Steps to Sustainable Livestock

Steps To Sustainable Livestock

One in seven humans is undernourished. Urbanization and biofuel production are reducing land availability, and climate change, lack of water and soil degradation are decreasing harvests. Over the past decade, cereal yields per hectare have fallen in one-quarter of countries. Meanwhile, developing nations and the growing world population are demanding more animal protein.

The increasing consumption of animal protein is generally considered at odds with Earth’s ability to feed its people. The 1 billion tonnes of wheat, barley, oats, rye, maize (corn), sorghum and millet poured annually into livestock troughs could feed some 3.5 billion humans. But such reasoning discounts the health benefits of eating modest amounts of meat and the fact that foraging animals can consume foods that humans cannot eat.

Crop and livestock farming complement each other. Half the world’s food comes from farms that raise both. Animals pull ploughs and carts, and their manure fertilises crops, which supply post-harvest residues to livestock. But efforts to maximize yields of milk and meat can disrupt finely balanced systems. The quest for ‘intensification’ in livestock farming continues with little regard for sustainability and overall efficiency (the net amount of food produced in terms of inputs such as land and water).

Almost all of the world’s milk and much of its meat come from ruminant (cud-chewing) animals — mostly cows, goats and sheep, but also buffalo, camels, llamas, reindeer and yaks

Here the authors highlight eight strategies to cut the environmental and economic costs of keeping these animals while boosting net gains for the quantity and quality of the food they produce:

Feed animals less human food
Around 70% of the grains used by developed countries are fed to animals. Livestock consume an estimated one-third or more of the world’s cereal grain, with 40% of such feed going to ruminants, mainly cattle.

Some of this is avoidable. Ruminants graze pastures and can eat hay, silage and high-fibre crop residues that are unsuitable for human consumption. Unlike pigs, poultry and humans, ruminants have a series of fore-stomachs leading to the true stomach. In the fore-stomachs, the largest of which is the rumen, microbes break down fibrous plant material into usable calories and also provide high-quality microbial protein. Ruminants can graze in marginal areas, such as mountainsides or low-lying wet grasslands. This helps to reserve agricultural fields for growing human food.

Raise regionally appropriate animals
The lure of high productivity has led to ill-advised schemes to import livestock to places where they are genetically unsuited. Kerala, a state in southern India, is home to the smallest breed of cattle in the world. Vechur cows stand at about 90 centimetres tall and make only around 3 litres of milk per day — a dribble compared to the 30 litres per day produced on average by Holsteins, the black-and-white dairy cows of Europe and North America.

Donors, governments and charities aiming to feed whole communities, and to provide income for poor farmers, have imported Holstein breeding stock and semen to Africa and Asia, with progeny now numbering in the millions. But the animals often disappoint. Bred for centuries for maximum milk production in temperate climates, these cows were not selected for fertility or hardiness. They lack resistance to heat, humidity, tropical diseases and parasites, and so must be kept in stalls away from ticks and other disease vectors. Rather than allowing the animals out to pasture, farmers in tropical areas must cut and carry fodder to the animals or purchase expensive, often imported feed. Even then, the cows produce less than one-third of yields seen in temperate climates and controlled environments. For poor families, a smaller native cow is a better bet than a larger animal that costs more to keep alive and healthy.

Keep animals healthy
Sick animals can make people sick. In low- and middle-income nations, 13 livestock-related zoonoses (diseases that can infect humans and animals) cause 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths each year4. Yet human and livestock disease are generally treated as separate problems Keeping animals at high densities spreads infectious diseases far and fast. The foot-and-mouth virus costs upwards of US$5 billion each year in vaccinations and lost production worldwide. A UK epidemic in 2001 resulted in the slaughter of 6 million animals. Bovine tuberculosis has cost UK taxpayers alone £500 million (US$830 million) over the past decade — an amount projected to double in the next ten years.

Adopt smart supplements
The productivity of ruminant animals can often be boosted with supplements, some of which encourage microbes in the rumen to grow quickly and to provide better nutrition. In India, a water fern (Azolla caroliniana) cultivated in local ponds provides extra protein to cattle and goats fed on protein-deficient elephant grass.

Other plant extracts can alter the rumen microbial population to use nitrogen and energy more efficiently. This means producing more meat and milk with proportionally less by-product greenhouse gas and ammonia. An enzyme in red clover (Trifolium pratense), widely grown in temperate countries, increases ruminants’ ability to utilize dietary protein6. In field trials, dairy cows with more clover in their diets ate more feed and produced more milk.

Eat quality not quantity
Annual meat consumption in India is just 3.2 kilograms per person, compared with 125 kg per person in the United States in 2007, much of it from heavily processed foods, such as burgers, sausages and ready meals. The focus should be on eating less, better quality meat

In rich countries, the high quantity and low quality of processed animal products consumed
of cancer and coronary heart disease. For the world’s poor people, however, there are clear nutritional advantages to consuming small amounts of high-quality animal foods, which are rich in protein, essential amino acids, iron and various essential micronutrients that improve chances for normal physical and cognitive development.

Tailor practices to local culture
Close to one billion of the world’s poorest people rely on livestock for their livelihood. Traditional animal husbandry supplies more than just food9. Keeping animals provides wealth, status and even dowry payments. When families encounter large expenses, such as a hospital bill or a wedding, they can sell an animal or two to cover the cost.

Many of these benefits are disrupted when conventional grazing and mixed-farming practices are replaced with industrial systems that maximize short-term production

Track costs and benefits
Livestock are widely considered to be unsustainable. The livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions, exceeding that from transportation.

However, if other factors are considered, the picture becomes more favourable. Sustainably managed grazing can increase biodiversity, maintain ecosystem services and improve carbon capture by plants and soil10. A cow produces up to 70 kg of manure per day, providing enough fertiliser in a year for one hectare of wheat, equivalent to 128 kg of synthetic nitrogen that might otherwise derive from fossil fuels.

Study best practice
There will be no one-size-fits-all solutions. Changing farming practices is difficult, but farm platforms can evaluate potential for increased profits and other benefits, act as examples to follow, and provide information for policy-makers.

Additional Information

Read the full Article (PDF): Steps to Sustainable Livestock

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