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Motivating health interventions in the smallholder livestock sector in developing countries

Peter Windsor

Professor Emeritus, The University of Sydney

peter.windsor@sydney.edu.au

Enhancing livestock farming in developing countries is widely recognised as an important pathway in the amelioration of rural poverty. However, livestock diseases threaten the lives and livelihoods of the often marginalised people in rural communities that depend on their animals as ‘cash banks’, for manure as fertiliser and for food and often transport. Importantly, animal diseases pose significant risks to both farmers land the global human population, particularly when animal pathogens cross species barriers into humans; the most common source of new human epidemics.  To control animal diseases, policy makers often focus on achieving behavioural change by individual farmers, mostly by promoting knowledge-based interventions that encourage adoption of vaccination, biosecurity and parasite control. Sadly,  often these programs simply fail.

We have now conducted ongoing applied field research for over 1.5 decades in Cambodia and Laos, documenting the systematic constraints that influence the understanding by farmers of disease-related risks. We have learned much about the risks to smallholder livestock and also the household-level decisions involved in investing in animal disease control. That us where our gender studies have been particularly useful, confirming that as women largely control the finances they need to be deeply engaged in understanding that healthy livestock mean healthy families.    

Our work has involved numerous longitudinal livestock production and health studies and participatory observations. These have been accompanied by in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with farming families, plus socioeconomic investigations in numerous research site villages in both countries. This has occurred despite the structural constraints of weak veterinary health and rural extension systems, plus the limited access of farmers to low-interest credit. These constraints prohibit farmers from gaining the necessary knowledge and resources for disease prevention, increasing their economic vulnerability. Such constraints also drive behaviours that are recognised as often ‘high risk’  for disease emergence and spread (eg sale of diseased stock; failure to implement quarantine & hygiene). These behaviours lead to many small- and medium-scale farmers in low- and middle-income countries, remaining trapped in a cycle of poverty, poor productivity and commonly, ill health for both animals and humans.

Our experience in Cambodia and Laos, is that whilst it is very challenging to address these issues, it is vitally important to understand the motivations of smallholder farmers, if disease impacts are to be sustainably ameliorated. It is necessary to understand that many farmers still consider disease outbreaks as an ‘act of god’ and their control as unmanageable, or a government responsibility.  However, we have learned that whilst the knowledge required to control disease is mostly about implementing risk management interventions (eg vaccination & biosecurity), these are not recognised by farmers as ways for them to make money. This means that many disease control programs have and will continue to fail as they are considered by farmers to be unnecessary and/or unaffordable.

Figure 1. Cattle in Cambodia improving by forage feeding

Our ongoing work suggests that the key to understanding how to properly implement animal health programs, is understanding how to insert the motivations into rural communities that enable farmers to make money from their livestock. This requires leveraging livestock interventions to the expanding demand for animal sourced foods (ASF) in the rehion. Also, it often involves work that is outside of the immediate disciplines of animal health personnel involved, so it is often incomplete or of insufficient priority (eg nutritional & marketing interventions). The experiential learning we acquired was that once money was being made by smallholder farmers from feeding their animals properly, they began to understand that they should protect this ‘investment’ of time and labour. They become more receptive to the necessary health interventions they need to adopt that protect their livestock and increasing wealth.

Figure 2. MNB’s for cattle in northern Laos have been a very successful intervention.

This experience was first observed in the successful Foot-and-Mouth Disease eradication program in the Philippines in 1998-99. There it was found that whilst training on biosecurity was considered important, the  majority of farmers really just wanted to know how to feed their pigs better. They mostly used table scraps (aka swill) properly and safely (by cooking waste meat products), to enable them to obtain more money from their pigs. Similarly with Cambodian cattle from 2007, forages were introduced for feeding and fattening of cattle. This took several years to establish, but eventually proved to be very successful in motivating farmers to adopt change. The changes resulted in the development of a robust market for forages for cattle feeding, and had important socioeconomic impacts for rural families through time-savings for feeding their animals. Numerous families in our research programs are now able to afford to send their children to university from the funds achieved from moving from subsistence smallholders to productive small-medium cattle raising enterprises.

Figure 3. Typical project workshop in Laos aimed at equipping local extension staff with skills to assist change management in livestock agriculture

However, different interventions work differently in different contexts. We have recently observed that high-quality molasses nutrient blocks (MNBs) are excellent for motivating farmers in northern Laos. In Laos in 2008, we had more difficulties in establishing and using forages, largely due to widespread availability of grazing, compared to southern Laos and Cambodia. Farmers have found that the MNBs helped them greatly in the management of their animals. The cattle and buffalo returned from grazing in the fields and forests more readily, seeking the evening ‘sweetie’ of the blocks. These farmers are all happy to now purchase blocks as animals were calmer, fatter and more valuable. In both these situations, the farmers then became motivated to adopt ‘risk management’ and were willing to purchase appropriate disease preventive vaccines and therapies, plus even adopt biosecurity interventions. A MNB manufacturing facility is now under construction in northern Laos with MNB’s being distributed to farmers by a newly established nutrition company AgCoTech, that aims to leverage the improved productivity gains in smallholder livestock as carbon credits in managing greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. 

Figure 4. MLR Project Officer Isabel MacPhilamy inspects a project-supported forage crop in the central Laos province of Savannakhet

The very important lessons from this work for animal health program managers, is that to stimulate behavioural change by mostly uneducated farmers, one needs to find the intervention(s) that provide motivation for change. When the productivity change starts to happen, resulting in improved food security and poverty amelioration, the addition of the health interventions can commence. Eventually, this ‘step by step’ improvements in animal production are leading to better animal health, farming family livelihoods, and hopefully, animal welfare. Then there are added benefits for our environment from reduced GHG’s as the multiple interventions leading to significant improvements in productivity, also reduce the GHG emissions footprint from these animals.

Figure 5. Prof Peter Windsor explaining how to improve cattle reproduction to Cambodian extension staff

This blog describes a most important process, being the transformation of subsistence livestock agriculture to sustainable enterprises. Change management in livestock production is exciting work, with many creative opportunities for all involved.


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