLVLP coordinator. “We don’t want to introduce livestock where animals haven’t been kept before, but rather improve systems where farmers already have animals.”

As well as extending suitable forage and livestock husbandry practices the four-year project takes a broader, value chain approach to ensure improved smallholder livestock production results in better returns at market.

Back in Chu Cuc, builder Ngo Van Hung says that switching careers to livestock production will mean he can work half the hours for double the money, while being his own boss and being able to put money aside for his family. Although he’s as well-positioned as anyone to see the impact of the new system, even if he doesn’t decide to become a livestock farmer, it seems to be good time to be a builder in Ea Kar too.

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Filed Under: Asia @en, Crops website, Tropical Forages