Livestock production sometimes has a negative connotation due environmental issues, ethical views and human health questions. A response to this — mostly from the developed world — is for a transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

This hot topic can be debated in many ways. It can be argued that health problems occur due to meat overconsumption.  Livestock production in the tropics tends to occupy marginal lands, increasing its negative impacts on the environment. And ethical views fall into a philosophical domain.

What is undeniable is that livestock can, and must, be raised more efficiently to reduce the practice’s negative impact it has on the environment, including clearing forests for grazing, degrading existing pastureland and contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gasses.

Specific interventions and practices can tackle this. The list is extensive and includes use of nutritious forages and livestock races adapted to specific environments, the establishment of grass-legume or silvopastoral systems, and assuring a steady supply of the healthy forages that animals require.

 However, no interventions or practices can singlehandedly be a silver bullet to solve the environmental issues associated with livestock production. The key is to combine all our knowledge to improve livestock systems. But how?

Sensors, drones and satellites

Remote monitoring can assist in the management of both animals and their environments. GPS collars on cattle can gather information on time and places of grazing, the timing of their digestive processes, and periods of rest and active movement.

Remotely sensed information – gathered from drones and satellites – can help determine the amount of forage available to livestock. At the same time, laboratory analyses can demonstrate when forage feed is at its best in terms of nutritional quality, or determine what combinations of different forages provide a better and more nutritious diet to animals. This laboratory information can be quickly applied in the field to improve livestock diets.

This information, including measurements of emissions of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane, can provide a multi-layered knowledge base to implement a more environmentally friendly and productive strategy for livestock management. 

Recently, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, CIAT’s Tropical Forages Program, Universidad de Antioquia in Colombia, Colombian agricultural research organization Agrosavia, and the Sustainable Livestock initiative (or GANSO, for its Spanish abbreviation), visited several farms in the Orinoquía region of  Colombia to discuss how to increase the impact of the GANSO initiative. The visit was funded by Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

A way forward

Even though multilayered information is not always available, it can be quickly generated and used for implementation of sustainable practices. But to do so, social behavior and economic analyses need to be included. These analyses will be integrated through a research project funded by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Research Council to generated knowledge on Colombian livestock systems.

The project will be implemented by UK partner organizations (Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, IBERS; University of Glasgow; University of Bristol) and CIAT, with collaboration from GANSO, the University of Antioquia and Agrosavia.

By: Juan Andrés Cardoso and Jhon Freddy Gutiérrez 

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