By Francesca Earp, edited by Peter Windsor
Long term research by its nature, often means there is a lack of obvious short-term outcomes, unless extension activities to share research findings with other farmers, are efficiently practiced. The recent Farmer Cross Visit in Laos was a firm reminder of how important these research projects are in improving farmer education and practices. The Farmer Cross Visit provided excellent opportunities for farmers to teach and learn about farm management and new on-farm interventions and activities that improve their livelihoods.
On the 15th of January 2019, the Luang Prabang field team and I travelled to Vientiane and joined over 50 farmers and district staff from our four project provinces, to observe some ‘Champion farms’ in action. The day was hosted by the Lao Quality Beef initiative (LQBI) and consisted of talks by the members of the project team and the farmers, then a question and answer session, followed by tours of farms. The attendees were introduced to the importance of appropriate feeding, cattle housing and new technologies as ways to improve their farms productivity levels.
The MLR team is very appreciative of the LQBI for collaborating on this excellent farmer activity (Photo: Kivor Phanthavong)
The LQBI commenced in 2017 and is an in-country project in partnership with the New Zealand Government. The project is aimed at improving beef production in Laos to ensure food security and improved productivity. The morning commenced with introductions of each of the ‘Champion farmers’ and presentations on the project’s success thus far.
The morning workshop focused on cattle feeding, providing instructions on silage production and its uses, making hay out of unused rice straw, and the composition of diets using supplementation. Much of this information was novel to the farmers with most farms in Laos currently allowing cattle to free graze as their main form of feeding. This means that currently, growth performance of Lao cattle is predominantly derived from naturally occurring native grasses of variable and often low quantity and quality. With native grass species having a low nutritive value, the recommendations on appropriate cattle diet provided were particularly important. Over coming weeks, the dry season will continue to reduce the quality of pasture, causing declines in growth rates of beef cattle. The attendees were provided with handbooks outlining the composition of new diets for cattle and were encouraged to use the diet plans on their own smallholder farms.
Farmers learning about silage production. In Laos silage is generally made and stored in tubs, rather than the big pits we are familiar with in Australia (Photo: Kivor Phanthavong)
Housing of cattle was another focus of the training, with housing methods and stocking rates within them demonstrated. A common problem within smallholder farms is the overstocking of cattle pens, compromising the growth rate of the animals. It was valuable for the farmers to tour the ‘champion farms’ and see the various housing methods used on the large, medium and small-scale champion farms. Within these housing facilities appropriate feeding and water apparatuses as well as use of cattle crushes were demonstrated and the attending farmers had opportunities to use cattle scales and the cattle crushes.
Learning about pen stocking density is important to maintain adequate health and hygiene (Photo: Kivor Phanthavong)
The cross visit also aimed to showcase new technologies available within the Laos agricultural scene, including the use of electric fences. These fences were seen on the medium and large-scale farms providing both perimeter and subdivision fencing. This is an important initiative as it provides divisions within the farms to improve pasture management and reduce the occurrence of co-grazing with neighboring farms. Refusing co-grazing with neighboring villages is an important biosecurity measure for disease mitigation as it limits the potential spread of important diseases. Reducing the risk of FMD in Laos has been an important focus of our projects, as was demonstrated by our recently published research: https://mekonglivestock.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/miller-et-al-2018.pdf.
Research has shown that ‘Farmer Cross Visits’ are a very effective strategy in agricultural extension in Laos. This strategy has been promoted regularly in our ‘Train the Trainer’ workshops funded through our ACIAR plus Crawford Fund and DFAT-BPP (Business Partnership Platform) supported projects on cattle production. In addition to forage production, silage, cattle nutrition and handling, we have been promoting disease control through biosecurity and vaccination, plus nutrient molasses block supplementation and parasite control. Applied participatory research & extension projects that use a combination of these strategies are proving powerful in changing farmers attitudes and practices from a traditional subsistence approach to a productivity focus. These projects allow farmers to ‘Learn by Doing’ as they measure the weight gains and observe the improved incomes from more efficiency livestock raising, resulting in enhanced family livelihoods.
The ‘Farmer Cross Visit’ day concluded with a question and answer session providing the farmers with opportunities to clarify issues and concerns with the practices they had observed and participated in. The farmers were very enthusiastic and appreciative of the learning provided. On days like this, we are reminded of the importance of the work we are doing and the collaborations between Lao, Australian and New Zealand institutions, including funding agencies such as ACIAR and DFAT, that support these contributions. The obvious improvements on the farms visited that are applying these interventions, in addition to the capabilities of the farmers to teach and learn from each other, made for an inspiring educational day. I was very proud to be involved.
Some farm visits aren’t complete without at tree bridge crossing (Photo: Kivor Phanthavong)