The Boma

Changing climate, changing cattle farming - Part 1

October 05, 2021 International Livestock Research Institute Season 1 Episode 4
The Boma
Changing climate, changing cattle farming - Part 1
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

How do we intensify livestock to feed the global south, but also mitigate climate emissions? Is it possible to increase livestock productivity while decreasing its environmental cost?

Tim Offei-Addo returns to the Boma to talk to three ILRI  researchers - Esther Kihoro, Todd Crane and Renee Bullock - who want the world to know that to begin to answer that question we must first understand the people who are doing the farming.

It's not enough, they say, to think up ways to reduce climate emissions from livestock. What's good for the crop farmer who needs cattle for draught will not be good for the roaming Maasai herder. If dairy production becomes more commercialised, what will happen to the women who provide so much the labor in household farms? And cattle farming is more than a means of producing milk to many people - it is embedded in their culture, essential for status, marriage, finances, and many more purposes.

Livestock systems vary greatly around the world and can enhance or harm the environment depending on how they are managed. Listen to this two-part mini-series looking at the tricky relationship between livestock and climate change.

ILRI's work on climate change adaptation and mitigation

Environment news and research

Programme for climate-smart livestock systems

Tim:                     Welcome back to The Boma podcast from the International livestock Research Institute, where we discuss livestock issues that impact the global south. I'm your host, Tim Offei-Addo. This episode is the first of two, looking at how ILRI is working with farmers to adapt and mitigate climate change in the global south.

Esther:                And in Tanzania, we have a popular saying that maziwa ni dhahabu nyeupe, loosely translated as milk is the white gold.

Tim:                     That’s Esther Kihoro a graduate fellow at ILRI and she's right; milk is a very valuable commodity. In a moment, we'll hear more from Esther, who grew up on a farm in Kenya, about her work with dairy farmers in Tanzania. More milk, a more productive dairy sector would be a good thing and would create easier access to nutritious milk for mothers and children; more income for households and the dairy sector creates jobs that are a key part of the economy. So a lot of people are pushing for dairy intensification but how do we intensify production of that white gold in a way that doesn't leave anyone behind? Esther Kihoro is studying the diversity of dairy farmers. She's identified three different types.

Esther:                So first, let's talk about Bahati. Bahati is a middle aged lady, she has three cows and three heifers and she lives in Njombe. Bahati started keeping livestock 10 years ago; she was first given a heifer by the Heifer International. Besides being given a heifer, she also received training on good animal husbandry practices, how to build a shed how to grow fodder. She also dedicated one acre of land for fodder production, and she is part of a farmer group where they receive periodic training. Bahati sells her milk to a community owned factory where they aggregate the milk within their farmer group and sell to this factory. Within a different setup there is Baraza who lives in Mufindi. Baraza keeps seven cows all local breeds, and he mainly uses the cows for traction. Baraza has a 10 acre farm in which half of it is under maize production and the remaining part is under cash crops; coffee, potato and some peas. He uses three bulls for farming the land and manure to manure the crops from the cows. Occasionally, he sells this milk to his neighbors and he has no improved structures or fodder for his cows so he usually grazes his cows in his farm or nearby community land. More differently is Olleh who is a Masaai, middle aged man in Vomero. Olleh has 50 cows. The cows are of local breeds. Olleh does not grow fodder. And he grazes his cows on communal land and moves with them across the season. Olleh is not a farmer and does not have a farmer group where they collect milk together. Occasionally during the wet season, when he has a lot of milk, he sells to independent traders on motorbikes who aggregate the milk and send it to a local collection center. So, you see all these are people who have different production goals and also institutional aspects which shape their marketing strategies.

Tim:                     Each of these farmers has a different relationship with their animals. Bahati relies upon her dairy cows for the majority of her income while Baraza uses the cows for manure and status. Olleh is not a farmer at all but owns a sizable herd of cows. There is no one size fits all model of how to intensify that would suit them all. Policy makers have to come up with different approaches for these different farmers. They need to understand synergies; the ways that farmers, market traders and other people involved in the milk production chain can all benefit from working together. 

