Cows are getting more popular – and not for good reasons, but rather for looking like the new villains. Land-use change and feed production, among others, are the main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cattle production, making livestock one of the top three contributors to the most serious environmental problems: land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. But are the cows the enemy?

Even though cattle production is responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic emissions, and has its share in the global commitment to reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement, as professor Timothy Thomas,  expert in climate change and agriculture issues, said: it is clear that the simple suggestion of eating less beef would likely adversely affect anyone involved in raising and processing cattle, and even bring about unintended negative consequences on land and the environment.

Why not focus on the real problem: inefficiency?

With improved forages and better management, livestock production can be more environmentally friendly, increase productivity and thus improve the income and livelihoods of all of the actors along the livestock value chain, especially smallholder farmers. That’s why the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), from the UK Research and Innovation initiative, is working jointly with CIAT and three UK Universities in two projects aimed to improve pasture management and cut down GHG emissions from cattle.

The first project is called “Towards climate-smart forage-based diets for Colombian livestock,” led by Dr. Jon Moorby from IBERS-Aberystwyth University, and it seeks to identify animal diets that improve animal production whilst reducing GHG emissions from livestock. To do this, forage samples will be collected in experimental fields at CIAT headquarters, located in Palmira (Colombia), considering different cultivars, climate conditions, and plant growth stages. The idea is to have the best nutritional quality indicators that improve yields and thus, generate less GHG emissions from animal rumination and manure.

This is a collaborative work where the CIAT Tropical Forages Program provides not only the materials to be evaluated, but also technical assistance on best agronomic management practices, physiological evaluation and testing at CIAT’s Nutritional Quality Labs. Also, the colleagues from IBERS- Bangor University will assess the samples as well.

The second project, called “Advancing sustainable forage-based livestock production systems using multi-source remote sensing and social science approaches,” is led by Dr. Brian Barrett from the University of Glasgow. Its goal is to keep a track record of forage availability, productivity, and estimate the main elements of forage quality throughout the seasons by using remote sensing techniques, such as satellite images and drones. This project brings together cross-disciplinary perspectives and methodologies to develop remote sensing (RS)-based approaches for forage monitoring and management at local and regional levels.

Despite the fact that the two projects were conceived independently, it’s a unique opportunity to synergize efforts to achieve a common goal. That’s why staff from the different projects recently met at CIAT to find common ground and define strategies, sampling regimes to maximize project outputs, in order to improve human and farmed animal nutrition, enhancing the resilience and sustainability of livestock.

The projects have been awarded funding as part of the Sustainable Tropical Agricultural Systems programme of the UK Research and Innovation initiative, which aims to ensure reliable and sustainable food provision for Colombia. Click here for more information.

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