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Capturing the potential for smallholder beef production in northern Laos

Smallholder livestock owners in Laos traditionally keep cattle as a means of storing wealth and providing manure as organic fertiliser for cropping. However, this resource in recent years has been keenly sought by cattle traders supplying the rapidly expanding meat markets of south east Asia. Improving this resource by addressing the constraints to cattle health, production and marketing, is a major challenge as general livestock husbandry knowledge is low, as is livestock extension capacity of the mainly government provincial and district agricultural officers and the village-level village veterinary workers. However, improving the quality of their cattle herds offers an opportunity for smallholders to improve their livelihoods and potentially, the larger ‘cattle keepers’ and become early adopter smallholder ‘cattle producers’ by developing small to medium cattle production enterprises.

FullSizeRender(1)Photo 1: A new born calf in August 2016 in the northern Lao cattle herd of Mr Thong. Calves are usually born in the dry season in this and many herds when feed is short and cows struggle to feed their calves adequately. Calving at this time demonstrates the advantages of wet season calving during when feed is more plentiful and plantation forages are growing in abundance, provided good parasite control is achieved.

To address this opportunity, ACIAR are funding the project AH/2012/068 ‘Developing biosecure market-driven beef industry in Laos’, a research collaboration between The University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science plus the Lao Department of Livestock and Fisheries, National Agricultural and Forestry Research Institute, National University of Laos and Savannakhet University. Recently, project co-leader Prof Peter Windsor and Dr Somevilay Nampanya from The University of Sydney, accompanied by Dr Mike Nunn, ACIAR Program Manager Animal Health and Mr Charles Olsson, proprietor of Australian stock feed company ‘4 Seasons Pty Ltd’ examined the cattle herd of Mr Thong of Ban Nou in Luang Prabang province.

FullSizeRender(3)Photo 2: This image is Dr Sonevilay Nampanya of The University of Sydney discussing cattle herd management plus forage plantations and the role of urea supplementation, with Mr Thong of Ban Nou near Luang Prabang. 

When previously visited in February this year, Mr Thong had 103 cattle including 70 cows, 12 calves and 21 bulls, with an average estimated condition score of 1.5/5 due to limited grazing availability. However, he had recently agreed to participate in a trial examining the use of molasses urea blocks medicated (MUMB) with the anthelmintic fenbendazole, donated by 4 Seasons. This trial is examining this convenient technology that may control the parasite Toxocara vitulorum, recently identified in 76% of northern Lao herds and considered the most severe pathogen of neonatal calves, causing mortality rates commonly observed as 50% of calves. A major difficulty with managing this parasite is the minimal knowledge of farmers about the need for parasite control and the lack of restraint facilities and skills to enable routine treatment of calves with anthelmintics.

FullSizeRender(2)Photo 3: Cows & calves eagerly consume urea molasses urea (UMB) for nitrogen supplementation, improving herd condition scores and assisting herd management as cows are easier to muster due to their interest in the blocks, plus it is a safe and convenient method to provide anthelmintic control of parasites as fenbendazole medicated blocks (MUMB’s).

At the visit in February, in addition to provision of MUMB’s, Mr Thong was also provided with advice on managing his herd structure and the planting of forages to better feed his cows, particularly in lactation. When revisited in August, Mr Thong had followed many of these recommendations and recently sold most of his bulls and less productive cows, reducing his herd to 62 cows, 2 bulls and now 20 calves. The average estimated condition score was now 2.5/5, and he was delighted that his cows were fatter, all had shiny coats, there were no ‘shy feeders’, and there was no evidence of external parasites, meaning he had decided not to treat them with the expensive ivermectin product that he usually used to try and control parasites. He noted that the calving had been extended and now had more calves than he expected, with no losses, plus all the calves appeared to be growing more quickly. Much of these improvements he attributed to the use of the MUMB’s and was keen to obtain more, particularly as at this stage as there was little evidence of improvement in the availability of feed from his young forage plantation.

IMG_6036(1)Photo 4: Dr Mike Nunn, Research Program Manager Animal Health ACIAR, negotiates a pathway through mud on the farm of Mr Thong, to examine cattle, MUMB feeding and recently planted forages, as part of project AH/2012/068.

Molasses urea blocks containing urea and bypass protein as a feed supplement for cows, is a commonly used technique used widely in tropical and subtropical cattle production in Australia. The ‘feeding the rumen’ provides the nitrogen required by cows to improve digestion of poor quality roughage, a major issue in the dry season in northern Australia and the Mekong, plus in many of the rice-growing areas of the Mekong where cattle are fed very low quality rice straw in the wet season due to the need to prevent them grazing rice paddies. The researchers consider the provisional data on improving the feed base with forages, supplemented with a safe source of urea in molasses blocks, is encouraging and could eventually prove to be transformational for Mekong cattle productivity. As the lick blocks can also provide a safe source of anthelmintics for control of parasitism in MUMB’s, the technology has considerable potential to improve the efficiency of cattle production by reduced calf mortality and improved growth rates, plus improve food security and reduce rural poverty by enhancing smallholder livelihoods in Mekong countries and beyond.

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