Sinh Somphavong, a farmer for 33 years in Xieng Khouang province northeast of Laos, farms on more than one ha of land, and earns about 50 million kip (around US$6,000) each year from selling rice, vegetables, forages, and livestock. Livestock is his major income earner; he rears more than 20 cattle, 5 buffaloes, 2 pigs, 50 chickens, and 20 ducks, and would love to raise more cattle to fatten and sell, except that he’s concerned about the additional labor that that would entail.

Pathways to increased profitability and sustainability

But, in fact, livestock intensification could be done in a way that could both increase profitability and reduce labor demands, as shown in a study of farming systems in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, completed by CIAT last year.

A bio-economic modeling exercise using the FarmDESIGN model on farming systems in Ea Kar district explored two possible pathways of livestock intensification, forage-based and grain-based cattle fattening, both of which led to higher operating profits – +35 percent for forage-based cattle fattening and +59 percent for grain-based cattle fattening.

“Quantitative modeling of complex mixed farming systems can help assess the potential impact of intensification strategies,” notes Birthe Paul, farming systems scientist at CIAT and co-author of the working paper, Bio-economic evaluation, and optimization of livestock intensification in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. “It can support decision-making, targeting, and prioritization, considering the farmer’s interests and objectives.”

Because there are trade-offs to consider. For example, in the case of the studied farms in Ea Kar, while grain-based fattening increased profits and lowered labor demands, it also negatively affected the soil organic matter (SOM) balance, reducing it by 99 percent. On the other hand, forage-based fattening increased the SOM balance by more than 200 percent.

SOM helps improve soil structure to ensure suitability for planting and minimize erosion. SOM is also a storehouse of all essential plant nutrients.

Sinh has been planting Ruzi grass, an improved forage, for two years on 3,000 square meters of land. As well as providing nutritious cattle feed, planting improved forage also solves the problem of scarcity of natural grass during the dry season.

Soil health and increased production

Like most smallholder farmers in upland Xieng Khouang, Sinh relies on animal manure to fertilize his crops. This is probably why he, like most other farmers in the province, did not realize that they were farming on nutrient-poor soils.

However, another study using the FarmDESIGN model of eight farms with varying levels of diversity and market orientation in the province had revealed negative nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) balances, clearly showing N and P mining in all eight farms.

A similar study in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia showed similar results, suggesting that neither the farm’s plant and animal diversity, nor its degree of market orientation, influences the farm soil’s nutrient levels.

Practices that inefficiently manage nutrients from various sources in the farm are to blame, according to the study in Laos. These include burning crop residues in the field, and effectively laying to waste the N and P that would have been retained in the plant residual biomass and which would later slowly mineralize through microbial degradation; not fully using cattle manure as fertilizer; and monocropping or planting a single crop on the same land for long periods.

To increase N and P balances, the study recommends implementing changes in practices such as complete mulching of all farm residues instead of burning them; recycling of cattle manure and fully utilizing it as fertilizer; and integration of forage legumes in rotation or intercrop.

Smallholder farming in Laos is generally described as low-input and integrated, having a mix of trees, crops, and livestock. A desire to increase productivity is met with various challenges including labor shortage, increasing soil infertility, and occurrence of extreme weather events. Despite that, some farmers have found a way to diversify their income sources by growing improved forage and selling the seeds. Improved forages, primarily Ruzi and Stylo (Stylosanthes guianensis), have gained quite a following among livestock producers in Laos because of their nutritious quality.

“Generally, smallholder agriculture in Laos is mixed and integrated. We still enjoy a favorable environment, although soil fertility is a challenge in upland areas such as in Xieng Khouang,” remarks Phonepaseuth Phengsavanh, Deputy Director of Livestock Research Center at the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute. “Most smallholder farmers do ‘traditional’ farming practices, and if they are to be market-oriented and increase their productivity sustainably, some of these practices have got to change.”

Shifting farming practices

But what does really motivate farmers to alter their practices? Why is it that sometimes even in the face of numerous and convincing research about the benefits of a certain practice, adoption and uptake rates remain low among farmers?

Each farming community is different and answers to this question vary depending on many factors including a community’s historical, socio-cultural, and economic contexts and processes. In Ratanakiri province in northeastern Cambodia, a study of indigenous farming communities and their motivations (or lack thereof) for adopting farming practices commonly and widely considered sustainable, concludes that a huge barrier is the “superior-inferior” dynamic between the extension worker and farmer. This kind of dynamic puts the farmer in a passive recipient role and prohibits them from blossoming into a farmer-facilitator-innovator role that could, in fact, facilitate or negotiate integration of the new practice within their community’s cosmology or belief system.

Photo by Lilian-Marleen Beck

Left on their own and armed with a video camera with which to record their experience, the farmer-facilitator-innovator documented their challenges in the field; recorded their experience of the sustainable farming practice and shared it with fellow farmers in a collaborative learning process; and created a video advertisement for an organic fertilizer business idea that they had developed – all of which were later shared and discussed with the extension worker, inducing a new learning dynamic that is more encouraging and participatory.

“Much of agriculture in Southeast Asia is done by smallholder farmers,” notes Sabine Douxchamps, integrated crop-livestock systems researcher at CIAT Asia. “With increasing and changing pressures on natural resources, it is essential that they manage their farm as efficiently as possible, to increase their productivity and to minimize negative impacts on the environment.”

The studies mentioned in the story contribute to the research project, Hands and Minds Connected to Boost Eco-efficiency on Smallholder Livestock-Crop Systems.

Reference materials include: Nutrient flows in smallholder crop-livestock farming systems of the Xiangkhouang province of Lao PDR: Analysis and suggestions for improved nitrogen and phosphorus management, a master’s thesis by Carole Alice Epper, ETH Zurich; Nutrient flows of smallholder farms in Ratanakiri: Exploring opportunities for future management, a master’s thesis by Damien Tschopp, ETH Zurich; and Investigating discouraging and encouraging emic reasons to apply eco-efficient farming methods: A participatory study with indigenous small-scale farmers in Ratanakiri, Cambodia, a master’s thesis by Lilian-Marleen Beck, SLU Sweden.

Conducted in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the Hands and Minds project aims to characterize existing livestock-crop systems in terms of their eco-efficiency and resilience. Funded by GIZ/BMZ, the project is implemented by CIAT in cooperation with the University of Göttingen in Germany, the Royal University of Agriculture in Cambodia, Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute in Laos, and Western Highlands Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute in Vietnam.

Photos by Madelline Romero/CIAT

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