A cut above: the impact of quality forages

2 April, 2014 by (comments)
Xia Vang Lor and Nhia Lee at home with their son.

Xia Vang Lor and Nhia Lee at home with their son.

Surrounded by leafy green forages and a hill-view, the homestead of Xia Vang Lor and Nhia Lee is found at the end of a small rural road in north-eastern Laos. Bundles of cut grass for livestock are piled against the house, and at the back there is a cattle pen.

“This one is worth US$3,250!” beams Xia Vang Lor, tapping the nose of the expensive bovine specimen. The others – of which there are now thirty – have been moved to a pen further behind the house. “We will sell this one eventually,” he added, taking a handful of green forage leaves and piling them into the cattle’s trough. “But first we’ll keep it for a little longer until it gets bigger.”

This farmstead in San Dong village, Xieng Khouang province, is similar to 90 percent of households across Laos, where livestock provide a vital source of income for farmers, or a cash back-up – like a savings account. With soaring demand for meat, both locally and for export to neighboring countries such as Vietnam, livestock rearing allows farmers to tap into a growing, lucrative market, earning a decent income.

Yet despite the money-making potential of livestock, traditional cattle keeping practices are high on labor and low on income. As grazing land becomes scarce, feed has to be collected from further away, and herding cattle is a full-time job. On top of that, low quality wild fodder means animals do not get the nutrition they need to gain weight – all too often losing farmers time and money.

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Xia Vang Lor with his US$3,250 cattle.

Seeds of change

Since first planting improved forages near their farm house over ten years ago, Xia Vang Lor and Nhia Lee have sent most of their twelve children to school. The older ones have jobs, or run their own businesses. The couple still rears cattle, chickens and pigs when not spending time with the family. It’s hard to believe that this success – and that of other families in the village – is down to grass.

The rise of improved tropical forages, grasses and legumes for livestock in Southeast Asia didn’t happen overnight. With the aim of helping farmers shift from being livestock keepers to producers, researchers have spent the past two decades investigating improved forages, rigorously testing more than 6,400 materials for introduction.

Improved fodder varieties now found in livestock troughs across the region, such as the protein-packed legume Stylosantheses guianensis or the tall ‘Napier’ grass Pennisetum purpureum, were among those selected.

In Laos, researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in partnership with Lao’s National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, spread the word about improved forage varieties, and still distribute seed in Laos today.

The greatest ideas are the simplest

The improved varieties deliver double or even triple weight gain in animals, especially when combined with better animal-keeping practices – keeping animals in a pen rather than leaving them to roam and graze for meager feed around the village; ensuring well-stocked troughs throughout the day; providing adequate water and mineral licks.

Even Xia Vang Lor and his wife didn’t believe that planting grass could possibly yield benefits. They worried that it would take up land for rice and other crops. “We didn’t think that growing grass would bring us money,” said Nhia Lee.

Nhia Lee gathers bundles of cut forages planted close to the house.

Nhia Lee gathers bundles of cut forages planted close to the house.

“Then we realized we didn’t have to go far to collect food for the cattle, which used to take a lot of time. Now, the cattle can be fed easily throughout the day, and we can spend more time making food for chickens or pigs, or relaxing with family. It’s not very hard work compared to planting upland rice and other crops,” she added, which require a whole day in the field and bring in less money.

Stepping stone to a better future

In 2005, five years after improved forages were introduced in Southeast Asia, CIAT conducted an adoption study. It found that in the areas where forages had been introduced across the region, more than 15,000 families were already growing and managing improved forages.

Today, thousands of other farmers have followed suit, and continue to reap – and sow – the benefits of growing forages. Cher Thai Lor, a farmer in Nong Het district close to the Vietnamese border, has become so adept at keeping cattle he buys thin cattle, fattens them up and sells them on for a profit.

“When I sold maize, my income was around US$3,000 a year. Now my income is about US$5,700 a year,” he said. He uses the profit to send his five children to school and invest in buying more livestock.

Together with local partners, and supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the Australian Agency for International Development AusAID, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, CIAT’s research has continued to build on this success.

Farmers continue to learn which fodder to use for pigs and cattle, improving management techniques to reduce soil erosion and forest encroachment, as well as harmful slash and burn practices, while boosting animal health and establishing vital market linkages.

Picture credit: Georgina Smith

Related links: Transformation of smallholder beef cattle production in Vietnam, Werner Stür et. al.

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

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