We’ve discussed briefly the changes that we can help a farm family make to increase their production of food and income mainly through cropping. But a very popular and potentially quicker way to boost a farmer’s overall worth is through animal systems.
An example would be raising a small herd of goats that could exist on forage (plants) as their food and produce meat, milk and offspring to sell. Since animals are generally of higher per unit value than an average crop of plants, the turnaround on the return on investment can be quicker for the farm family.
Most small farms, even subsistence farms, are highly integrated. On the surface, they may look like simple systems but in reality they can be fairly complex. In other words, small farms don’t just raise crops or produce animals but rather integrate a little bit of everything. This distributes the risk of failure over a wider spectrum and provides a measure of insurance to the farm family in case one part of the system has some type of catastrophic failure. For instance, a farmer might lose most of his crops during a severe drought but because he has goats and chickens, he can survive the drought by selling off some of his animals.
Here are some common broad animal systems…
- Low input, home yard production of small animals: chickens, homeyard pig production, etc. This is typically chickens raised free range around the yard, a pig tied under the house or a goat/sheep tethered near the home. The animals are usually raised for home products (eggs, meat, milk) and also lump sum income needs. A pig under the house can literally be a “piggy bank” where it can grow with largely local, low-cost inputs and be sold at a time when cash is needed (e.g. school fees, weddings, etc.). These are usually low cost and low production systems that play an important role in keeping a family above the poverty line. Small improvements such as a better breed, better feed, and some simple home-veterinarian practices can give incremental improvements that are low risk but pay good dividends.
- Medium input, herd production, usually with medium to larger animals (think cows!). This includes sheep, goats, and cattle and usually a system in which the animals are penned or sheltered in the evenings and turned or led out during the days to graze. The inputs are minimum (grass growing in the wild is free) and production is medium to low. It is a great way for the farmer to “store” their funds in animals, get some use from the animals along the way (meat, manure, clothing material, etc.), and have a reserve “bank” in which he/she can sell an animal or two when cash is needed for a life event.
- Small scale, intensive animal production. This is a system such as a small dairy with cattle, goats, buffalos, etc. or a chicken project producing layers for eggs or broilers for meat/sale. In areas that water is available and it is culturally appropriate, fishpond systems (aquaculture) is oftentimes used. Generally, there is a little more input into these systems such as better breeds, better feed, veterinary care, etc. And they are a bit higher risk but can yield larger dividends.
- Small/Medium scale commercial production. This is more of an agri-business model whereby the farmer is producing an animal or animal product and has a local or close-by guaranteed market for that product.
Just like in the small-scale food and income generation systems, when we think of improvements to farmers and their animal systems, we need to remember…
- Start where people are. Learn from the farmer about his/her system before making too many suggestions.
- Begin with small, incremental changes. Don’t try and take them from subsistence systems to commercial herds in one step. Find out what their immediate problems are in terms of raising animals and start there. It might be the need for a little better feed. It could be a particular animal health practice that is missing. It could be simple education on breeding programs and options. Small changes are less risky and even though they may pay small dividends, these dividends can be huge to a small farm family.
- Take time to learn the locally available resources to help the farmer and their animal production. There may be locally accessible government veterinarian services available that they haven’t discovered. There may be local agriculture by-products that can improve their feeding program. There may even be some nearby small farmers who are doing something better in their animal production that would be willing to share their hard-earned knowledge and practices.
So, what’s your favorite animal system that you have ever worked with? What has been useful or what has been a failure? I would love to hear from you!