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Perspectives of the ACIAR-funded research projects in Northern Lao PDR

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Authors: Bethanie Clark, Brianne Pepper, Amanda Bouassi
Edited by Prof Peter Windsor

Bethanie, Brianne and Amanda are fourth year Animal and Veterinary Bioscience students from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science. They were awarded New Colombo Plan Scholarships to travel to Laos in February 2018 and work in the ACIAR funded projects ‘Development of a biosecure market-driven beef production system’ (ACIAR AH/2012/068) and ‘Enhancing transboundary livestock disease risk management in Lao PDR’ (ACIAR/2012/067) in northern Laos. Their visit was aligned with their final year Honours Projects, requiring them to be based in Luang Prabang for 4 weeks.

Prior to their trip, they each conducted preliminary research on the topics they had chosen; Amanda on nutrition and the use of urea molasses blocks; Brianne on current biosecurity and animal disease status, prevention and treatment practices of smallholder farmers; and Bethanie on the effects of Neospora caninum and Leptospira interrogans on reproductive performance in buffalo. This work provided insights into the status of the agricultural sector in the country although did not prepare them for the actual experiences obtained in the villages and the  current farming practices utilised in Laos. They visited villages close to Luang Prabang (LPB) for two days, helped take faecal samples from calves and vaccinating recently purchased cattle against Foot and Mouth Disease. It was amazing to see how simple farming practices were and how improvising with the limited local resources enabled progress, including the use of bamboo to form a bleeding pole, fencing and a crush. From conducting both field and office work, the students s experienced the various challenges of working in a developing country.

Photo Left: University of Sydney Honours Student, Brianne Pepper administering a Foot and Mouth Disease vaccine to a young cow against a “bleeding pole” (Photo: Amanda Bouassi). Photo Right: Project team photo at the end of the first day out in the field vaccinating cattle and completing calf faecal sampling in villages near Luang Prabang.

Highlights included visiting the Laos Buffalo Dairy near LPB, A trip to Xayaburi province, and participating in the Projects Midterm Review Meeting. The Laos Buffalo Dairy was recently established by Suzie Martin, an Australian who wanted to improve the future livelihoods of buffalo farmers through participation in her business. The production system is unique as it involves ‘renting’ buffalo from local villages during late pregnancy and lactation and then returning them to the farmers when lactation ceased and they are pregnant again. The buffalo milk is utilised to make cheeses, yoghurt and ice-cream products that are sold locally to customers and also to local hotels and restaurants. Students from local universities may work at this farm and are taught basic biosecurity practices and how to work in a western kitchen. These skills are crucial for Lao PDR as biosecurity is rarely practiced in this country due to the very limited knowledge of farmers and advisors.

Fig 1
Photo: (From left to right) Bethanie Clark, Brianne Pepper and Amanda Bouassi, honours students from Sydney University at Laos Buffalo Dairy, Luang Prabang (Photo: Luisa Olmo).

The students also travelled to Xayaburi province for two days for the recently initiated  Business Partnership Platform(BPP) DFAT-funded project on ‘Urea molasses blocks to improve large ruminant productivity and profitability for smallholder farmers in Lao PDR’. They visited one of the project farms and witnessed the positive interaction between the project staff and the farmers, highlighting the importance of having good relationships with farmers when conducting field Livestock research in Laos. Amanda was able to observe the implementation of the urea molasses blocks trial, noting that the blocks were offered to small groups of cattle (eg three cattle per block and one buffalo per block) as previous research identified that changes in growth rate were less obvious when too many animals has access to a block. The students were fortunate to attend the annual elephant festival in Xayaburi. At the festival, locals and tourists celebrated the national animal of Laos, the elephant and this festival gave the students an incredible insight into the culture and traditions of the local people, with about 70 elephants in attendance, traditional Laotian music, food and a martial arts performance by the local youth of Xayaburi.

Fig 6 Photo: An elephant and rider at the elephant festival in Xayaburi (Photo: Bethanie Clark).

Fig 7
Photoo: Elephants and Laotian youth performing at the elephant festival in Xayaburi (Photo: Bethanie Clark).

In their third week in Laos, the students attended the Projects Midterm Review Meeting in Luang Prabang, where the previous achievements of the project and future initiatives were discussed. This meeting enabled the students to see the bigger picture of the considerable work that they were contributing to during their month in Laos. During dinner with the meeting attendees from Australia and Laos, the students learned of the value of applied research in developing countries, how travelling can be part of a career, and the impacts that ACIAR-funded research has made around the world.

Fig 5Photo:  Asiatic swamp buffalo licking urea molasses block on the first day of the urea molasses block trial (Photo: Brianne Pepper).

In the final week Bethanie and Amanda returned to the Buffalo Dairy and also visited Pik Yai and Khokman villages in Luang Prabang province, with the local Laos team, collecting blood samples from buffalo and completing a risk factor surveys with the farmers. The blood samples will be tested for antibodies to Neospora caninum, Leptospira interrogans and bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD pestivirus) as all 3 potential pathogens have recently been identified in buffalo in Laos (this work is for Bethanie’s Hons project).

Fig 8Photo: Blood samples being collected from buffalo at the Buffalo Dairy (Photo: Bethanie Clark).

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