Esther:                For example, in Vomero, farmers have informal arrangements with pastoral households where during the dry season, after farmers have harvested their crop, pastoralists bring in their cows to their farm and they feed on the crop residues and in the same time the cows also manure the land. But also the synergies are also at the value chain level for the pastoral households because most people find the pastoral households difficult to integrate within the marketing system especially for male because of their mobility and seasonal availability of milk. You see, we have intermediary traders who bulk the milk from individual households using motorbikes and then take it to cooling centers, and how they innovate around mobility is during the dry season as pastoralists move, they also move the collection centers to where the pastoralists are, or the motorbike riders then follow the route where the pastoralists are to collect the milk during the dry season. If not reachable, they connect them with other people who collect milk in areas where they go. So synergies can be on production level at the marketing level and just looking at the nuances within the system and the social dynamics and institutional arrangements in that area that enable increasing productivity and commercialization. It may not be similar across the board, but there are always nuances that can be leveraged on.

Tim:                     Synergies and nuances are all well and good, there's just one tiny problem; climate change, because cows are a source of greenhouse gases. Yes, there are ways to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions, like rotational grazing, composted manure and provide a better quality feed, all collectively known as Low Emissions Development, or LED. But not all farmers will want to use LED techniques. Let's go back to Olleh the pastoralist Maasai man with 50 cows.

Esther:                Olleh represents people who are least intensifying and interventions for this category would need more long term innovative approaches mainly in capital and technical investments. In the long run though, this group has the highest potential in reducing emission intensities.

Tim:                     Esther Kihoro says we need to find the right techniques and again, find those synergies. 

Esther:                But then innovative strategies have to be used for example, instead of asking them to grow fodder, have better management of their range land. Instead of them planting fodder, have synergistic relationship with farmers who are already producing maybe other crops where they can use their stovers or their base stovers to feed their cows and in turn also manure the farms.

Tim:                     Todd Crane is a senior scientist at ILRI and as an anthropologist, he thinks about the social implications of climate change. He says there was a generational tension when farmers implemented rotational grazing, a LED technique that limits overgrazing and promotes healthy and resilient pastures. 

Todd:                   I think the case of the bunch of grazing and the managed grazing has a really interesting case. The technical demands of that as a practice require people move their cattle around their pastures, their landscapes in particular waves according to the logics of that system. But what we found was that the young men who actually do the herding in this cultural context, this is their time of life to be making their break from living under their parents’ roofs to go out and do their own thing and they are culturally prescribed to be a part. But the demands of the rotational grazing and the bunch of grazing require them to move around in ways that don't let them be apart from their families in the ways that they're culturally supposed to because this is a really important kind of rite of transition toward adulthood, toward manhood. And so the elder men who agreed to this and kind of got the idea and started to implement it; I don't know if they didn't anticipate that or they just decided that needed to change. But so there's this tension between the young men who aren't able to enact their cultural patrimony and the technical demands of this particular management system. So, there's a tension there, and there's some pushback on the part of the young men, it's like, Hey, we can't do it this way because we're being robbed of our birthright in a way.

Tim:                     So some technical measures to mitigate climate emissions can clash with cultural practices. Todd says we need to refocus; we need to look beyond climate adaptation.

Todd:                   Many people tend to look at climate change adaptation and mitigation as a set of technical practices that creates outcomes of interest but eventually those technical practices are done by people. They're done by people who have diverse interests and priorities, capabilities and capacities and if you don't understand the motivations and the incentives for human behavior, then you're not going to get anywhere with any of this. So I see human behavior as a technical practice is kind of at the center of the issue. 

Tim:                     Climate mitigation for the dairy sector is important and that's what we will be hearing about in the next episode of The Boma but as Todd says, milk is only one aspect of cattle in East Africa,

Todd:                   As ILRI, we often look at these areas like these are dairy producers, they've got cows, they make milk, they drink milk, they can generate surplus, sell it to a market. But if you look at the way livestock are culturally embedded in these areas, and in this case, I'm speaking of kind of West Highland Kenya, but it's true in many other places as well, they are for milk production. They're also for traction, they are for kind of a bank account and insurance against hard times; you can always sell livestock if you need to. The manure is very important in terms of an agricultural input. In a lot of ways, the manure is really central to creating a more balanced closed system between crops and livestock. However, livestock are also very important when it comes to social exchange, you don't get married without giving cows so that is a role of livestock and these areas. You know, when we go in with our, this is a dairy production system, we risk overlooking all of these other factors that figure into people's logics and motivations for keeping livestock. And so we risk when making technical recommendations that don't really fit that don't acknowledge this multifunctionality.

Tim:                     Now, it's estimated that two thirds of the world's poor livestock farmers are women; how can they be supported in a growing dairy industry? Rene Bullock, a scientist at ILRI researches gender and youth in several communities in Kenya. Women, she says, can have a very different experience of dairy farming from men.

