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Australian students experience smallholder cattle farmer productivity research and extension in Cambodia

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Authors: Holly Harrison, Holly Laurence & Rhiannon Phillips

Editors: Peter Windsor & Isabel MacPhillamy

 

During June and July 2017, the authors, Rhiannon and the Two Holly‘s, all final year Honours students from the Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bioscience degree (BAVBioSci) in The Sydney School of Veterinary Science at The University of Sydney (USYD), travelled to Cambodia to conduct applied research projects within the larger ACIAR-funded project “Village-based biosecurity for livestock disease risk management in Cambodia”. The students were based in the capital city Phnom Penh working with the local partners in the General Directorate of Animal Health and Production (GDAHP) and collaborating with project team members from both the GDAHP and the University of Sydney.

 

Each student was tasked to prepare a survey that aimed to explore with smallholding farming families, several different aspects of their farm production system. The Honours project topics included: cattle reproductive health; vaccine usage, availability and storage; and gross margin budget analysis of interventions used to improve livestock productivity. Under the guidance of the GDAHP team members, the students travelled to project village sites in the provinces of Takeo and Tbong Khmum, where they met with 12 smallholder farmers and their families, inspecting their livestock-raising facilities and conducting interviews to gather information for their research. This was achieved with the help of a local team GDAHP members Phallaep and Vitou as translators plus USYD PhD student Katherine Ashley who has developed reasonable fluency in Khmer language during her thesis work.

 

The local farmers were enthusiastic and graciously offered their help, plus samples of their produce, including coconuts, grapefruit, mangosteen and peanuts. Of course this all was well accepted by the hungry students keen to broaden their experience of Khmer cuisine. In addition to appreciation all of the fresh produce, the students thoroughly enjoyed meeting the farming families and learning details of the constraints to smallholder production in Cambodia. It was clearly apparent that livestock have an important socioeconomic role in Cambodian rural livelihoods and cattle in particular have been increasingly important with low return to rice production and other commodities. Forage growing for the feeding of livestock was found to be far more beneficial than the growing of rice and other crops, including cassava and most vegetables.

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Figure 1. Project participants at the cattle reproduction workshop learning thoracic auscultation with a stethoscope to examine cattle.

 

One of the highlights for the students was being able to interact with the village children and spend time learning about the rural society, culture, education and history in Cambodia. Many of the older farmers experienced the ‘ground zero‘ history of the ‘Pol Pot time‘ during the disastrous genocidal Kampuchean Khmer Rouge (KKR) revolution of 1975-1978. However, there were many smiling faces when the students tested their newly acquired fledgling Khmer language skills and particularly when Holly Harrison gave some of the children Koala toys delivered all the way from Australia!

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Figure 2. Farmers in Sen Ouk village collecting forage seedlings to improve cattle nutrition and reproduction.

 

The research team visited two businesses that supplied veterinary medicines and vaccinations to smallholder farmers and their information enabled Holly Laurence to assess the availability of these products within Cambodian rural communities as part of her research. Much needs to be done to ensure a satisfactory ‘cold chain‘ can be developed in rural Cambodia that can deliver efficacious livestock vaccination, particularly for endemic Foot-and-Mouth Disease. Rhiannon was fortunate to be able to stay on for a week and attend a cattle reproduction workshop for 25 participants, hosted by the GDAHP courtesy of HE Dr Sen Sovann and in-country ACIAR project leader Dr Suon Sothoeun. The workshop was conducted by the Australian team of Professor Peter Windsor, Bega Veterinary Practitioner Peter Alexander, and USYD PhD student Luisa Olmo who is examining cattle reproductive health. The first day addressed reproductive anatomy and physiology, measurement of reproductive outcomes, and work on understanding constraints to reproductive efficiency. The second day was practical training at the Tamao Breeding Station in Takeo where participants were trained in clinical examination, body conditions scoring and pregnancy testing. The next day the research team visited the Sen Ouk village project site in Takeo for a project meeting with a grateful and enthusiastic group of farmers involved in the distribution of forage seedlings to improve cattle nutrition.

 

This reproduction workshop was for Provincial and District officers working in animal health and production, encountering the challenges of working with farmers expecting cows to regularly deliver calves from low condition score Haryana and Indigenous crossbred cattle in rural Cambodia. Previous work by the USYD-GDAHP research team established that Cambodian cattle have a mean inter-calving interval of 20months (in Australian beef cattle the target is 12months). This low reproductive efficiency is considered mainly due to endemic nutritional anoestrous in Cambodian cattle provided with poor nutrient availability from the largely ‘cut and carry‘ feeding system in widespread use, particularly in the wet season. Rhiannon presented her preliminary findings for a draft calving calendar that encourages alignment of calving with seasonal availability of a rising plane of nutrition when energy demands of lactating cattle are 2.5x those of dry (non-pregnant) cattle. The calendar was very well received and useful feedback was provided, enabling Rhiannon and the team to progress her work and understanding. As some attendees have commenced artificial insemination activities in response to demand for better quality cattle, future training is planned that will address problems of advanced reproductive technology in cattle.

 

In conclusions, the BAVBioSci Hons students, supported by New Colombo Plan mobility grant funding, enjoyed learning about the Cambodian smallholder productions system and participating in research that is improving the livelihoods of the rural poor in this most interesting of countries. They also appreciated the rich culture and history of the Khmer population, both during their work and in ‘down-time‘, visiting many historic locations, including the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat and the strangely dark and sobering monuments of the KKR killing fields. Like many visitors to Cambodia, these contrasting experiences are challenging and informative, although unlike most tourists, the Hons students gained much deeper insights into rural Cambodian life that enabled them to connect and communicate with famers for a much richer experience of Cambodia.

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Figure 3. BAvBioSc Hons students Holly‘s and Rhiannon with Phaleap (far left) visiting project site villages in Cambodia.

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