Renee:                 I think it depends on the context, on the geography again so whatever the culture is. In where we have done the study in Kiambu, women have a lot more say in the agricultural practices of the household so women, for example, might own or manage the income from the cows, they can join cooperatives, they have more of a say in how the benefits are distributed in the household; sometimes they're even the main managers of the income from milk, for example. And then in Nakuru, it's quite different. Women there are marginalized from ownership of dairy, even though they provide a lot of labor in household dairy enterprises. So that's the income from the milk, potentially meats, if there's a slaughter, women don't really get to see the income or manage that income; they might still have control over the evening milk because that's part of something considered within women's domain, household nutrition and food needs so milk is part of that but then the selling is something that's within men's domain and that was especially in married households; young married households. But that really varies from place to place so here with the Maasai, women manage milk completely; milk is women's domain and men wouldn't touch it. But then you look at the kinds of the changes in agricultural systems and economic change and social change and how interlinked they are and here, they've gone over to sugarcane, and then the herd size has reduced and along with that less milk, and then women's lower incomes. So I think that a holistic view to looking at systems and social practices within those systems is also important because, if I just told you women manage all the milk here, it sounds really good but when you look at the context and change over time, it's that women's income has slowly reduced because of land ownership; it's in men's domain. Men own land, men manage land, and that's something that continually marginalizes women from engaging in agricultural and livestock activities.

Tim:                     If women are not going to be pushed aside, policy makers need to appreciate these diverse cultural norms because as the dairy sector becomes bigger and wealthier, women will need targeted interventions.

Renee:                 Control; so that's something that's long been discussed and debated about commercialization of any kind of agricultural or livestock product. But as soon as it gets to a certain level of income, what was once maintained and managed by women shifts, the men's interest grows in that in that product that's gaining more money, and then men come in and take over. So that's a big challenge in commercialization of really any product. If it's women's products, and they're maintaining it and then it becomes very lucrative, do men then take an interest and then take over? And men can control some of the benefits from the products in different ways. So I think more policies to support women's access to the finances will be important. So Mobile Money is a great way that you can avoid banks and deliver money directly into a woman's hand and in the hopes that she'll then be able to use it as she wishes.

Tim:                     Mobile money means women need to own a phone to receive the payments and that's just one of the factors policymakers need to take into account. There's no doubt that dairy production will continue to intensify over the next decade. If we want to reduce emissions and increase economic sustainability, we need to look closely at the context surrounding each level of dairy production; Esther Kihoro. 

Esther:                So the one thing is understanding context. And understanding context will also help people understand there’s more value to farmers beyond increasing milk productivity.

Tim:                     The tricky part is that context is different for different situations; that means you really need to understand each type of dairy farmer and create the right conditions for them.

Esther:                Because as much as intensification is good, for instance I'll give you a story; in Rome where it's pretty high intensified but then the market is not completely well organized and sometimes farmers end up losing milk because of well, farmers have produced but the institutional arrangement between who collects the milk and who sells where is not very well done. I can tell you an instance where farmers lost like 15 million worth of milk because of those political issues. Well, so according to policy, we've intensified perfect, we've lent people to markets perfect, right? But then the social institutional aspects are not right to ensure that produced milk gets marketed and farmers get paid. So, understanding context then helps us to understand and take care of things on production level, market level and institutional level that needs to be put right before you say then let's intensify, let's do X. So understanding context then really shapes success.

Tim:                     As Esther Kihoro makes clear, intensifying the dairy industry in East Africa is complex and climate change demands that we approach these economic opportunities with sustainability in mind. Policymakers need to understand cultural diversity and empower women and youth. Esther Kihoro, Todd Crane and Renee Bullock have deepened my understanding of the cultural and political context that dairy farmers work in. In the next episode, we'll hear more about some of these technical solutions to mitigate climate change that ILRI is working on. Yes, it's complex but ILRI researchers are ready to collaborate and provide solutions now. Keep joining us at the Boma where we will continue to bring you more stories from the Lab, desk and feel. Visit to learn more about climate change and how the researchers and scientists are supporting the world's livestock people. And don't forget to subscribe to the Boma on Spotify, Apple podcast or wherever you listen to your podcast.

Why is milk the 'white gold'?
Different types of 'dairy' farmers
How dairy farmers are linked to markets
Why dairy farmers need different solutions to reduce greenhouse gases
The knock-on social effects of sustainable farming techniques
Cows aren't just for milk or meat. They mean much more.
Do women have a different experience of farming than men? How do we support them?
Why the right policy is vital to support dairy intensification